The City of Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (“FPC”) is given extensive authority under Wisconsin law to review police officer misconduct. Despite being perhaps the most empowered civilian review board in the county, the FPC has never initiated an independent investigation into police officer misconduct, according to FPC Executive Director Michael Tobin.
A case that illustrates the FPC’s failure to hold police officers accountable is the tragic death of Derek Williams in Milwaukee Police Department (“MPD”) custody back in July 2011. Following an internal investigation, the MPD determined the police officers involved in Mr. Williams’ death did nothing wrong, despite several apparent rule violations, most notably the rule requiring MPD officers to immediately provide medical assistance for persons in their custody. Mr. Williams sat in the back of an MPD squad car struggling to breathe during the last minutes of his life while MPD officers ignored his pleas for help. After the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office reviewed the disturbing squad car video of the incident and changed its ruling on Mr. Williams’ death to “homicide,” the MPD re-opened its internal investigation, but still concluded that the MPD officers did nothing wrong.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office then appointed a special prosecutor to conduct an Inquest into the death of Derek Williams. Despite an advisory verdict rendered by the Inquest jury recommending criminal charges against three MPD officers, the special prosecutor announced that he would not bring any charges. Instead of conducting its own investigation into Mr. Williams’s death, the FPC is waiting for the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to decide whether to bring any federal charges against the officers. University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School Professor Michael Scott criticized the FPC’s decision to wait for the federal government to act, stating “I’m not sure why they would do that except for deferring an unpleasant duty.” Read more about the FPC’s failure to hold MPD officers accountable for misconduct in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
The Milwaukee civil rights lawyers of Samster, Konkel & Safran, S.C. represent the three young children of Derek Williams, along with their mother. We are disappointed in the FPC’s performance and failure to conduct an independent investigation. We, along with our clients, will be filing a formal complaint with the FPC and will be formally asking them to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Mr. Williams. We also hope that the DOJ brings charges in the death of Mr. Williams, and decides to conduct a review of the MPD for a pattern and practice of MPD officer misconduct. If the FPC chooses again not to independently investigate the death of Mr. Williams in police custody, we will be sure that that decision very public.