Felons standing guard; Milwaukee security ordinance challenged in court

Hundreds of small business owners in Milwaukee say they have private security to keep you safe, but many of those workers are unlicensed and untrained. Some are violent, convicted felons.

In August 2023, a man just paroled for a 1989 murder was standing guard at a gas station in the city's Garden Homes neighborhood when he shot and killed a shoplifter over a box of snack cakes. The public outcry prompted a new city ordinance.

It requires private security workers to get a city license, which includes a criminal background check. Now, some powerful forces in the Milwaukee business community are fighting to kill it.

"She’s got two uniformed security guards there," attorney Vincent Bobot assured elected officials at a hearing in October 2022. He was speaking on behalf of La China Night Club, which was up for renewal of its Class B liquor license. 

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A similar scenario is repeated dozens of times every year, as nightclubs, restaurants, gas stations, hotels and more apply for a business license – or testify in hopes of renewing one – before the city's powerful Licenses Committee. 

"There is a guard in a vehicle with lights," said Erica Vaillancourt of Interstate Parking in June 2023.

"We do plan on changing some of the staff, some of the security," said Robert Dice, agent for Dukes on Water at the same meeting.

"They have bouncers Friday, Saturday and Sunday," said Daniela Leon, an interpreter representing La Caleta Restaurant.

"Currently, we have private security guards," said Adam Shafran of Chuck E Cheese.

"There is security normally at the store," assures Jeffrey Guerarad, attorney for Hot Spot supermarket.

"We have security," said Ajit Walia, Pantry 41 gas station.

"We would like to have security," remarks Yasir Saleem, Super 8 motel.

Samantha Baker, Citgo on Villard: "The applicant is seeking security."

Zak Wroblewski, Denny's: "They hired a new security company."

Justin Jackson, New Entertainers: "Bare minimum, 3 to 4 security guards."

Aaron Ohlsson, The Miramar Theatre: "Almost doubled our security force."

Patrice Dickerson, Lounge 340: "We definitely need the added security."

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Over the past two years, FOX6 Investigators identified nearly 100 licensed establishments that have informed the licenses committee they already employ – or plan to add – private security. That includes bouncers, ID checkers and gas station attendants. The trouble is, nobody ever follows up to find out who they're actually hiring.

"How are all these stores having people that are just regular people off the street pretend to be security?" asked Natalie Easter Allen, mother of Isaiah Allen. 

Isaiah Allen

More on him in a moment.

In a license renewal hearing in May 2023, the owner of Teutonia Food and Gas testified that he had hired a new, full-time security guard to watch over the store.

"I have a local guy from the neighborhood," Gurinder Nagra told council members. 

Nagra said the guard would be unarmed. 

"Better to have a security guard without arms there to try to defuse situations properly than a security guard with a gun," Nagra said.

On August 23, 2023, police said William Pinkin appeared to be working as store security. He was seated in the back of the store and quickly reacted when he saw Allen grab a box of snack cakes and attempt to leave. Pinkin had just been released from prison five months earlier for a 1989 murder. He wasn't allowed to have a gun, but he did. Police say he followed Allen out of the store, got within arm's length, then shot him in the back of the head. 

William Pinkin

"You can’t have convicted murderers or a murderer period, um, doing security," said Charisha Allen, the victim's aunt. 

Prosecutors charged Pinkin with homicide. The city revoked the gas station's license. 

Allen's aunt Charisha, and his mother Natalie, embarked on a mission to change the way Milwaukee regulates security guards.

"Because we had to lose something so dear," Charisha Allen said, "we’re very passionate about this."

"This is gonna help everybody," Natalie Allen said.

"Out of this tragedy, this legislation was born," said Andrea Pratt, Milwaukee alderwoman.

In March, Pratt drafted a new ordinance that requires "security personnel" to be licensed by the city and to undergo a criminal background check. The Common Council approved it unanimously two weeks later on March 19.

Milwaukee City Hall

Two weeks after that, four nightclubs and a towing company filed a lawsuit seeking to have the new ordinance declared unconstitutional.

"It’s a bad law," said Emil Ovbiagele, attorney for the businesses and founder of OVB Law & Consulting. "The amount of red tape in the City of Milwaukee that businesses have to jump through, the hoops they have to jump through, it’s quite ridiculous."

Ovbiagele said the law discriminates against convicted felons by threatening to keep them from engaging in their chosen field of employment.

"You have a law that discounts at least one out of every four black and brown persons in the city of Milwaukee," Ovbiagele said.

Emil Ovbiagele

"That is absolute nonsense," said Charisha Allen upon learning of the lawsuit.

The lead plaintiff in the case is 34-year-old Brandon Miller, a bouncer at Revel Bar in Bay View. He has 15 years of experience as a bouncer. He also has a felony record.

In 2017, prosecutors charged Miller with forcing his girlfriend's head underwater until she "couldn't breathe," then punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. A criminal complaint said the violent outburst started when MIller became angry because dinner wasn't ready when he arrived home from work. Miller was convicted of domestic violence causing substantial bodily harm.

"He already has a high disposition of violence," Natalie Allen said of Miller.

"Should somebody like that be working security?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn.

"No!" Allen shot back.

"You’re using an alleged crime," Ovbiagele said to Polcyn.

"No, a conviction," Polcyn corrected.

"You’re using an alleged crime," Ovbiagele repeated.

"A conviction," Polcyn said again.

"A conviction," the attorney agreed.

"That’s very different from an allegation," Polcyn explained.

Emil Ovbiagele

Earlier this month (May 2024), Miller was convicted of a second felony. This time, prosecutors say he used a false identity to steal a $50,000 Dodge Ram from a dealership. Miller said he eventually intended to pay for the car. Either way, he was convicted of the crime – a fake ID from a man whose job is to check for fake IDs. 

"Why would you want that person in your establishment?" Natalie Allen said.

Miller is currently serving a 90-day sentence with work release. 

In a phone call with the FOX6 Investigators, Miller said guys like him make the best security guards, as opposed to some licensed guards who are "so little and so timid and can't do the job correctly." He added that, in his estimation, "80% of everyone that is working right now doing security [in Milwaukee] are felons."

Without them, Miller predicts, a lot of clubs will be forced to close.

"You keep making this about Brandon Miller," Ovbiagele said.

"Because he’s your plaintiff," Polcyn replied.

The bigger problem, the lawyer said, is burdensome regulation. On that point, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce agrees. In a written statement, MMAC's vice president Andrew Davis writes that the new security ordinance "makes Milwaukee the most difficult city in Wisconsin for employers to hire security staff."

"Although the ordinance is well-intentioned, it's in violation of state law and will result in unintended consequences," Davis said. "It makes Milwaukee the most difficult city in Wisconsin for employers to hire security staff at a time when they’re looking to bolster safety for their guests and employees."

The president of MMAC is former Wisconsin State Representative Dale Kooyenga. In 2015, then-representative Kooyenga teamed up with Senator Van Wanggaard on a new law that blocks local governments in Wisconsin from creating any new professional licenses. The law was specifically aimed at the city of Milwaukee.

"Based on the law you passed in 2015, you believe this ordinance is illegal?" Polcyn asked.

"Yes," Sen. Wanggaard replied. 

The Racine County Republican said the state Department of Safety and Professional Services already regulates security guards.

"If it’s already licensed under state statute, they can’t just create their own license," Wanggaard said.

State law does provide for licensing of private detective agencies and permits for private security workers. However, it carves out an exception for individuals who are directly employed by the business for which they are doing security detail. City leaders say that leaves a "regulatory gap" for bar bouncers, gas station attendants and others who are often in plain clothes and don't work for a security company.

Even for those who do have a state security permit, a FOX6 Investigation found the state has just nine consumer protection investigators to police dozens of professions, including private security, which has more than 7,000 licensees alone.

Attorney William Sulton said the state isn't doing its job. He represents the Allen family.

"The state is failing to provide checks for who is being hired to perform private security," Sulton said.

"You’re saying, the state law’s not working," Polcyn said.

"It's not working," said Charisha Allen.

"It’s not working," Natalie Allen agreed.

If it was, the elder Allen explains, her son would still be alive.

"He wouldn’t have got shot by a convicted murderer, having a gun, pretending to be security," Allen said.

"I think there is a way to get this right," Ovbiagele said. 

If there's a gap in the system, he said, the solution is in Madison (the State Capital), not Milwaukee.

Wisconsin State Capitol

"If this is a problem, well, then that’s something we need to look at," Sen. Wanggaard said.

But Charisha and Natalie Allen say promises are not enough. They want action.

"This is going to help another mother, so she doesn’t have to bury her child." Allen said. 

On May 13, the plaintiffs asked a judge to put the city's new private security licensing ordinance on hold while their lawsuit progresses. However, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Brittany Grayson declined to issue a temporary injunction. That means the ordinance remains in effect, at least for now. The parties are due back in court on Aug. 1.

In the meantime, the City of Milwaukee website does contain a link to an application for the new "private security personnel license." It's now $35 instead of the original $100. So far, however, the city website does not list the names of any who has actually obtained a private security license.