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Mayor Tom Barrett Says Milwaukee Has 'A Long Way To Go' To Improve Policing

Kamil Krzaczynski
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City of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett speaks during a press conference on February 27, 2020 in Milwaukee.

Lake Effect's Joy Powers talks with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett about protests, policing, COVID-19 response and the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

We’re only halfway into 2020, and already Milwaukee has faced so many surprising and extraordinary challenges. A global pandemic shut down businesses, kept our communities in isolation, and brought the economy to a screeching halt. 

Over the past couple weeks, after some high-profile incidents of police brutality, Milwaukeeans and Americans around the country took to the streets, demanding justice, reform, and accountability. And through all of this, people have been looking to leaders for guidance and change. 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been both criticized and praised for his actions during this pandemic and the mounting protests. Barrett has served as mayor of Milwaukee since 2004 and he was just reelected to his fifth term in office.

This is not the first time large-scale protests were sparked by police-involved killings under Barrett, including protests surrounding the deaths of Dontre Hamilton and Syville Smith.

“I know that we have, as a police department, a long way to go," Barrett says. "And we have seen incidences, oftentimes incidences involving African American men, where there’s an overreaction."

After the latest incidents of police violence, activists and community organizations are calling to defund the police and invest in historically underserved communities. In reponse, Barrett says budget cuts may come during 2021 negotiations, but that they may extend to every part of the city due to loss of revenue during the pandemic.

"We'd love to put more money in other programs, but we've got some very serious fiscal problems that the city's facing right now. So that's before you even get to the conversation about defunding or anything like that."

He also denies any claim that he pushed for quicker reopening of bars and resturaunts to distract from protests. Barrett reiterates that the city's focus is on a scientific approach to managing the spread of coronavirus. 

Barrett's hope is that going forward, including during the Democratic National Convention, the city can be a leader.

"I still believe that this is an opportunity for our city to showcase how you come out of a pandemic, how the community deals with police community relations, how we deal with the economic downturn," Barrett says.


Lake Effect’s Joy Powers: Well, Mayor Tom Barrett, thank you so much for joining us here on Lake Effect.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett: I'm happy to be with you.

POWERS: So, as you know, protests have erupted in a lot of different communities throughout the Milwaukee area, decrying police brutality, you actually marched alongside some of these protesters. What led to that decision?

BARRETT: Well, I think that what we're seeing right now is a fundamental shift in our society as to how we view the relationship between the community and our police departments. And I think it's very, very important to listen to. And part of what I wanted to do was listen to people, listen to young people, see what their concerns are, see what we could do as a city to make the reforms that are necessary to move us forward. And I say that knowing full well that a lot of what needs to be done is out of the direct control of the city that they're there is the state that obviously comes into play. There are union contracts, there are court decisions. But clearly the city has a very, very important role to play to improve police and community relations. And I want to be part of that. And I will be part of that.

POWERS: And that gets to a question that I have, you know, a lot of people have credited the death of George Floyd for sparking these protests. But Milwaukee has its own history of police brutality. And we see this pretty typical cycle, people protest, the city says it's going to change and then nothing really feels like it changes, and people go out and protest. Once again, why should we expect this moment to be different?

BARRETT: I think we should not only expect this moment to be different, I think we should demand that this is different. But I think what many people don't recognize, and I'll just talk about a couple of things that you've done here locally, to try to deal with these issues. Go back to the Frank Jude case which occurred shortly after I became the mayor of the city of Milwaukee. At that time, after I started seeing the reports, the question I asked was how did this guy ever end up? I say this guy, but the key defendant in that case, how did he ever end up on the police department? And I was given the explanation. And I said, Look, we have to have psychological tests for people before they become members of this department. That is something that's very, very important. So, under my watch, the police department now for applicants for the police department, all undergo psychological testing, to make sure that they're suited. This is a difficult job, and it's a very important job. It's a very challenging job. It's not a job for everybody. And so, I felt it was very, very important for us to have that psychological testing in place. So that's one significant change that has happened. Several years later, I worked with the Fire and Police Commission and the then police chief, and we've instituted the practice now for cameras. And you've seen around the nation the challenges that we have had with the body cameras. But I'm a firm believer that the body cameras are there to help the public, but also to help the police officers that because you're going to have a recorded history, if you will, of what transpired. It helps both parties and it particularly helps good people. When I say good people. I mean, the people from the community who have done nothing wrong. And the police officers who've done nothing wrong. If someone has violated the law that's gonna show up on the video. If a police officer violates the law that's going to show up on the video. So, I think that that's another significant change. A third change that came about and this happened after the shooting of Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park, we instituted with the help of the Greater Milwaukee foundation, better de-escalate training and more training, actually for more mental health type procedures that officers could follow and, and the debate at that time was whether only officers who wanted to have this training should have it or whether all officers should have it. And I felt that all officers should have it, because you don't know who's going to be interacting with the public. So those are just three examples of reforms that are being discussed in other parts of the country that are already here. Now, having said all that, I know we have as a police department, a long way to go. And we have seen incidents, oftentimes incidents involving African American men where there is an overreaction, and I think that we have to have more training. This is one of the reasons that I feel so passionately about having the members of our police department and our fire department, be members of our community. I want them to be members of our community. Because if people believe that our police officers are an occupying force that is not part of this community, that hampers our ability to have better police community relations, and that obviously happened as a result, a change in state law under Governor Walker, we're now probably close to half of our police officers don't even reside in the city of Milwaukee. And I think that that's a that's a problem.

POWERS: Well, it's something that we've seen right now, as we've had protesters and activists on the streets. You know, they've been frustrated by the Milwaukee Police Department's response to pretty peaceful protests. There was at least one incident of officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. How are you responding right now to this use of police force?

BARRETT: I made it clear to the police chief, I've made it clear publicly that I do not think that rubber bullets should be that they are wrong to be used to disperse crowds. I've said that tear gas should only be used in very, very, very serious situations, again, not with peaceful protesters. And I shared that with the police chief. And to my knowledge that has not happened since I shared that with the police chief. You have worked with him on that. But there was an incident on roughly Sixth and Reservoir perhaps. And I saw the video that and I publicly stated my unhappiness with that. Because I think that have, we seen some people who have acted inappropriately? Yes. And we should be mindful that the police officers have a very difficult job. But I think by and large, we have seen very peaceful protests, particularly during the day. We've had some issues at night, and we continue to have issues with reckless driving that has emanated at some of these areas. And that remains a concern, but I think that's more of a local police concern that we see in the summertime but I think that people have the right, not to think, I know people have the right to the first amendment to have peaceful protests. And I support that.

POWERS: You know, you said you shared these concerns with the police department. But do you have the power to make them stop, to make them stop using tear gas and rubber bullets?

BARRETT: Well, as you may know, a lot of Milwaukee is a little bit of an unusual structure, in that I am not the boss of the police chief for the police department. We have a citizen board, the Fire and Police commission that oversees the police department, as well as the fire department. And they're the ones that that have rules that they put into place. Again, what I did was I shared my belief with the police chief, and I'm pleased that since I said that, my understanding is we have not had any use of rubber bullets and we have not hit any use of tear gas. And I think that’s significant. Get that again, that goes back. Now, it was the Tuesday night after the after the first weekend where we saw so much activity.

POWERS: Well, this gets to a bigger question that I think a lot of us have police accountability is something that we've been talking about for a long time, but it feels like little has happened there. When we're talking about police accountability, what are the real impediments to getting that kind of accountability? Because it seems like there, there are always roadblocks.

BARRETT: Well, I, I looked at what happened in Minneapolis and the defense in the case of Minneapolis, and I saw that he had had something like 18 complaints against him in 18 years. And I said, oh my god, how does this guy remain on the force? And I honestly don't believe it individual like that would be the force in Milwaukee and, and I'm going to do more work. Again, just to review what our complaint procedure is. Make sure that we don't allow that to happen. I don't believe and this is why I've said that I'm going to get a group together that's going to look at our police practices. So that I can make sure that I've got the exact information that I need to make recommendations to work with the Fire and Police commission, to work with the community group that's been formed in relation to the ACLU lawsuit so that we have a really solid path forward to deal with issues that are not resolved here in the city of Milwaukee. And that's something that I'm committed to.

POWERS: Yeah, you know, you just mentioned I believe it was last week, Friday, you announced the creation of a commission called a Commission on Police Accountability and Reform. We've heard from a number of activists who said that they don't know what this commission is. Just for clarity was this commission created unilaterally by your administration, or is it the result of collaboration with community members?

BARRETT: I can give you the history of it. I can give you the very short history of it. Last week when I saw some of the events that occurred, and I started asking questions about them from people in law enforcement, people knew law enforcement, I was told that this practice or that practice was something that was approved at the federal level, the state level, the local level. And I thought, well, that might be one of the issues here are some of the practices that are well accepted practices are they practices that we should continue even if they are approved at the federal level, or the state level, local level? And I thought, I've got to bring together a group that can look into this and give me some good advice. It's not unusual that you'd want to have something like that happened. But the next morning that was maybe Wednesday the next morning I woke up and I saw that the mayor of Atlanta, sent out a tweet actually. And in it, she said, thank you, President Obama I accept your challenge, we will form a commission to look at our police practices here in Atlanta. And then I saw Washington DC had done it nights, other communities had done it. And I went to the video and saw that President Obama was issuing a challenge to mayors across the nation to look at these practices. And quite honestly, I thought, President Obama has the moral force to be a counterweight to the complete lack of leadership we're seeing from President Trump on this. And this gives me an opportunity to do what I've been thinking about doing anyway, and to be doing it, hopefully in conjunction with some of the advice I can get on a national level, as well as, the local level as to how we can move our police department forward. So, I issued an executive order creating it. And my goal is to complement the work that's been done. There's been a number of community groups and community committees out there. So, this is the goal here is to build on the work that they've done. And again, to move the city forward. I think. I don't think anybody would be surprised to hear that the mayor wants to be engaged, listen, and improve the police department.

POWERS: Yeah, I guess one of the questions that we've heard from activists in particular is, you know, Milwaukee already has the community collaborative committee. It also has the Fire and Police Commission, why create a new group? Why not strengthen the power of either of those existing groups?

BARRETT: Well, I think this goes back to your first question that there is a sense out there that and that there hasn't been enough that's been done. I think that was underlying what the first part of our conversation is. People are frustrated. I can tell you, I'm frustrated. I’m frustrated, and I'm just not the type of person who's going to just wring his hands. I think that as the mayor of the city, I think I'm in a unique position to bring all these groups together. And I think that's an important role for a mayor of any city, not just to bring the groups together. And that's what I'm hoping to accomplish. So, again, I see this is adding to what the work that has been done, not in any way, detracting from any work that anybody has done.

POWERS: Okay. So, you know, you mentioned a lot of cities are creating these kinds of commission's committees. A lot of major cities are also looking at defunding the police. Here in Milwaukee activists are requesting some big budget cuts. Is that something the city is really considering?

BARRETT: Well, again, we've got a unique situation here. Where last year, I think at the police budget went up. And I don't have the numbers in front of me. But it's about a $300 million budget. And let's just say for the sake of conversation, that it went up four or five million dollars. And again, I don't have the numbers in front of me. That increase of four to five million dollars translated into a reduction in the number of police officers, of 60 police officers. In other words, we had the budget that the Council passed that 60 fewer police officers for 2020 than it did for 2019. And as I said at the time, and I'll say again, that was not a philosophical decision. That was a fiscal decision. We simply did not have the money to maintain the strength of the police department at the level we had in in 2018. I would like to tell you that the city coffers are in a better shape this year than last year. But that's not the case. They're in, they're in much more precarious situation, going into the 2021 budget than they were going into the 2020 budget, in large part because of COVID-19, in large part because of our relationship with the state. And so, this is a situation where probably no one's going to be happy. Because it will be virtually impossible, I think at this stage for us to maintain the strength of the police department exactly where it is right now. And so, when I say unhappy, I think that there's a hope and I would share this hope we'd love to put more money in other programs, but we've got some very serious fiscal problems that the city's facing right now. So that's before you even get to the conversation about defunding or anything like that. We've got, we've got the real world to deal with right now. Which is a huge loss of revenue because of COVID-19. Some challenges, we have with our pension system some other challenges that we face. So, it's far more complicated than saying fund or defund. Because we really know that we've got some serious fiscal challenge.

POWERS: You know, you said it was a fiscal decision, not a philosophical decision. Are you interested in making that philosophical decision? Because I think that's kind of at the heart of this movement, the desire to make that philosophical decision.

BARRETT: And I think I think that that's a really important debate to have. And I certainly think that there are some places where we should not have or expect our police officers to do what they're doing. And I'll use as examples the changes we've had in mental health laws. Over the years, the police have, in many ways become the frontline workers in our mental health system. Very expensive, very inefficient and if we put more resources into mental health issues, I think that would allow us not to have police officers sitting in a car with an individual for hours on end waiting for them to be accepted at a hospital for example, or things like that. I think the question of police officers in schools, I think that you're going to see changes there. And I think then the burden is going to be on those of us in power to say, okay, how are we going to deal with the safety concerns? And when I say safety concerns, I'm not even talking about students and other students. I'm talking about people from adults coming into schools. What are we going to do there? But I do think when you talk about basic services, we know that, and this is this is the challenge we have. In parts of the city where people feel that the police don't treat them well. Well, and that's a legitimate fear concern that they have are also the parts of the city where we get the most calls for service. And so, it becomes a very challenging dynamic, that if someone is breaking into your home, or if a woman is raped, or if there's reckless driving, who do you call? And I think that's a debate we need to have as a city. That's a debate we need to have as a society. Calls for police for domestic violence is, is something that happens a lot. And they're considered very dangerous calls for the police to respond to, if we're not going to have police responding to those calls. Do we simply as a society, not respond to those calls? Who do we send instead to those calls, knowing that they can be very dangerous, but those are all, I think, really important parts of this conversation that we need to have.

POWERS: So, I'm going to take a bit of a left turn here. You know, we're still in the middle of a pandemic. And after the states safer at home order was struck down the City of Milwaukee still had its own order. But there was a lot of confusion about what that entailed. And throughout this pandemic, there's been a lot of confusion, which I think is in part understandable. But people have expressed frustration with a lack of resources. How has the city been working to clarify safety guidelines for our community?

BARRETT:  When you say safety guidance for community? Are you talking about businesses? Are you talking about individuals?

POWERS: I think both.

BARRETT: Well, I can tell you just yesterday, I had two webinars. We had over 250 people to two webinars, talking about the reopening of bars and restaurants and outdoor patios. So, people had some guidance as to what to do. I've had conversations with faith leaders, about reopening churches, have great conversations. We had a webinar that was at by close to 1000 people about reopening up hair salons and nail salons and barbershops. So, I personally have been involved extensively in the outreach to try to help people get the information for the very reason you stated. I think that there's concern and people feeling they don't have the information. It is obviously a fast-moving train. And when the Supreme Court decided it was going to weigh in, that, of course, threw everything off track, and Milwaukee felt, and I think it was a right decision that we would continue to follow the science and we will continue to follow the guidance of the CDC. Because the pandemic as you noted in your initial statement is still here and I look at where we are right now. And look at where we were on election day just for sake of conversation. On election day, which was April 7 here in Milwaukee, we had 1300 24 cases, and we had 49 deaths. Yesterday in Milwaukee County, we surpassed 9000 cases, and we surpassed 300 deaths. So, in that period of approximately two months, you saw a six fold increase in the number of cases and you saw a six fold increase in the number of deaths, which tells you that we need to continue to take this pandemic very, very serious.

POWERS: So last week, the city announced, as you mentioned, that restaurants and bars would be able to open a lot of restaurant owners seem to be pretty surprised. Some also believed the move was politically motivated to draw attention away from the protests. Can you just give us a timeline for how the city reached the decision to allow restaurants and bars to reopen?

BARRETT: Sure, and I'll say the first Facebook posting that I saw that that said that my reaction was OMG. And the reason for that is you may be aware that that I've been involved in daily briefings for the press for essentially the last two and a half months now they've dropped to several times a week. But we talked extensively throughout this period about where we are as a city in relation to the state. We've talked, I've talked ,personally extensively about our desire to try to get to a place where we could under scientific guidance, start opening bars and restaurants and I underscore following scientific guidance, because I've made it clear, as has our health Commissioner, Commissioner Kowalik, that we would follow the science in the Public Health. And frankly, we're the only community in the state that can continue to do this. At the same time, of course, not surprisingly, I hear from some businesses who say that they don't want to reopen either practical reasons or they don't think the customers are there. There's some who wanted more, more leeway. And then there's some that wanted to open immediately, but several weeks ago, and one of the things we have done is, during these weekly briefings or these daily briefings, we've talked about how on Fridays is when the city would make announcements as to whether we would be moving to the next stage. And that's been over the last month, basically, where we've had those conversations. And several weeks ago, we actually were optimistic that we could get to phase three, which is the opening of restaurants. And I stated that publicly, this is all before the civil unrest. And over the course of the weekend, again, this is before the civil unrest, the numbers started going in the wrong direction. And so, when we made the announcement that week, we said, unfortunately, our numbers were going in the wrong direction. And so, we were not going to be able to go to phase three. But I publicly stated during that press briefing that I was frustrated by that. And that I hoped that in the following week, we would be able to move to phase three. And so that was the weekend actually, before the civil unrest. So, so clearly, I had foreshadowed, our health department had foreshadowed that we were getting closer. And once we reach those, those criteria that allowed us to open that's when we made the decision to open

POWERS: Okay. You know, as we've been talking about, there have been so many transformative things happening to the City of Milwaukee in 2020. It is unbelievably only June. But one thing that we thought would be the most significant thing to happen to the city in a long time, it seems like it's not going to happen, at least not in the same way, the Democratic National Convention. What's going on there? I think there's just a lot of confusion.

BARRETT: Well, I think there's a lot of uncertainty. Yeah, I for a while there I was. I was licking my wounds for lack of a better term. Thinking, how can we have all this uncertainty when things are moving so smoothly for the Republicans in their Charlotte convention? Because for months, the word was there's no problems in Charlotte, there are no problems in Charlotte. And there were concerns, legitimate concerns that were being raised here, including by myself, about public health and how it was important for us to follow public health. And I always maintained and still maintain that we will have a convention. The Democrats will nominate Joe Biden, and it's going to happen in Milwaukee. Now, beyond that, I don't know that. We're going to know exactly what form that is going to be, probably still won't know for another six or seven weeks. But it's only in the last couple of weeks when I looked at what's happening with the Republicans in Charlotte and just announcement the last 24 hours that they're likely to move a good portion of the convention to Jacksonville, Florida. I thought wow, I guess they didn't have their act together. I guess we're in a lot better shape than they are. So as much as we'd like certainty here. I think the one thing we can agree on, everyone can agree on is that the uncertainty in society this year is unlike any we've seen in a long time.

POWERS: Yeah. Well, and this might be a difficult question to answer, because, as you mentioned, there is a lot of uncertainty. But we've been told this convention would have a huge impact on Milwaukee area businesses, the city's reputation in general. Now that we're looking at in the best-case scenario, a very pared down convention. What do we think that's going to mean for our community?

BARRETT: I think what it's gonna mean for our community. And it's not just Milwaukee, it's the nation. Again, we all know with civil unrest, with the economic turmoil, with the COVID-19 crisis, that communities around this nation are under incredible duress. And I still believe that this is an opportunity for our city to showcase how you come out of a pandemic, how community deals with police community relations, how we deal with the economic downturn. And so, we've been dealt a hand of cards and my belief is, we played that that hand as best we can. Because I don't think anybody is expecting whether it’s Milwaukee or Charlotte or Jacksonville to have the type of convention that people thought was happening just six months ago. I still think it's an opportunity because the fact remains, this is the first time in the history of Wisconsin, that we've been chosen to host a major political party convention. And so, let's take that opportunity and do the best we can, even under these incredible trying circumstances.

POWERS: Well, Mayor Barrett, thank you so much for joining us here on Lake Effect and sharing so much of your time.

BARRETT: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.