Milwaukee-Area police and DOC brace and adjust for COVID-19

By: - March 18, 2020 6:32 pm
Milwaukee Police Department Chief Alfonso Morales (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Milwaukee Police Department Chief Alfonso Morales (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), and other local law enforcement agencies have issued new guidelines on operations going forward during the COVID-19 pandemic. These new measures are aimed at preserving law enforcement capacity, as the situation surrounding the virus develops.

MPD stated in a press release that it is, “actively working with our system partners, including the Milwaukee Health Department to address any changes in our operations as it relates to the COVID-19 virus.”

This shift in the department’s posture came after a civilian employee tested positive for the virus. The department assured the public that the employee’s role didn’t involve contact with the public, adding that, “there is no reason to believe that the public was placed at risk.”

Nevertheless, things are changing rapidly. The department announced that its forensics division will be closed to the public, affecting the availability of fingerprinting services. MPD’s open records section is also closed and although new requests can still be submitted online, delays are expected. Lastly, the department is asking that the public avoid visiting district locations, except in cases of  emergency.

“As the Milwaukee Police Department continues to make Milwaukee a safer place to live, work and raise a family,” the press release states, “it is important to note that we are not immune from contracting this virus. Please understand if members use personal protective equipment (PPE) as they encounter the public.”

MPD isn’t alone, and is joined by numerous law enforcement agencies in the area. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office is also making adjustments, including “aggressively enforced internal social distancing measures,” according to  a press release. All “non-essential access” to the county jail is restricted, including, “the temporary suspension of professional contact visits within the jail facility.” Attorney-client visits are still allowed through the use of booths specialized for non-contact visits. Since the jail already utilizes public visitation through video, family visits essentially won’t be affected.

“The COVID-19 virus is one of the most pressing and urgent challenges the Sheriff’s Office and our community face,” said Sheriff Earnell Lucas. “Our response to it is dependent on all our medical, public safety and governmental officials and the community partnering to stem the spread of the virus. During this time, we ask everyone to follow current best practices pertaining to social distancing and personal hygiene to help keep our community safe.” Lucas’ force is regularly disinfecting all surfaces, including vehicles and equipment, and implementing new policies for the Patrol Services Bureau.

Nearby communities like Wauwatosa are making similar changes, including suspending civilian fingerprinting and closing the police department lobby for everything but emergencies and in-progress reports.

“We are still arresting individuals who break the law,” reads a post on the Wauwatosa Police Department’s Facebook page, “and are dedicated to the safety and protection of our community.” The department’s patrol division remains fully staffed, though all community support division activities and programs are suspended.

The Oak Creek Police Department’s lobby is also closed until further notice. In addition to finger printing services, Rx drug drop-offs are no longer active. Overnight winter parking will also not be enforced, meaning residents no longer have to call for approval to park overnight. “However,” the department posted on social media, “all other parking restrictions are still in effect.” Waukesha’s Sheriff’s Office is also suspending preliminary breath tests at its main office, all civilian ride-alongs, and community appearances due to COVID-19.

It’s not just individual police agencies bracing for impact, it’s all the pool filled by all their arrests. A Department Of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman, Anna Neal, tells Wisconsin Examiner, “Each division maintains well established pandemic plans, and as a result we are fully prepared to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in any of our facilities.”

Sanitation and disinfection of DOC facilities continues, particularly in high traffic areas such as entries, visiting areas, and common areas within housing facilities. “One action we have taken is to temporarily suspend the copay for persons in our care to allow anyone experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19 to seek medical attention and remain healthy,” says Neal. “We anticipate information to be changed frequently, and will be working to maintain continuous communication to adapt as necessary.”

Measures against COVID-19 continue to restrict the very functions of society. To date, over 217,000 cases have been reported worldwide, with 83,574 recovered and 8,886 fatalities at the time of this writing. In Wisconsin, over 1,500 negative test results have come back with 106 positives, as testing efforts ramp up statewide. Over 7,700 cases have been reported across the United States, with 120 deaths at the time of this writing. School in Wisconsin from K-12 to college is canceled until further notice. Wisconsinites, while unable to gather in groups of 10 or more people, are not yet subjected to a curfew or shelter-in-place order.

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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.