Police departments withdraw from security agreements for Democratic convention, some citing directive on crowd munitions

Bill Glauber Ashley Luthern Mary Spicuzza
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE – At least four Wisconsin police departments have withdrawn from agreements to send personnel to next month's Democratic National Convention, some of them citing orders to Milwaukee's police chief to cease the use of tear gas and pepper spray during demonstrations.

The moves by police departments in Fond du Lac, Franklin, Greendale and West Allis cast doubt on a program to bring about 1,000 police officers from outside agencies to help shore up security for the event, scheduled for the week of Aug 17. Even though Democrats are holding a mostly virtual convention, protests are anticipated.

Asked on Monday if the agreements were collapsing, Fond du Lac Police Chief William Lamb said, "Yes," adding that he expects other agencies from across the state to withdraw from the program.

"We regret having to do that," said Lamb, who chairs the Wisconsin Police Executive Group, which consists of police chiefs from cities with populations of more than 20,000 people.

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The action by Lamb and others comes as Milwaukee's Fire and Police Commission issued a directive last week to Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales to change department policy to discontinue the use of tear gas and pepper spray.

Morales spoke to several media outlets Tuesday and told at least one that more than 100 law enforcement agencies had backed out of agreements with the city for security at the convention.

Morales abruptly canceled a scheduled interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Tuesday afternoon.

"We respect the Fire and Police Commission's decision," Lamb said in an interview. "But in this particular case, we strongly disagree with the actions they've taken. We believe (that) in removing those tools, the use of chemical irritants or pepper spray, from the available resources that the law enforcement officers would have at their disposal if protests become non-peaceful would severely compromise the safety of the public and also the safety of the law enforcement officers who would be assigned to protect the DNC."

Lamb sent a letter to Milwaukee police on July 6 outlining his organization's concerns about limiting the use of tear gas and pepper spray. His group has not received a reply, he said, but added that he understands that the situation in Milwaukee is "fluid."

West Allis police first sent a letter to Morales with concerns in mid-June after Milwaukee's Common Council temporarily halted the purchase of those chemicals. A more recent bid for barricades, pepper spray, a "tactical gas delivery system," food and drink for officers and other equipment appears on its way to being fulfilled. 

But then came the directive from the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.

"Our concern is that in the event protests turn non-peaceful, such a policy would remove tools from officers that may otherwise be legal and justifiable to utilize in specific situations," West Allis Deputy Chief Robert Fletcher said in an email.

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Franklin Police Chief Rick Oliva raised similar concerns in a letter he sent to Morales last week stating that his agency was no longer sending personnel to assist at the convention "due to recent decisions by Milwaukee elected and appointed officials."

"It is apparent there is a lack of commitment to provide the Milwaukee Police Department with the resources it needs to ensure the safety of peaceful protesters, attendees, citizens and police personnel," Oliva wrote in his July 23 letter, copies of which were sent to Mayor Tom Barrett, the Common Council president and the FPC. "I can not send personnel if they are not properly equipped or will not be allowed to engage in appropriate actions which would ensure their safety."

Waukesha's police chief said he is consulting with the city attorney's office on how to withdraw from the agreement, which had promised about two dozen Waukesha officers.

"My position is we're not going to be sending our officers to support the DNC," said Chief Daniel Thompson. 

"I understand that use of chemical irritants and pepper spray is serious and those are to be used only when legally justified," he said. "But when you take that out of the continuum that doesn’t leave the officers much other than getting harmed or using deadly force and that’s not good for any officer or the public."

The Milwaukee Police Department declined to comment on the situation.

Griselda Aldrete, executive director of the FPC, referred questions about the issue to Commissioner Nelson Soler, who did not respond to an interview request. Soler serves as chairman of the Policies and Standards Committee, which is reviewing operating procedures for crowd control.

Some agencies are still planning to send officers to assist with the event. 

Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith said at this point his department is one of them.

“We made a commitment that we would assist Chief Morales and the Milwaukee Police Department,” Smith said. “We intend to honor that commitment.”

Glendale Police Capt. Rhett Fugman said Monday that his department still plans to send five officers to assist with the DNC.

West Bend Police Chief Kenneth Meuler said he remains committed to sending about a dozen officers for the effort.

“I am confident that Chief Morales and city officials will work out an agreement to address the concerns that some of the other chiefs have raised," said Meuler, a former Milwaukee Police Department captain.

The Wisconsin State Patrol also still plans to provide security assistance at the DNC and so does the Rock County Sheriff's Office.

Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said the council has "only asked for transparency when it comes to the use of chemical irritants – especially during a time when tensions between law enforcement and the community need to be de-escalated."

"I’m very thankful to police forces from Green Bay, West Bend and other communities from across Wisconsin and the United States that not only will honor their commitment to provide security during the Democratic National Convention but also respect the moment that our nation is in as we collectively re-examine police-community relations," he said.

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Others are no longer sending officers to help but said the decision was made independently of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and any recent directives.

Eau Claire Police Chief Matt Rokus said he decided against sending the 10 officers the agency had originally planned to send to assist with the convention in February.

"The commitment to send 10 officers was made by our previous chief, prior to my appointment," Rokus said.

He added that Eau Claire previously had three large local music festivals and another large event planned that would have coincided with the original July dates of the DNC in Milwaukee.

"It really had to do with local needs at the time," Rokus said.

New Jersey State Police said Monday that their deployment of about 55 people was canceled. No reason was given. 

Contributing: Alison Dirr