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.

Friday, August 20, 2010

ACLU of WI Will Support State’s Domestic Partner Registry: Same-sex Couples Will Show Registry is Not Marriage

The ACLU of Wisconsin will continue its work to ensure that same-sex couples maintain the basic protections provided in the state’s new domestic partnership registry.

“We expected a challenge to the registry in a lower court,” said Chris Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin’s executive director. “We’re fully prepared to help defend the state’s registry so that same-sex couples in Wisconsin can have access to the basic, although limited, legal rights their families need.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin supported the defense of the state’s domestic partnership registry in 2009 when an earlier challenge was filed by Wisconsin Family Action in the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the complaint in November 2009. This week Wisconsin Family Action filed a new challenge in the Dane County court which could allow both sides to have a trial and present evidence to support their cases.

“While the Wisconsin Family Action and the Alliance Defense Fund will attempt to compare the domestic partnership registry to the legal definition of marriage,” Ahmuty continued, “same-sex couples will seek to demonstrate a factual record of how the protections offered by the registry are quite limited and in no way violate the marriage ban.”

For more of our recent work on LGBT rights, visit the issues section of our website. Read more about the latest challenge to same-sex families in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal. The Journal Sentinel article has a lively comments section, so feel free to weigh in with your support for LGBT equality.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

ACLU of WI Wins Federal Lawsuit Over Grossly Deficient Health Care in WI Women's Prisons

Here is an update on how the ACLU is settling a lawsuit charging inadequate care at the Taycheedah women’s prison. Dramatic improvements in medical and mental health care will ensure female prisoners receive same levels of care as male inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm Jenner and Block have filed papers seeking court approval of an agreement to settle a longstanding class-action lawsuit charging that grossly deficient medical and mental health care jeopardized the lives of female prisoners at the state’s largest women’s prison.

As part of the agreement, filed on August 20th in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, state officials have agreed to implement a number of significant structural improvements aimed at ensuring that constitutionally adequate levels of care are provided to all prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), and that female prisoners receive the same levels of mental health care as the state’s male prisoners.

“Today’s settlement is a real victory for all female prisoners at TCI who will no longer have to suffer needlessly in a system that fails to comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution,” said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “This settlement will lead to dramatic improvements in the quality of health care prisoners will receive.”

Under terms of the settlement agreement, state correctional officials must hire a full-time medical director who will oversee all health care at TCI, be on-site five-days-a-week and be devoted to administration and patient care. State officials will also be required to hire a consultant charged with regularly monitoring the medical care being provided to prisoners, provide recommendations about how to improve care and analyze TCI’s compliance with agreed-upon health care performance standards.

State officials must also complete construction by June 2012 of an off-site women’s resource center that will accept prisoners from TCI who need inpatient-level psychiatric services. Construction of planned annexes at TCI which will provide space for out-of-cell therapeutic activities and group and individual therapy for prisoners with serious mental illnesses must also be completed by June 2012.

Additionally, state officials must make a number of improvements to ensure the safety and access to core programs and services of prisoners with disabilities, including providing prisoners with hearing impairments access to sign language interpreters, reading assistance and Braille materials for prisoners with vision impairments and increased maintenance of paths, walkways and thoroughfares between buildings.

“The health care system at TCI has been in crisis for years and today’s settlement agreement is a monumental step toward achieving much-needed improvements and accountability,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “The measures that will be put in place will have a positive impact not only on the prisoners at TCI but on the communities to which prisoners will return upon release.”

The first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit was filed in 2006 by the ACLU on behalf of women prisoners at TCI. The lawsuit charged that the state prison system put the lives of women prisoners at risk through grossly deficient health care, provided far inferior mental health treatment as compared to men and failed to provide reasonable accommodations to allow prisoners with disabilities to access basic prison services.

The lawsuit sought reforms to the system so that constitutionally adequate care be made available. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa entered a preliminary injunction ordering that significant changes be made immediately to TCI's dangerous system of administering medications to prisoners.

The ACLU's lawsuit charged that the prison's health system violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and that the mental health care system violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, because the women received mental health care far inferior to what male prisoners receive.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online.

We've blogged before about our progress in the case. As the lawsuit is being settled, the story is getting media attention from Wisconsin Public Radio (RealPlayer audio), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, UPI and News Talk The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article has a lively comments section, so please post your comments in support of the continued work of the ACLU of Wisconsin to secure humane conditions in our state prison system.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ACLU of WI Files Complaint Over Shorewood Hills Planning and Housing Decisions

Whenever there are concerns about building affordable housing, our ears prick up mostly because of fights like what happened in South Milwaukee with the Lake Point Apartments.

We’ve been observing the housing issue around Shorewood Hills and the proposal to replace the nearly vacant Pyare Square building. Some residents of the affluent village near Lake Mendota and the University of Wisconsin Madison campus complained about a proposed apartment complex that would house limited-income families. Finally the whole project was scrapped ostensibly due to the height of the building design. However a new apartment complex proposal has recently been suggested by the Stone House Development company under the same affordable housing financing program with fewer neighborhood objections. But questions remain about the fairness of the planning process in the village.

Today, on behalf of a Shorewood Hills resident named Bill Thomas, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation requested a federal investigation of the Village's rejection of accepting affordable family housing developments. In the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Mr. Thomas objects to the discriminatory effect of the Village's February 2010 rejection of affordable housing.

Mr. Thomas is a longtime resident of Shorewood Hills, a former member of its Plan Commission, and an outspoken advocate for housing diversity in the Village. He as long objected to Shorewood Hills’ de facto policy of excluding affordable housing - and the people who qualify for it, who are disproportionately persons of color - from the community.

“A developer wanted to build affordable housing in a perfect spot in Shorewood Hills,” noted Mr. Thomas. “He wanted to tear down Pyare Square - an obsolete, almost vacant office building, for which no one could think of a viable non-residential use, and replace it with affordable apartments and some green space. That proposal gave our Village a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break with the deplorable exclusionary policies of its past, and to comply with Wisconsin’s Smart Growth mandates to ‘meet the housing needs of persons of all income levels,’ and ‘promote the availability of land for the development and redevelopment low-income and moderate income housing’ without any serious strain or pain. Although the Plan Commission had recommended the needed rezoning, the Board of Trustees denied it.”

Mr. Thomas’ attorney, the ACLU’s Karyn Rotker, noted that the Fair Housing Act prohibits actions that have a discriminatory effect, as well as intentionally discriminatory behavior.

“Refusing to allow a developer to build housing that persons of color are proportionally more likely to need and use, especially in a less-diverse community like Shorewood Hills, can be unlawful," said Rotker. "That’s especially true when the rejection of such housing is accompanied by the kinds of sudden changes in rules and priorities, and the negative statements about people who live in affordable housing, that occurred here.”

“I fear that the Board of Trustees of Shorewood Hills, as a body, does not feel morally or legally obligated to even allow, much less encourage, affordable housing in the Village," said Thomas. "Unless it is persuaded otherwise, it will exercise the discretion it has reserved for itself to keep affordable housing out of Shorewood Hills indefinitely. I am hopeful that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will succeed in persuading it otherwise,” Mr. Thomas added.

The complaint got some media attention in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Energy Facilities in Milwaukee Need to Consider Minority, Low-Income Community Impact in Planning Decisions

Urban planning decisions can be a complicated mix of government, business and community members trying to find a balance of their unique interests. But what happens when government makes planning decisions systemically have a negative impact on low-income and minority communities? When some neighborhoods need a voice on environmental concerns, the ACLU of Wisconsin steps up to fight for their needs.

On Monday, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation's legal department joined the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin (BHCW) and the Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) to request that the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) address the disproportionate adverse impacts of electric generating facilities on minority and low-income communities in Milwaukee (PDF). The organizations seek to ensure that the PSC address these environmental justice issues in deciding whether to retire, "mothball," or upgrade existing electric generating units.

“Environmental justice issues are raised most clearly by WE Energies’ Valley generating plant on Canal Street, in the City of Milwaukee," said Dennis Grzezinski, MEA Senior Counsel. "This plant is the utility’s oldest power plant and lacks modern air emission controls. It is located in the heart of the State’s largest majority-minority city, between the state’s largest concentration of African-American residents to the north and its largest concentration of Hispanic and Asian residents to the south. While many other old coal-fired power plants in the state are shutting down or being upgraded, the Valley plant has avoided installation of pollution controls.”

In contrast to the negative effects created by the Valley plant, WE Energies’ coal-fired generating plant in Port Washington, a community with very few non-white residents, was razed and replaced with a cleaner, natural gas fueled plant. In Oak Creek, another overwhelmingly white community, four old coal generating units were retired, construction of the second of two new units with pollution controls is nearing completion, and four other old coal generating units are continuing in operation with installation of improved air emission controls.

“The different treatment given the Valley plant raises questions of compliance with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and of federal environmental justice requirements," said Karyn Rotker, ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Senior Staff Attorney. "We urge the PSC to address them.”

Dr. Patricia McManus, President and CEO of BHCW, pointed out the big picture of both environmental and public health concerns: “The adverse health impacts of air pollution, of which power plants are a major source, are well-recognized. Meanwhile, asthma, caused and exacerbated by air pollution, affects nearly 100,000 Wisconsin children under age 18; is far more common in southeastern Wisconsin; and is far more prevalent among blacks than whites. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that Milwaukee has been designated by the EPA as out of compliance with air quality standards.”

The complete comments can be found on the ACLU of Wisconsin website. Comments include an analysis of federal civil rights law, details on the energy facilities in Milwaukee, how environmental justice principles apply and media reports on the issue. The coal plant story has also gotten some media coverage from the Milwaukee Shepherd Express.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Milwaukee Ald. Donovan’s Ill-Conceived Surveillance Scheme Amateurish

According to media reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and his own press release, Milwaukee Alderman Robert Donovan has procured a recycled armored truck equipped with surveillance cameras for his crime fighting group “Operation Impact.” The Milwaukee Police Department will accept the vehicle, although they did not ask for it, according to a MPD spokesperson. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is concerned that the Alderman appears to be offering his constituents publicity rather than the professional policing they deserve.

“South side residents face crime, poverty, and family hardships just like other city residents," said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty. "However, these conditions are no excuse for the second-rate police service the alderman is offering. The alderman’s scheme will tend to divert police resources. It will also tip off criminals who will see the armored truck parked on their block, thereby giving them a chance to move their operations.

“The Milwaukee Police Department trains its officers in proper and legal surveillance and search procedures. The alderman should leave policing decisions to police commanders. Residents don’t need amateurs to protect them. The alderman shows a disturbing willingness to put his schemes ahead of the reputation of innocent residents and professional police.”

The ACLU was quoted on this issue in the Bay View Compass, on, NBC's TMJ4 , and there was a story including an ACLU quote and a video on the surveillance truck on Fox 6 in Milwaukee.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Join the ACLU of Wisconsin’s E-Action Alert Network Today!

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Thank you again for your support. Join us on line today. We look forward to keeping in touch with you.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Voting Rights: Unfinished Business on the Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

Today is the 45th anniversary of the passage of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. Until the height of the civil rights movement, state voting laws allowed discriminatory practices like poll taxes, “literacy” tests and grandfather clauses. Additionally Jim Crow segregation and even intimidation and violence led to the systemic disenfranchisement of African American voters.

The National Voting Rights Act helped to return voting rights to how the 15th Amendment of the Constitution read: “the right of U.S. citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race or color.” By trumping the state laws that had a grossly discriminatory effect of African American voter disfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act was a major step forward for the civil rights movement and taught our country that barriers to voting are unconstitutional.

But as we look back at the history of this landmark legislation, we must remember that there is unfinished business in the area of voting rights. One holdover from the days of Jim Crow laws is the idea that citizens who commit felonies should be denied their right to vote. The American public is still split on this issue and some still support the idea of taking away voting rights as a form of "civil death" as a fair part of punishment.

However it must be said that America is doing an excellent job of putting people behind bars since we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. And Wisconsin is among our country’s leaders for disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. Punitive trends started with Reagan’s War on Drugs, led to “truth in sentencing” and today politicians emphasize incarceration and harsh sentences for even non-violent drug offenses. Add in racial profiling and a systemic imbalance on how sentences are meted out in court rooms across the country and the truth is simple: we are locking up more people of color than ever before.

In Wisconsin, our state law says that people with felony convictions cannot vote until they have served time behind bars as well as completed probation and parole. Our state’s disproportionate minority incarceration means that minority voters on probation and parole in our communities are working and paying taxes but remain locked out of the voting booth.

The ACLU of Wisconsin and the Restore the Vote coalition worked hard this year to convince our state legislators that the time is now to change our state law to allow voting access for every citizen who is not incarcerated. Meanwhile state laws and court decisions across the country are moving toward making ex-felon disfranchisement a thing of the past. Wisconsin shouldn’t wait for the courts or Congress to restore the vote to those who are no longer incarcerated.

For more on this topic, check out Linda Greenhouse’s opinion piece in the New York Times from last week where she describes who goes to prison, why the racial imbalance of those who are incarcerated combined with felon disfranchisement has a discriminatory result, and how this issue has the attention of the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration. Greenhouse is a Yale Law professor, an expert on SCOTUS and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

For news from around the country on the work of the ACLU to secure voting rights for those who are no longer incarcerated, visit our national website.