Fire and Police Commission chair and vice chair resign, citing loss of power over MPD policy

NOW: Fire and Police Commission chair and vice chair resign, citing loss of power over MPD policy

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The chair and vice chair of Milwaukee's civilian police oversight board resigned Thursday, citing provisions in a new state law that takes away their power to set policy over the city's police and fire departments.

A letter signed by Fire and Police Commission (FPC) Chair Ed Fallone and Vice Chair Amanda Avalos stated their resignations would be effective at midnight Friday.

The resignation letter cited provisions in a bipartisan bill Gov. Tony Evers signed into law last month, which boosted state aid for all local governments, and gave Milwaukee the ability to institute a 2% city sales tax.

The law also placed a series of conditions on the city; among those conditions were new limitations placed on the FPC.

Previously, the commission was in charge of establishing policy for Milwaukee's police and fire departments. The new shared revenue law takes away that power and puts police and fire department administration in charge of setting their policies.

"An institution that for over 135 years has provided the citizens of Milwaukee with an important measure of control over their own lives was reduced to a pawn in someone else’s game," Fallone and Avalos said in the letter. "We simply cannot accept this."

At a press conference detailing crime data for the first half of 2023, Mayor Cavalier Johnson answered questions about the resignations.

Johnson told reporters he wanted the FPC to keep control of department policy, but he added it was a compromise he had to make with the GOP-controlled legislature to ensure the city got its sales tax.

"Republicans saw that as a wedge, an opportunity to get some of those policy things passed," Johnson said. "And that's exactly what happened."

Johnson said he did not yet know who he'll nominate to replace Fallone and Avalos on the commission. He'll also need to pick a replacement for outgoing commissioner Gerard Washington.

The shared revenue law also mandates the nine-member commission must include two members selected from candidate lists submitted by the police and fire unions. 

Johnson said Milwaukee was already meeting that criteria; Washington is a retired assistant fire chief for the city, and Ruben Burgos spent 22 years as a detective for the police department. 

Clashes between the commission and police union

In recent years, the FPC and the Milwaukee Police Association, which represents the city's rank-and-file cops, have disagreed on policies the commission has instituted.

Most recently, the union filed a lawsuit in April challenging the commission's decision to require MPD to release body camera footage within 15 days of an incident where someone died or was seriously hurt.

In May, a Milwaukee County judge sided with the union and put the new body camera policy on hold while the case plays out.

The police association has also opposed FPC decisions to place an outright ban on police chokeholds and the use of no-knock warrants.

Both of those policy shifts happened in 2021, the year after large protests across the U.S. following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Union president Andrew Wagner said those decisions amounted to commissioners giving in to demonstrators.

"They were listening to advocacy groups instead of listening to experts in the law enforcement field," Wagner said.

Milwaukee's commission had rare powers

The Milwaukee FPC had been unique in that it's rare for U.S. civilian oversight boards to have control over police department policy. 

University of Chicago Law Professor Sharon Fairley studied the oversight boards in the 100 most populous American cities.

She found Milwaukee to be one of just 11 U.S. cities with "supervisory" powers, meaning they set policy for the police department. 

According to her review, Milwaukee has the nation's second-oldest civilian oversight board, having been established in 1885. Only St. Louis has an older board.

In an interview Thursday, Fairley said states have taken varying action on such boards over the past few years, with some empowering local civilian oversight of police, while others have placed new limits.

"We're seeing it kind of go both ways right now," Fairley said. "As communities struggle to deal with policing and police reform issues."

Fairley pointed to Tennessee enacting a law earlier this year that put new constraints on municipal police oversight boards.

"The statute actually required that if there was a civilian oversight board, it could have very, very limited powers," she said.

Fairley said, at the other end of the spectrum, California has empowered its counties to establish oversight groups over their sheriff's departments.

Wagner said, in Milwaukee, the FPC still had plenty of power because commissioners vote to confirm the police chief, who now sets police department policy under the shared revenue law.

"The chief is picked by the Fire and Police Commission, and you hope you pick a leader who is competent and has the needs of the community at hand when you pick the leader," Wagner said. "And then you expect that leader to lead."

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