A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed by protesters. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
On the first day of Milwaukee’s George Floyd-inspired protests, officers from the Milwaukee Police Department’s (MPD) Special Investigations Division (SID) shared live updates within a secure chat pod. Two prominent local activists had been pulled over by an unmarked black Chevrolet SUV. What they first believed to be district attorney investigators turned out to be sheriff’s deputies from an obscure unit. A message from MPD SID Captain Eric Pfeiffer confirmed, “It’s the MATRIX that has them stopped.”
The internal chat pod record, obtained by Wisconsin Examiner through open records requests, provided few details on “the MATRIX.” A variety of law enforcement task forces and intel teams operate in Milwaukee County. The identities of those units and their activities are not always well understood by either the public or elected officials.
Even the personnel within the chat pod seemed initially confused as to who was responsible for detaining the activists. Not long after Capt. Pfeiffer’s message, Inspector Brian Barkow, of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), messaged that, “MCSO detectives from an ATF task force observed what appeared to be a firearm. Two rifles and two pistols in the [activist’s] vehicle. THEY WERE ALL BB or PELLET guns.”
Vaun Mayes, a longtime community organizer, was one of the activists stopped that day. He’d traveled with the crowd of marchers as it wound through Milwaukee’s North Side, then south and east before wrapping back towards downtown. Mayes was wearing a mock tactical vest and openly carrying pellet guns — a decision he made, he says, because of the threatening political environment at the time, including from rightwing militia groups.
Livestreaming on Facebook, Mayes interacted with the crowd that day and did interviews with local media. At one point, he noticed the Black Chevrolet SUV had been trailing the march for some time. It followed Mayes as he drove off, coming alive with police sirens a couple blocks from the march. Det. Brian Conte of the MCSO walked up to Mayes’ window and asked if he had a concealed weapon permit, also stating the stop was for “a traffic violation.” Mayes recalled that “they tried to make it about the insurance and the seat belt first.” Eventually the pellet guns were removed, the car searched and then towed away. Mayes was given a citation for driving without insurance, but the pellet guns were returned. As someone with a felony record Mayes is unable to possess firearms but he can legally carry pellet guns. Wisconsin is also an open carry state.
Throughout the encounter some deputies claimed to not know who Mayes was. Others, however, asked Mayes directly about federal charges he’s faced since 2018, which accuse him of conspiring to attack police after the killing of Syville Smith in 2016. The chat log obtained by Wisconsin Examiner also identified Mayes before personnel could identify the unit that followed him. “I know he knew who I was,” Mayes says of the law enforcement officer who pulled him over. After the encounter, the U.S. Attorney’s Office messaged in the chat pod that the federal probation office had contacted Mayes, telling him to not carry fake guns and to obey the city’s curfew.
A murky web of intelligence, and conflict
The experience left Mayes wary of spending a lot of time around the protests. Later that summer, Conte received a list of people allegedly connected to the protests by the Wauwatosa Police Department. Mayes, along with lawyers, elected officials, journalists and other activists were on the list. But an open records request to the MCSO for materials mentioning the MATRIX and Conte was denied, citing no records found. A request to the Milwaukee PD – which declined to comment on the unit – yielded a handful of emails revealing friction between the MATRIX and other law enforcement units.
More than a month before the protests began, Capt. Pfeiffer attempted to raise the alarm about issues with the MATRIX. In an email sent April 1 2020, Pfeiffer advised against giving an unnamed home invasion suspect “consideration” in exchange for information. “SID has worked very hard to keep these guys off the street,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, because the Matrix unit doesn’t communicate very well, we get these situations where they try to drum up intel on things or cutting deals with them while actually hurting our efforts on keeping bad guys locked up. Hopefully you don’t need [REDACTED] cooperation or info on this case. Thanks.”
“HVT” means “High Value Target” while “NOC” means “Network of Criminals,” according to the Milwaukee PD.
SID specializes in wanted fugitive apprehension, narcotics, and firearms investigations. In early 2022, it also took on at least partial responsibility for the MPD’s cell phone surveillance technology.
Later that month, Pfeiffer sent an email to the District Attorney’s Office. “I know it’s Friday, but I wanted to see if you had some time to talk about this new MATRIX group from the MCSO and some issues we are having with some of our arrests/cases,” the email stated. “It can wait until next week. Thanks.”
Extracted pages from Re_ MATRIX Group
Like the MPD, the District Attorney’s Office did not comment for this story. Although MATRIX was described as an “ATF task force” by Sheriff Inspector Barkow, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) also didn’t have answers when asked what MATRIX is. A spokeswoman for the ATF said that she “cannot seem to find any MATRIX unit that ATF is involved with in connection with the Milwaukee County Sheriff. Nor do we have any squads that are referred to as MATRIX Units.” The spokeswoman speculated that, due to the term “task force,” the unit may have come about through a process where local and state police are deputized as ATF task force officers. In such cases, the officers could report either to their own department or the ATF.
The Wisconsin Examiner waited over two months for comment from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
“MATRIX, which stands for Milwaukee Area Threat Reduction (through) Intelligence Exchange, is MCSO’s intelligence unit that was originally created to deal with threat assessment and threat mitigation in the Milwaukee County Jail,” said spokesperson James Burnett III. “Since the creation of the unit approximately four years ago, it has evolved into a special investigations unit that works with other local law enforcement agencies.”
Burnett said that Conte is not part of MATRIX, and spoke to the issues raised by MPD Capt. Pfeiffer. “When the unit was first created, there may have been tensions common with ‘growing pains’ with other investigative units at other area law enforcement agencies. As the unit has grown and matured, it has collaborated frequently with other area agencies. MATRIX members and leadership are confident in their positive, ongoing working relationship with other agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department.”
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy, chair of the county board’s committee on law enforcement, has been a vocal critic of the MCSO, and an advocate for police reform. Clancy had never heard of MATRIX and, says he has yet to hear an explanation of the unit from the MCSO. “Like so many others, my inquiries to the MCSO about MATRIX have gone unanswered,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “This is in line with the lack of transparency and opaqueness from the department, and underlines the need for the Board of Supervisors to exercise additional oversight.”
Mayes feels there is not enough accountability for police intel units in Milwaukee. In his community work, Mayes has encountered other low key units such as HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), a network of both local and federal task force officers focused on drugs and violent crime. He has concerns about how these units gather intelligence, especially when confidential informants are involved.
“I remember in 2016-2017, I had a [parole officer] who literally came to talk to me at one of the meetings we had at Sherman,” said Mayes. The officer told Mayes that many informants were starting to become sourced from probation and parole offices, rather than arrests off the street. If you’re on probation or parole, “you can’t refuse police contact, but you can also get in trouble for police contact,” said Mayes. “Anytime you get any entity like that, that can operate under the radar, no oversight, you don’t know who these people are.”
Correction- An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated an email from Capt. Eric Pfeiffer said a discussion “can’t” wait until nest week when the email reads “can.” The article has been edited to correct the error.
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