Milwaukee Common Council Rejects Fire And Police Commission Nominee

May 29, 2019

The Milwaukee Common Council Wednesday overwhelmingly voted against approving Denise Bartlett for a seat on the Fire and Police Commission.

Mayor Tom Barrett nominated her to the panel, which oversees the fire and police departments. Bartlett worked for the police department for 28 years before retiring. She took questions from aldermen for nearly two hours. But in the end, many council members didn't think she was fit for the position.

Denise Bartlett told the Council that she'd bring diversity to the Fire and Police Commission. She's a white woman, a retiree, a former employee of the Milwaukee Police Department and lives on the far south side of the city. 

"I'm here. I'm needed and ready to serve with my promise of competent, dependable, unbiased, fair and transparent service. I hope I have your vote of approval to join the esteemed board. Not to instead be the same person to be rejected by your body because I don't represent and reflect a preferred diversity of some," Bartlett says.

But some aldermen had serious concerns about Bartlett. They referenced a letter she wrote that was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It blamed people who fake their illnesses for the death of a young black man named Derek Williams. He died in the back of a police vehicle after telling officers he could not breathe. Officers did not respond to his pleas for help.

The Common Council also asked whether she could truly be impartial in matters that involve the police department. Alderwoman Milele Coggs explained why she planned to vote against Bartlett.

"For me, it's not just about you. It's about changing. You said perception. I'm concerned with the reality that too many people in our community do not feel served and protected by the people that their tax paying dollars are paying to serve and protect them," Coggs says.

To restore the public's confidence, Coggs says people on the Fire and Police Commission have to be able to look at the facts of each situation.

"Based on your own presentation here today. Based on a variety of past statements both at community meetings, both in writings, all of that … I have no confidence that that would indeed be the case if you became a member of the Fire and Police Commission. That has nothing to do with your age, has nothing to do with what side of town you stay on and it has nothing to do with your race," Coggs says.

Coggs says it's clear that what she deems as fair and what Bartlett thinks of as fair are different. Ten other aldermen joined Coggs in rejecting Bartlett. Cavalier Johnson abstained. Three — Mark Borkowski, Terry Witkowski and Bob Donovan — voted in favor.

Alderman Bob Donovan says, "This woman has volunteered and worked in a variety of positions in the community. That's a plus, that's good I think. She also has a 28-year unblemished record with the Milwaukee Police Department."

He says that while some of his colleagues view Bartlett's career in the police department as a reason not to confirm her, he does not.

"They're making monumental decisions on the decision officers make, on their career, their future. And isn't it good to have someone who has a little experience, who knows what it's like, who is able to walk in the shoes of whatever that officer is in front of the board? I think that's a plus," Donovan says.

It's now up to Mayor Barrett to find another nominee. Many aldermen suggest that Barrett work with the Common Council to put forth candidates they can agree on.