MILWAUKEE (CN) — A recently enacted city policy expediting the release of body camera footage from officer-involved critical incidents was temporarily put on hold by a Milwaukee judge on Friday.
On April 20, Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission – a civilian police oversight board whose members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Milwaukee Common Council – enacted a new standard operating procedure holding that, among other things, body camera footage from officer-involved deaths or other critical incidents must be publicly released within 15 days of the incident, and victims' next of kin must be allowed to review the footage within 48 hours, with some exceptions.
The same day, the union representing around 1,400 sworn Milwaukee Police Department officers sued the city in Milwaukee County Circuit Court to enjoin the policy, arguing city officials failed to negotiate as required by the union’s collective bargaining agreement, instead blindsiding its members with a policy containing much tighter time constraints than a different version of the policy previously discussed.
The union wants a permanent injunction against the policy to preserve the status quo, honor union members’ due process rights and shield officers under formal investigation for critical incidents from having their reputations damaged in the court of public opinion before those investigations bring all the facts to light.
An injunction hearing was originally scheduled for June 28 before Judge Frederick Rosa, but on May 8 the Milwaukee Police Association’s lawyer wrote a letter informing Rosa that pressing circumstances—specifically, two non-fatal critical incidents involving Milwaukee cops that took place days prior—necessitated a hearing for an emergency temporary restraining order.
In court on Friday, Brendan Matthews, the union's lawyer, reiterated that the rights of rank-and-file officers could be violated by the policy, including under the Wisconsin Constitution’s Marsy’s Law provision enhancing rights for victims of crimes, which he said can include police who have shot people.
Matthews cautioned that “video alone without explanation is dangerous,” as body camera footage removed from context doesn’t actually portray what an officer is seeing or perceiving. “Really bad things can happen” when false or incomplete narratives circulate before all the facts are known about a police shooting, he said.
Because the new policy affects conditions of employment for officers, whether the rule is coming from Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman or the FPC, the union needs to be given a full opportunity at the bargaining table regarding such a “monumental landscape change," Matthews said.
Assistant City Attorney James Lewis argued that, for one thing, the union needs to file a grievance over the policy with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission before filing a lawsuit. In any case, there are protections in the policy directly dealing with the union’s concerns about officer safety and privacy, such as giving the police chief the option to withhold release of video or redact video presenting a particularized threat to individuals involved, officers included.
Lewis argued in the city’s briefs and before Rosa that the union members' beef is really that they disagree with the policy, so they’re couching that dissatisfaction in a lawsuit about bargaining procedures.
The city’s attorney refuted the union’s claims that the FPC pulled a fast one by changing an earlier version of the policy – one which, for example, gave the MPD more than 15 days to release body camera footage of police shootings – by noting that there were nine public hearings on the matter. Lewis also disputed that the policy affects officers’ conditions of employment and said the city as a municipality, therefore, does not have to bargain over the policy on the union’s terms.
Rosa acknowledged that the policy is of great public concern and noted that “it’s not my job to rewrite [it],” his only charge being to determine if enactment of the policy violated the union’s collective bargaining rights.
The judge paid lip service to the FPC’s delegation of authority to enact these kinds of rules, but he said it was also clear that union members’ collective bargaining agreement may be impacted by the policy and that there are concerns about whether proper procedures were followed.
In the end, Rosa granted the union its injunction, which blocks enforcement of the policy at least until the case’s next hearing in late June, when the issues at play will be more fully fleshed out.
Lewis and Matthews could not be immediately reached for comment at the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office or the Milwaukee office of Cermele & Matthews, the latter’s firm specializing in representing law enforcement.Follow @@cnsjkelly
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