Brief

Wauwatosa protester list, open records Dropbox restricted by court order

By: - October 12, 2022 6:30 am
Protesters march toward Wauwatosa as the curfew sets in. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Protesters march toward Wauwatosa in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Wauwatosa police have been barred by a federal court order from sharing a list of protesters compiled during demonstrations in October 2020.

Both the protester list, which the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) created to monitor Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, and a Dropbox that the department used to release unredacted documents and videos to local media, are now restricted under the federal court order filed on Oct. 7 as part of an ongoing lawsuit over the handling of the Wauwatosa curfew two years ago.

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The protective order removes the Dropbox from public access and blocks the protester list from being accessed or used for any reason except for the current litigation.

Both the protester list and the Dropbox hold individually important places in the continuing saga of the 2020 Wauwatosa curfew and protests after a prosecutor said there would be no charges in a fatal shooting by a police officer. The WPD released the Dropbox on Jan 7, 2021, in response to open records requests.

The Dropbox contained dozens of pages of unredacted investigative reports detailing WPD’s investigations of protesters, particularly during that fall. Among the documents were reports involving the August 2020 incident outside of former WPD officer Joseph Mensah’s home, where a gun went off that one of the protesters was openly carrying. Three protesters were charged after the incident. Other reports chronicled the protests of August, September, and October when Mensah would be cleared for his third fatal shooting over a five-year period.

The Dropbox also contained dash and body camera video, some from outside of Mensah’s home during the August incident, other protests within the suburb, and the interrogation videos of arrested protesters. The documents and video were entirely unredacted, revealing the names of people who had consented to become confidential informants for the department, and who had been assured anonymity by WPD detectives.

Other records in the Dropbox indicated that certain individuals were arrested or issued citations when, in fact, they were not. WPD released the Dropbox to 16 email addresses including lawyers, WISN News, Fox6, Wisconsin Examiner, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin, and others. Materials inside the Dropbox were available for viewing and download for nearly two years before access was removed.

The protester list was not included within the reports released through WPD’s Jan. 7 Dropbox. Wisconsin Examiner first learned of its existence from records released by WPD the day after the Dropbox was made public.

A line of officers in riot and militarized gear block a street in Wauwatosa during the October curfew. Tear gas was still thick in the air. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
A line of officers in riot and militarized gear block a street in Wauwatosa during the October 2020 curfew. Tear gas was still thick in the air. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

WPD, however, didn’t provide the list itself until attorney Kimberley Motley managed to obtain it through discovery for the ongoing lawsuit. A redacted version of the list was released to local media, while the department defended continuing to use and maintain the list even under a new police chief. The list contained personal information on nearly 200 people including protesters, elected officials, lawyers, and a Wisconsin Examiner journalist. At times the list, which was shared to numerous local and federal law enforcement agencies, was called a “target list.”

Although the department officially states it only shared the list with the Milwaukee Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation, WPD emails show it was shared to far more agencies even when it was not requested. Up to 12 agencies are known to have received the protester list, the federal court protective order notes.

Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa residents stand outside city hall as curfew approaches. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Under the protective order, the Dropbox has been removed from public access and the link to the documents no longer functions. Access to both the protester list and the Dropbox has been limited to just eight Wauwatosa city employees, including three within the city attorney’s office and five within the police department.

“The protester list shall not be accessed or used except for purposes of litigation in this case,” the protective order states. Although the materials may be released by the eight authorized staff through an open records request, the city must provide notification and an opportunity for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs to object.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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.

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