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ON THE DEFENSIVE: Reform needed for Milwaukee police

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

It is now only a matter of time before there is a federal takeover of the Milwaukee Police Department.

For more than five years, there has been an endless stream of negative stories coming from that department.

Frank Jude being beaten nearly to death in 2004 was perhaps the most infamous case. In 2007, there were the stories of Milwaukee police officers accused of planting evidence on suspects. In 2011, the District Attorney’s Office began a John Doe investigation of officers in District 5, alleging they had conducted illegal strip searches. That investigation culminated in criminal charges being filed against four officers Oct. 9.

On top of all that, in September, the Milwaukee medical examiner reclassified Derek Williams’ death as a homicide, and the Justice Department has started an investigation. Williams died in the back of an MPD squad car earlier this year after telling the arresting officers he couldn’t breathe. As Williams struggled to take his last breaths, an officer accused him of faking it while telling him that he looked fine.

While a federal takeover is a rare phenomenon, it may be the only way to repair the damage already inflicted on the community. Ultimately, this could occur only if the Department of Justice proved in federal court there has been a systematic pattern of civil rights violations by the MPD.

That would lead to installing a court-appointed monitor. The police chief would then need to secure approval from the monitor before making important department decisions.

The problem with MPD is a lack of oversight. Without oversight and accountability, misconduct will continue.

Too often, police officers are allowed to violate constitutional rights without consequence. This breeds callousness and indifference and results in some officers thinking they are above the law.

That was on full display in the Williams case. Some people are rightly outraged by this tragedy. They are demanding justice, which may come in the form of discipline or criminal prosecution against members of the MPD.

But until police officers have meaningful sanctions imposed on them, nothing will change.

Police are not infallible. We need internal reform.

To do so, the MPD needs to impose meaningful consequences against any officer who violates the constitutional rights of a suspect. The “consequence,” and infrequency, of a court suppressing evidence is too attenuated from the violation to have any deterrent effect. Indeed, from the officer’s perspective, he still got the bad guy off the street for a period of time.

If the MPD wants to avoid a federal takeover it would be wise to initiate changes from within. Absent that, the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution will continue to be eroded by rogue officers.

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