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‘Champions for Change’ honors ACLU of Wisconsin’s Chris Ahmuty

Continue reading ‘Champions for Change’ honors ACLU of Wisconsin’s Chris Ahmuty

State rep forcefully arrested while trying to defuse tensions in Sherman Park  

State Rep. Johnathan Brostoff and a youth organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin were among 11 people arrested Tuesday night at a gathering in Sherman Park near a memorial for shooting victim Sylville Smith.

Smith was shot to death near the site on Aug. 13 during an altercation with an officer after a traffic stop. The incident sparked two nights of violence, during which several businesses in the area were torched.

Brostoff, who represents the 19th Assembly District, said he went to the area after learning that Milwaukee police were arresting people who were congregating. He said that he and the ACLU’s Jarrett English had shown up to help de-escalate tensions and avoid another eruption of violence.

People from faith communities also were there to defuse the situation. It’s unclear whether any of them were arrested.

Police said in a statement that they went to the area because nearby residents had complained about 30 to 40 people who were gathered there. According to police, the crowd refused to disperse.

In addition to the 11 people arrested last night for disorderly conduct, three were arrested Wednesday morning after police say a small group again gathered in the area and refused a resident’s request to leave her property, according to a police report.

According to a statement issued by the ACLU of Wisconsin, English was recording the gathering with his cell phone when a police van pulled up and ordered the people standing on the corner of Sherman and Auer to disperse. No reason was given for the order, the ACLU said.

Numerous officers forcibly arrested English as he was walking away as instructed. Both men were thrown to the ground, handcuffed, searched without consent, and placed in a paddy wagon.

After officials became aware that they had arrested a state legislator, the two were released without charges, the ACLU reported.

“The Milwaukee Police Department has once again demonstrated its preference for occupation, excessive force and belligerence over genuine engagement, civil dialog, and de-escalation,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin,” in a statement. “People have a right to stand on a street corner — to observe and record the police, as Jarrett was doing, or for any other reason. Unfortunately, rather than protecting people and their rights, law enforcement in this community all too often engages in the sort of destructive behavior to which Jarrett and Jonathan were subjected last night.  Although no one deserves to be treated like this, the police made the mistake this time of abusing people who were in a position to insist on their rights.”

Milwaukee police are investigating the detentions of Brostoff and English to make sure proper procedures were followed, Sgt. Timothy Gauerke told AP.

English said he found the situation was confusing, because he didn’t know the reason for his arrest.

“It was embarrassing and dehumanizing, and I did not feel that I was being treated with the dignity and respect that should be afforded any individual,” he said in a statement.  “But I was mostly thinking about all of the young people this happens to every day who don’t have anyone to call to get free.  We cannot continue doing this to our people.  It has to stop.”

ACLU calls for transparency in investigation of Milwaukee shooting

In response the Wisconsin Department of Justice declaring it will not release video footage of the officer-involved fatal shooting in Milwaukee, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin again called for transparency in the investigation of the underlying incident.  ACLU executive director Chris Ahmuty wrote the following letter to Attorney General Brad Schimel:

Dear Attorney General Schimel,

It is time for you and your agency to give the public more information about your investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Mr. Sylville Smith on August 13, 2016 in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

In an August 14, 2016 news release you stated “The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), at the request of the Milwaukee Police Department, is leading the investigation of yesterday’s officer involved death.  DOJ will work expeditiously to ensure a thorough and transparent gathering of the facts.”  According to an August 16, 2016 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, your spokesperson said, “In recognition of the violence that has affected Milwaukee residents for the last 48 hours, DOJ is working expeditiously, and within the parameters of the law, to provide the community a transparent view of the events that took place on August 13 in a timely manner.  However, we are not prepared to release any of the video evidence at this time.”

To date you have promised transparency, but provided little information on your investigation to the community and Mr. Smith’s grieving family and friends, who seek understanding of the deadly incident that transpired on August 13.

In your news release and your spokesperson’s statement as reported in the media, you don’t even mention Sylville Smith’s name.  It is important for you to recognize that a Milwaukee police officer has killed a specific person, with family, friends and neighbors.

You have said that you will not “release any of the video evidence at this time.” Failure to timely release video of similar incidents has been a source of unrest in Chicago, leading officials there to adopt a policy of prompt release of video.  Note that Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has already expressed conclusions drawn from a video the public has not been allowed to see.

You have remained silent regarding a host of other questions that would help the public ascertain whether your agency is conducting “a thorough and transparent gathering of facts.”  We ask that you please answer the following questions about your investigation:

  1. Are any of the investigators/analysts assigned to this case former Milwaukee Police Department employees?
  2. Has DCI interviewed the officer(s) who encountered Mr. Smith on August 13?  If so, when were the officers interviewed?
  3. Has DCI or MPD interviewed neighbors/witnesses?
  4. Who gets access to Smith’s companion (Is he in custody?  Does he have an attorney?)
  5. Does DCI have the body worn camera(s) (BWC)?  Does it have access to evidence.com?
  6. Did the officer or other witnesses review the BWC or dash cam video before your agents interviewed them?
  7. Was the officer given a blood test?
  8. What was the basis for the stop?  Are there radio communications that would reflect the basis for the stop?
  9. Is there audio from the dash cam or from nearby Shotspotter microphones?
  10. When will the medical examiner issue a report?

Nearly all of these questions are procedural and address aspects of your gathering of facts.  None call for details regarding the evidence, much less conclusions.

Please answer these questions.  If you refuse to answer any of these questions, please let me know your justification for refusing at this time.

Thank you.  I hope to hear from you shortly.

 

Warrant is warranted for cell data

Earlier in January, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed a friend of the court brief with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago arguing that the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement officials to get a warrant before they may obtain information about the location of a suspect’s cellphone from the suspect’s cellphone company.

Cellphone tracking reveals private and increasingly precise information about our locations and movements. Whenever your phone is turned on — even if you enable its location privacy settings — your cellular provider can determine with remarkable accuracy the location of your cellphone.

For many of us who carry our phones throughout the day, that also means that our cellphones can reveal where we are virtually all the time.

And if the government knows where you are, they often know who you are. Your location can reveal what types of political and religious activities you attend, which doctors you visit, who you spend time with, whether you go to bars or Alcoholics Anonymous, and much more.

And what your cellphone company can learn, police can find out too.

In a brief filed in United States v. Patrick, a case arising in Milwaukee, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that any time police seek to use cellphone location data, they should first obtain a warrant from a judge based on probable cause to believe the target is involved in a crime. 

The requirement that police obtain a warrant ensures that judges can prevent the police from undertaking unjustified fishing expeditions that can reveal intimate details about a person’s activities, associations and beliefs.

The brief also explains that it appears that Milwaukee Police used a cell site simulator, also known as a Stingray, to track a defendant’s phone, but has concealed it from the defense and the courts throughout the case.

A previously unpublicized list of 579 investigations in which the MPD used Stingrays appears to include this case. That list was released to a privacy activist in response to a public records request last fall.

Stingrays mimic cellphone tower antennas and force nearby phones to broadcast their unique serial numbers and other information.

The technology raises particularly troublesome concerns under the Fourth Amendment because it not only allows precise tracking of a suspect’s cellphone, but also collects information from bystanders’ phones, blocks those phones from making calls and identifies and locates phones even inside homes and other private spaces.

A probable cause warrant based issued by a fully informed judge should be required before police can use a Stingray.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, private organization whose 7,000 members support its efforts to defend the civil rights and liberties of all Wisconsin residents. For more on the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit the group’s Facebook page or follow the group on Twitter at @ACLUofWisconsin and @ACLUMadison.

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Wisconsin GOP plays potty politics

Two Republican lawmakers, seeking to rollback reforms in 60 Wisconsin school districts, are pushing a bill to ban transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

The measure — a proposed mandate that school districts designate facilities exclusively for one biological sex or the other — is being circulated for co-sponsors by state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

“This bill reinforces the societal norm in our schools that students born biologically male must not be allowed to enter facilities designated for biological females and vice versa,” Kremer wrote in a memo.

Meanwhile, Democrats Sondy Pope, a representative from Cross Plains, and Nikiya Harris Dodd, a senator from Milwaukee, are seeking co-sponsors for a measure that would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to develop a model policy protecting the rights of transgender students. The measure also would require school districts to adopt a policy.

The Democratic lawmakers wrote in a memo, “Recent actions in our state and nationwide indicate that many individuals do not have a clear understanding of the unique issues faced by transgender youth. Adopting a school board-wide policy is necessary to ensure a safe, equal learning environment for transgender students.”

Civil rights groups, education organizations and Democratic lawmakers denounced the bill by Kremer and Nass as mean-spirited, reckless and discriminatory.

“This bill is an unnecessary solution in search of a problem,” said Megin McDonell, the interim executive director of Fair Wisconsin, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “It singles out, isolates and stigmatizes transgender students, who often already face harassment and exclusion at school.”

McDonell said the bill would undermine the advances in many school districts, which “have made allowing students to use facilities and participate in sports and activities consistent with their gender identity.”

State Reps. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, and Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, two of three openly LGBT members of the Assembly, responded in a joint statement. They said the measure proposed by Kremer and Nass reveals a “gross misunderstanding of both biology and gender identity.”

The Democrats also said the measure constituted “the ultimate invasion of privacy. We don’t need big government to check kids’ anatomy before they’re allowed to use the bathroom.”

Dozens of school districts in the state have adopted best practices and modernized nondiscrimination policies, protecting all students.

The Janesville School District, for example, has a policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms assigned to the gender with which they identify, if parents and principals give the OK. Meanwhile, in the Madison School District and at Shorewood High School, policies provide for transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.

None of these districts have reported an incident of a non-transgender student being harassed by the presence of a transgender student, according to GSAFE, a Wisconsin organization that advocates for LGBT students.

“All this bill does is single out transgender and intersex students for increased scrutiny and harassment, directly jeopardizing their safety,” said GSAFE education and policy director Brian Juchems.

Juchems noted that the language in the “bathroom bill” is the same as the language in a draft policy circulated by the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom. 

“Instead of looking outside our state, our Legislature should look at the sample policy drafted by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards,” suggested Juchems. 

In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the state does not ban discrimination based on gender identity.

ACLU to Milwaukee Common Council | Regarding fire and police commission nominees

The following is a letter sent from ACLU of Wisconsin executive director Chris Ahmuty to Terry Witkowski, chairman of the Milwaukee Common Council Public Safety Committee.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin seeks to defend the civil liberties and civil rights of all Wisconsin residents.  Advocating for police accountability has been a priority of our organization for many years.  The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that the City of Milwaukee Board of Fire and Police Commissioners has important duties including oversight of the departments to ensure adherence to the rule of law and the provision of unbiased professional public safety service in every neighborhood. 

Mayor Tom Barrett has nominated Dr. Fred Crouther to the Milwaukee Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.  If confirmed, he would replace Commissioner Paoi Lor bringing the total number of sitting commissioners to seven until July, 2015 when Commissioner Morgan’s term expires.  State law allows the Mayor to appoint an additional two commissioners, which his office has indicated he will do after the hiring of an executive director. 

You and your colleagues on the Public Safety Committee are scheduled to review the Mayor’s nomination tomorrow, March 19, 2015. Regardless of the nominee the ACLU of Wisconsin believes that there are important criteria to guide the confirmation process. 

First, do council members have adequate information about the issues confronting the Board to determine the suitability of any nominee?  Over the last several years critical incidents, including deaths in custody, and policing strategies, including over 200,000 officer initiated stops a year have contributed to tension between some members of the community and the MPD.   Can the FPC Board’s oversight function help enhance police-community relations?  To what extent must the Board be independent from political pressure to enhance police-community relations?  Can board members ask the chiefs tough questions until they get satisfactory answers?  How often does a nominee question authority?

Second, has the confirmation process been open so that the public as well as council members are able to evaluate the suitability of any nominee?  Since the appointment of Commissioner Ann Wilson, the ACLU of Wisconsin among other community groups, has argued that well publicized listening sessions should be held at convenient locations and that the public be allowed to ask the nominee relevant questions.  Have there been adequate opportunities for public input?  If not, will confidence in the nominee suffer?   Hopefully tomorrow’s committee hearing will provide another opportunity.

Third, has the confirmation process been transparent for any nominee?  Has a background check been completed on the nominee?  Has he/she been asked about potential conflicts of interest?  Has the nominee been asked to serve a complete term?  Has he/she agreed to do so?

The ACLU of Wisconsin takes no position on the nomination of Dr. Crouther as a matter of policy.  I appreciate your consideration of some of the criteria suggested above. 

Christopher Ahmuty is the executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Marriage equality advocates to launch petition drive in Wisconsin

Marriage equality advocates in Wisconsin are preparing to launch a petition drive aimed at persuading Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to stop defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

A series of news conferences will take place on Aug. 7 and involve the ACLU, Fair Wisconsin and Freedom to Marry.

Representatives plan to discuss the petition drive, as well as the launch of a new coalition, Wisconsin Unites for Marriage.

Launch locations on Aug. 7 include:

• Madison, 10 a.m., lobby of the city county building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Madison.

• Eau Claire, 10 a.m., Houligan‘s, 415 S. Barstow Street, Eau Claire.

• Milwaukee, 2 p.m., Plymouth Church, 2717 E Hampshire St, Milwaukee.

• LaCrosse, 2 p.m., Location TBA.

• Appleton, 2 p.m., Riverheath, 1155 E Banta Ct, Appleton.

A petition campaign to persuade South Carolina’s attorney general to drop a defense of that state’s anti-gay amendment also is ongoing, created after North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said he would not defend his state’s ban.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said, “Allowing marriage for gay couples who are truly committed to each other is simply treating them with dignity. The state should not be telling these couples they can’t marry and treating some families as though they have second-class status.”

The Wisconsin coalition also is planning events on the eve of the oral argument in the equality case, which is set for Aug. 26 in Chicago. Already gatherings are planned in Milwaukee, Madison and Racine for Aug. 25 and a rally will take place in Chicago.

For more, go to www.aclu-wi.org. The coalition also is working on a website, which will be at www.wisconsinunites.org.

ACLU of Wisconsin seeks more information in officer-involved shooting in Racine

A letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin to Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling seeks more information in the death of a mentally ill man shot and killed by Racine police on July 6.

A letter from Racine County District Attorney W. Richard Chiapete has commended the city of Racine Police Department and thanked the sheriff’s office for the handling of the investigation into the death of 37-year-old Rajko Utvic.

The determination was that Utvic “bears total culpability for this deadly force confrontation.” Chiapete wrote in his finding, “Mr. Utvic left officers with no other alternatives.”

ACLU of Wisconsin executive director Chris Ahmuty said the organization wants to know more. “The ACLU of Wisconsin believes the public deserves to know more before putting all the blame on an individual suffering from mental illness,” Ahmuty said in a news release. “District Attorney Chiapete’s letter to Racine Police Chief Howell does not sufficiently address this incident.”

Ahmuty wants to know whether any of the officers on the scene had undergone crisis intervention training? And asked, why didn’t the officers just step back to deescalate the situation?

In his letter to the sheriff, Ahmuty asked for a copy of the office’s report, which under state law must be released to the district attorney.

The Wisconsin Legislature in April adopted a law requiring that an independent investigator lead an investigation into officer-involved deaths.

The new law follows a number of officer-involved deaths in Wisconsin, including deaths in Kenosha, Madison and Milwaukee, according to the ACLU.

ACLU of Wisconsin urges quick decision on marriage appeal

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin this week urged the governor and the state attorney general to make a quick decision about appealing a federal judge’s ruling striking down the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

The court decision was put on hold in anticipation of the state’s appeal, but so far the state has not yet been filed.

“Our clients and other same-sex couples in Wisconsin are faced with the continuing indignity of seeing their families denigrated by the state’s refusal to allow them to marry or to recognize their marriages entered elsewhere,” wrote John Knight, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project and Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin in a letter to Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. “Even if you believe you will win, please file your appeal promptly to resolve the uncertainty that same-sex couples, their children, as well as employers and other businesses and government offices who interact with same-sex couples are facing until the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s ban on marriage is resolved.”

Because the judge’s order is suspended from taking effect, same-sex couples who wish to marry or who wish to have their out-of-state marriages recognized face continued harm, according to the ACLU.

For example, two of the clients in the case, Kami Young and Karina Willes, had a daughter in March. But because Willes is not the birth mother, she lacks official parental recognition and was not listed on the birth certificate. This places her role as a parent in jeopardy and casts uncertainty over custody of their daughter should anything happen to Young.