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Milwaukee Police Chief Demoted Over Tear-Gas Use, Other Concerns

Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales speaks to the media following a shooting at the Molson Coors Brewing Co. campus on Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.

Updated on Friday at 9:58 a.m. CT

An oversight board demoted Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales on Thursday after questioning how he handled multiple incidents, including ordering officers to fire tear gas and pepper spray at protesters demonstrating over George Floyd’s death.

The city’s Fire and Police Commission unanimously voted Thursday evening to demote Morales to captain after three-and-a-half years on the job.

Commissioner Raymond Robakowski gave a laundry list of reasons why the commission was taking such action, ultimately saying he’s been disappointed with Morales' tenure.

“A series of events and actions have occurred under the leadership of Alfonso Morales that are intolerable from any leader who holds a position of trust, especially someone who tasked with the leading of the Milwaukee Police Department. His conduct is unbecoming, filled with ethical lapses and flawed decisions making it inconsistent with someone who has the privilege of leading the Milwaukee Police Department,” Robakowski says.

The chief’s attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, says Morales’ relationship with the commission has been deteriorating since he refused the chairman’s demand to fire an officer involved in the arrest of Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown in January 2018. Most recently the commission criticized Morales for authorizing tear gas to disperse protesters. The board has also raised questions over how the department has policed Black communities.

Morales joined the Milwaukee department in 1993 and was appointed chief in February 2018.

“His conduct is unbecoming, filled with ethical lapses and flawed decisions, making it inconsistent with someone who has the privilege of leading the Milwaukee Police Department,” Commissioner Raymond Robakowski said.

The board named Assistant Police Chief Michael J. Brunson Sr. as acting chief. He's expected to be sworn in on Friday.

The decision comes as Wisconsin's largest police department grapples with a surge in gun violence and plans security for a scaled-down Democratic National Convention.

A number of police chiefs across the country have left their jobs as pressure mounts to rethink American policing following Floyd's death, including Erika Shields in Atlanta, Jamie Resch in Portland, Ore., and William Smith in Richmond, Va.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has been a steadfast supporter of Morales. After the FPC meeting, Barrett held a press conference saying he wrote the commission on Wednesday asking it to review the directives it had charged Morales. Barrett says Morales should have had an opportunity to respond to the directives.

“The discussion surrounding this decision tonight was completely lacking in transparency. The action taken by the commission tonight was not good government. The FPC has spoken. The issue of public safety is bigger than any one person. We need a police department that will keep us all safe, that’s what Milwaukeean’s deserve,” Barrett says.

Barrett went on to say that he understands some of the frustration on the part of the FPC as Morales spent two weeks on a PR campaign instead of working on the directives.

Barrett says more than ever Milwaukee needs a police department that has the respect of the public as well as a Fire and Police Commission that is respected by citizens.

Morales is Latino and the majority of the commissioners are Black. His relationship with the board has deteriorated since it named him to the post in February 2018, particularly over questions about how the department has policed Black communities.

Gimbel said problems began when officers arrested Brown for parking illegally in January 2018. Officers swarmed the Bucks guard and used a stun gun on him when he didn't remove his hands from his pockets. The commission's chairman, Steven DeVougas, who is Black, told Morales to fire one of the officers involved but Morales refused, the attorney said.

“From there it got stressful," Gimbel said. “DeVougas viewed him as not being a team player."

In February, the Milwaukee Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, filed an ethics complaint against DeVougas alleging he accompanied a real estate developer during an interview with police who suspected the developer of sexual assault. DeVougas practices real estate law for the developer's business. The police association argued DeVougas' presence during the interview was a misuse of his position as commission chairman. A city ethics board is investigating.

Fast forward to May and June, when Milwaukee police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters demonstrating over Floyd's death. Floyd, who was Black, died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly eight minutes.

The decision to use tear gas and pepper spray drew criticism from Mayor Tom Barrett. The commission in July banned the police department from using tear gas, prompting a number of departments from across the state slated to help with convention security to rescind their support.

The commission on July 20 ordered Morales to produce reams of records related to multiple incidents, including the decision to tear gas and pepper spray protesters, Brown's arrest and the June arrest of a Black activist on suspicion of burglary. The panel also demanded Morales draft community policing standards, develop a discipline matrix to clarify how officers are disciplined and draft a policy requiring officers to wear face masks during the pandemic.

“We are in the midst of an urgent overdue reckoning on race and policing in this country," the commission said in a statement Monday. "Only with transparency, accountability and truth will we move on as a society. This discussion may make some uncomfortable, and may bluntly scare others.”

The commission gave Morales a week to respond to some of the requests and threatened to discipline or fire him if he didn't comply. Gimbel has said those expectations are ridiculous; he noted the commission gave Morales' predecessor, Ed Flynn, 50 days to respond to a similar request for information on the department's pursuit policy.

The police department Wednesday blasted the orders as vague, invalid and possibly illegal. The department noted the orders weren't approved during an open meeting and the requests seek information from still-open criminal and internal investigations.

The orders also could violate a 2018 settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over stop-and-frisk policies because the department would have to release confidential information it has been sharing with a consultant group monitoring compliance with the settlement, the department said.

“The [orders] attempt to paint a picture that MPD has been non-compliant or outright insubordinate with the FPC,” the department said in a statement. “The manner in which business is being conducted at the FPC causes alarm.”

Cavalier Johnson, president of the Milwaukee Common Council, says police across the country and in Milwaukee need to take a hard look at themselves.

“The calls for change are not about any one particular officer. It’s not about any one particular department. It’s about the institutions of policing itself and the fact that that institution has for decades and centuries caused destruction and death for people of color, mainly African Americans in this community an others like it across the United States,” Johnson says.

Questions remain over whether Morales will sue to get his job back. Johnson says he hopes not.

“The vast majority of the money that we’ve expended in terms of lawsuits have been involved police in police in some form or another. And so I would hope obviously that that would not be the case. That it would not take place and put the city in a potentially dire position in terms of our finances,” Johnson says.

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