MILWAUKEE — Even with his title as Acting Chief, Michael Brunson is taking the role seriously to try and make change within the department he’s been with since 1995.
“The bottom line is this, right now I lead this police agency,” Brunson said. “Until I don’t lead it, then I’m going to work as fervently as possible to work with all of those entities in our city that are trying to make improvements.”
Brunson wouldn’t comment on his future with the department but he did not take today’s meeting lightly. The meeting was held by the League of Martin and the National Black Police Association in an effort to increase communication. For these law enforcement officers, they deal with a personal dichotomy as an African American and as a law enforcement official.
“Being an African-American male in the city, I’ve been stopped several times,” Troy Johnson, President of the League of Martin said. “When I leave the city, I’ve been stopped. I have a front row seat of being discriminated against. This is why I fight so hard to prevent it from happening in the community and to those on the police department.”
There were a couple dozen activists at the late afternoon meeting. It may have appeared to only be a few people, but they were some of the most well-known activists in the city. Names like Vaun Mayes, Tory Lowe, Tracey Dent, Khalil Coleman and others. The conversation was passionate and emotional.
“How can you deal with my trauma and you can’t even deal with your own trauma?” ReBecca Burrell, an activist said. "Massa is the system now. It's a psychological thing."
For about two hours, there were very frank discussions between the two sides with Acting Chief Brunson responding to most of the questions. There were some constructive comments and some calls for change but overall, the activists shared a vision of collaboration.
"If we show up to a scene, we're trying to deescalate.” Mayes said. “We're trying to help the situation; we shouldn't be met with resistance.”
"The police department has to be more transparent because we're putting our trust on the line to deal with y’all,” Lowe said. “It's not a trusted idea.”
"If you go against the training, you're violating policies and procedures of the police department and you should be held accountable by state law,” Coleman said. "I think one of the things clear across the country is the police have a judge, jury and execution mentality."
The meeting wasn't just about airing grievances with police. The activists are also looking for solutions and the overall message was one of unifying to help each other out. However, it's going to take more than just agreeing to partner up.
"Law enforcement can't continue to ask and demand respect from the community as an automatic thing," Mayes said. "The relationship with these communities and law enforcement has never been good."
"We need to realize we're traumatized and this system is broken. Period," Burrell said. "It's not going to work out. Transformation, not reformation. Reimagine."
This meeting was believed to be a first of its kind. The National Black Police Association and the League of Martin hosted the event. The law enforcement officers who spoke shared their duality being Black and police.
"Everyone's voice is important in this community and everyone's voice needs to be heard" Troy Johnson, President of the League of Martin said. "I have a front row seat of being discriminated against. This is why I fight so hard to prevent it from happening in the community and to those on the police department."
Several retired Milwaukee Police Officers say they were not immune to racist experiences; both in uniform and out.
"One white officer eases up behind me and puts a knife to my neck," Rickey Burems, a retired Milwaukee Police Detective said. "Like a joke. That wasn't funny but there is a racial dynamic on the police department that needs to be dealt with."
Burems says he does believe most officers are good but they succumb to the pressures of the job and it results in poor treatment of people of color.
"Along the way, they're indoctrinated into that culture that some how, to be a better officer, they become worse people," Burems said. "That needs to change."
Change isn't exclusive to white officers either. Former Assistant Chief Ray Banks put his hand up to admit, he felt he was part of the problem resulting in how things are in the department today.
"I think about the time I walked in on criminal misconduct happening when I was brand new and stopped it," Banks said. "What tends to happen, if you speak up and out about that stuff, it doesn't happen in front of you again. I was content with that. Now that I listen to all of you, I was part of the problem back then but I just didn't know. Just stepping up and saying something and stopping it at the moment didn't stop future violations to other people. That stuff should have been documented. I should have put it on paper. Even if they were not fired, there is a paper trail to allow us to continue and discipline them when it does come to the forefront. We're moving in the right direction."
Coleman says, there is still a lot more that needs to be done but hearing the honesty from these officers was a step towards progress.
"To hear those officers stand up and say I recall this time as a police officer, I should have did more," Coleman said. "To hear them say that, that's on our side. That's a win for us. But why wait until you're retired? I know there are some good relationships with some good people in law enforcement but it makes you question the whole system when you know there are good people in law enforcement but fail to act in moments that it's necessary."
Coleman, with his connection to The People's Revolution, laid out a number of demands for reform. He believes officers should be under contract with the City of Milwaukee and should be required to maintain their own insurance to avoid any more financial burden due to lawsuits against the city. He also says they want officers who violate crimes or break policies and procedures while they're carrying out official duties should face criminal punishment. He also wants the Milwaukee Police to reinstate the residency rule so officers have a connection to the community they're policing. He wants continuing education for officers including ethnic studies to better understand all citizens they protect. For more information on the demands from The People's Revoultion Facebook page.
For his part, Acting Chief Brunson acknowledged, witnessing police brutality within the department. He says, he saw it first hand when he was first coming up in 1995.
"There was a culture in policing during that period of time in the late 90s, mid 90s, that frankly, at times disturbed me,” Brunson said. “It disturbed me. Some of the things I saw during that period of time.”
Brunson says there is a problem with policing but it's progressing. He says it's much different now than it was in 1995. He pointed to body cameras as a big change towards showing transparency. There was some disagreement between Brunson and the activists about the speed at which video is released from the police department during times of unrest. However, Brunson did not shy away from the constructive criticism of a field he says needs to change.
"Anybody who is a police professional or police officer who can not admit that policing in our country was a perpetrator of racial injustice and defender of that is not being honest, frankly," Brunson said.
But the Acting Chief also reminded the activists, change is happening right now and has been for a long time.
"There has been change and there's continual change and more change is coming real soon," Brunson said. "That's the point I want everyone to understand. Change is coming. The change is in motion and the change has happened. I know it's frustrating because it doesn't feel fast enough but it's definitely happening in our city and our country."
This upcoming Thursday, Brunson says two new protocols will be put in place for the department's Standard Operating Procedure; they will require officers to file a report any time they pull their gun or point it at someone and, they are explicitly banning chokeholds. Brunson says chokeholds have never been taught to Milwaukee Police Officers but they are going the extra step to make sure it is known they will not tolerate chokeholds.
Even former police officers backing up the protesters calls for change, like former Assistant Chief Banks.
"You got some warriors in this room that's been in this fight since the 80s and we're going to be in,” Banks said. “Be it on the sideline or in uniform but we're in it with you.”
Being in it together is what activists are hoping for. Vaun Mayes recalled an incident near 40th & Lloyd earlier in the summer where a group of protesters mistakenly identified a home as a place where two young girls were being trafficked. The house was set ablaze and it was later found out, the group had incorrect information.
Mayes says he was trying to be a peacekeeper and try and prevent the group from becoming unruly. He says, the police understanding his role as a community activist could have helped in that situation.
"My actions out there, not just keeping the community safe but it's keeping you safe too," Mayes said. "You go home without someone being shot or seriously injured. When you got hit with rocks and bottles, I got hit with them too, but I also got arrested. It puts my life and my credibility into question. The same way we recognize y'all from our interactions, you should be able to recognize us and say, before this escalates, we want to give you guys the platform and opportunity to deescalate and help quell the situation before it goes somewhere else."
"This is a great step, if we can implement ideas that are very transparent," Lowe said. "So the brothers out here and sisters out here already doing the things can get the assistance we need."
It’s something Brunson walked away feeling good about and is a step towards creating a more equitable community.
"I am for any entity that is for the same thing I'm for,” Brunson said. “That's for the safety of the community. I know, you all have been working many years in the community trying to improve things, well guess what? We have the same goals. We need all help we can get in making a difference in the community.”
But the activists say they want to see actions.
"You work for the people," Tiffany Henry, another activist said. "Make sure the people in this community feel safe under your leadership. Make sure they feel safe under your leadership and they feel valued under your leadership. Make sure what we see now is not a continuation of what we'll see for years to come."
The plan right now is to continue holding meetings like this every month.