The last few weeks have marked an unprecedented amount of attention on police departments across the nation; Milwaukee is no exception. In a moment where hundreds of residents are demanding change in how policing is conducted, WUWM is highlighting the body that holds the greatest capacity to enact change in the Milwaukee Police Department — the Fire and Police Commission.
The commission was created in 1885 to keep politics out of public safety. The Fire and Police Commission (FPC) board is comprised of seven, part-time civilian members appointed by Milwaukee's mayor and confirmed by the Common Council.
"If you have a complaint, we’re the only ones you can go to. You can go to your alderman or call the mayor's office, but the oversight is going to be with us," Commissioner Raymond Robakowski says. He's a retired Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) officer and the most recent addition to the FPC board.
Oftentimes, civilian oversight committees look into civilian complaints but have only the power to make recommendations either to the mayor or the police chief. Milwaukee’s FPC is different in that it has the capacity to actually act on those recommendations.
For citizens who have complaints against the police department, Robakowski says, "We’re the ones who can probably help you the most." The FPC can hire or fire the police and fire chiefs, audit internal investigations, and discipline employees for misconduct.
"We have the ability to implement policies that can make the changes that are needed. And again, it could be by just reviewing an SOP, the standard operating policies, of a department," he says.
And they’ve done that. Most recently in December 2019, the FPC amended MPD’s policy requiring police to have a judicial warrant signed by a judge in order to assist Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in arresting people for possible deportation. This came after a cell phone video captured MPD officers assisting ICE agents making an arrest. The video garnered the attention of them Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.
But not everyone has welcomed FPC’s oversight. Former Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Brier, speaking in 1984, said, "A part-time commission with no police experience or expertise, no working day knowledge of the department, can run a department such as the Milwaukee Police Department? It just can't be done."
Brier was speaking out against a bill that ultimately gave the FPC even more power and oversight over the police department. He was staunchly against such measures.
"For the commission to be able to issue directives to the chief and the chief must implement, again, I say that this could take in assignments, transfers, promotions, disciplinary actions, and even the kinds of arrests that would be made. That just doesn't make good sense. And as I said, it'll destroy the department," he said.
The measures passed and the MPD was not destroyed. Today, the FPC is among the oldest and most powerful commissions of it's kind in the country.
At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the FPC will be meeting virtually to take up resolutions aimed at amending MPD’s standard operating procedure for use of force and civil disturbance and crowd management. You can tune in online at http://city.milwaukee.gov/citychannel.