Friday, August 27, 2010

UW Milwaukee Police Conduct Report Leaves Unanswered Questions, Says ACLU of WI

On March 4th, students at the UW-Milwaukee campus gathered to rally over the increase of tuition rates. When they took their message to the University's administration building, police and protesters had a confrontation and students were arrested and ticketed.

We blogged about the incident this spring and we said that an investigation was needed to review the use of force by campus police against protesters. However, the partial release of a report on police conduct by law enforcement experts and the Vice Chancellor leaves questions unanswered.

“The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is concerned that the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee may be missing an opportunity to improve the UWM Police Department’s response to free speech activities, including demonstrations, on campus," said Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. "The two-page executive summary of an independent review panel’s report has indicated several deficiencies in terms of planning, training, equipment and tactics. Vice Chancellor Christy L. Brown’s memorandum responding to the report focuses on the prevention of “civil unrest” and absolves, and even praises, the police for their conduct, while endorsing the recommendations in the review panel."

Ahmuty went on to explain that Vice Chancellor Brown’s response to the review panel’s report is inconsistent with the report’s executive summary. What is even more troubling is that both documents fail to suggest ways to facilitate peaceful protest. The apparent mindset of the panel and Vice Chancellor is all about control and the exercise of police authority. The ACLU had hoped that this report would recognize that the vast majority of demonstrators were peacefully exercising their rights to free speech. Because of the deficiencies indicated in the report and poor decisions by UWMPD officers and their superiors during the demonstration the UWMPD did not handle the situation as well as it might have.

“We recognize that officers have a great deal of responsibility and work in often difficult circumstances," said Ahmuty. "Difficult circumstances do not diminish their responsibility to use constitutional methods. Therefore, the ACLU of Wisconsin is seeking additional information on some of the review panel’s recommendations. For instance, we are disappointed that there is a recommendation that officers receive formal training in crowd control tactics and operations, without explicitly including training on the rights of demonstrators in groups."

Hopefully this report will not be shelved as an end of dialogue on campus over how police respond to demonstrations. Constitutionally protected activity needs a trained and measured law enforcement response that protects rather than chills free speech.

This issue has had some coverage in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.