Brief

DOJ records request on protests denied due to “ongoing” investigations

By: - July 20, 2020 10:35 pm
Protesters march on the second day of demonstrations. The Miller Park baseball stadium can be seen in the background. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Protesters march on the second day of demonstrations. The Miller Park baseball stadium can be seen in the background. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) has denied the Wisconsin Examiner’s request for public records pertaining to police action against protesters in Milwaukee.

The requests, made on June 26, were denied because the records “concern an investigation that is continuing at this time,” according to the DOJ’s July 15 letter in response.

The Examiner first made the open records request to the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center (WSIC), a hub for law enforcement intelligence across the state known as a Fusion Center. Within days, WSIC forwarded the request to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Examiner requested documents around protests in Milwaukee that began on May 29, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The request sought incident overviews and recommendations or directives for police action on the ground against protesters and organizers.

It’s normal for law enforcement agencies not to release details about ongoing investigations. A state DOJ spokeswoman was also unable to comment due to the status of the unspecified investigations of protesters. The denial of the request is the first time DOJ has acknowledged it has investigatory documents on the protests.

Many of the specific documents requested by Wisconsin Examiner are the same type released in the recent “Blue Leaks” document dump. First published by the website Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDOS) the leaked documents, which were shared among several police units including Fusion Centers, were pulled by the hacktivist collective Anonymous. They demonstrate significant levels of attention and surveillance by law enforcement of the Floyd-inspired protests.

A unit within the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) Fusion Division — known as the Virtual Investigations Unit — sent handwritten tickets for curfew violations to at least one local protester in past weeks. The $691 ticket was mailed to the man after he’d posted a video of himself on the street after a 9 p.m. curfew. All curfew tickets have been since dropped by the City of Milwaukee.

As the protests have continued, marchers have increasingly expressed fears that they’ve been placed under surveillance for their activism. Cars being towed before planned events, unusual phone calls from police, electronic disruption, and house visits from local and federal law enforcement are now frequent, according to marchers.

During the first couple of nights of protest, instances of looting were reported in parts of the city. Since then, however, Milwaukee’s daily marches have been peaceful. Protests have also occurred in surrounding communities. In Wauwatosa, protesters marched through Mayfair Mall, shut down the Cheesecake Factory, and shouted down city meetings. These demonstrations, though disruptive, have been non-violent.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that the Examiner filed a Freedom of Information Act request, but in fact the request was filed under Wisconsin’s open records statute.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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