Milwaukee FPC votes to demote police chief to captain for role in MPD's protest response

The Milwaukee Police and Fire Commission (FPC) voted to demote Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales to the rank of captain on Thursday, Aug. 6. The commission also voted to appoint Assistant Chief Michael Brunson as acting police chief.

The possibility of disciplining Morales came after he ordered officers to use tear gas to break up protests over George Floyd’s death. It was the last straw for some FPC members who were upset over how Morales has handled incidents since the arrest of Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown in 2018.

The commission's vote on Thursday took just minutes to conclude. Acting Chief Brunson will be given two weeks to choose his command staff.

Statement from Acting Chief Michael Brunson:

"I want to thank Alfonso Morales for his nearly 27 years of service and dedication to the City of Milwaukee. I look forward to continuing to serve the residents of this city and have great respect for all of the men and women of the Milwaukee Police Department."

After the meeting, commissioners had nothing to say about the decision, responding "no comment" to questions about the decision. Meanwhile, protesters outside could be heard inside Milwaukee's City Hall.

Nelson Soler was also appointed as the FPC's 2020-21 chair at Thursday's meeting. Soler, the commission's current vice chair, was unanimously approved in a vote.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said after the decision that he is going to do everything he can to restore transparency in the process and restore respect within the FPC and the Milwaukee Police Department.

"I am not happy with what happened tonight at all," Barrett said. "I am angry at what happened tonight because what the commission did was at the last minute amend the hearing notice and took this action tonight.

"What we need in this city now more than ever, is we need a Fire and Police Commission that is respected, and we need a police department that is respected by our citizens."

FOX6 News reached out to the Milwaukee Police Department and Morales' attorney for comment but did not immediately hear back from MPD.

Statement from Morales' attorney, Frank Gimbel:

"Chief Morales will be consulting with (the) law firm and his family to consider potential prospective action -- in the meantime, he will cooperate with the newly named Acting Chief (Brunson) for the transition to serve the interest of the people of Milwaukee."

Attorney Frank Gimbel, Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales

Morales is Latino and the majority of the commissioners are Black. His relationship with the board has deteriorated since it named him to the post in February 2018.

Gimbel said problems began when officers arrested Brown for parking illegally in January 2018. Officers swarmed the Bucks guard and used a stun gun on him when he didn't remove his hands from his pockets.

The commission's now-former chairman, Steven DeVougas, who is Black, told Morales to fire one of the officers involved but Morales refused, the attorney said.

“From there it got stressful," Gimbel said. “DeVougas viewed him as not being a team player."

In February, the Milwaukee Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, filed an ethics complaint against DeVougas alleging he accompanied a real estate developer during an interview with police who suspected the developer of sexual assault. DeVougas practices real estate law for the developer's business. The police association argued DeVougas' presence during the interview was a misuse of his position as commission chairman. A city ethics board is investigating.

Steven DeVougas

Fast forward to May and June 2020, when Milwaukee police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters demonstrating over Floyd's death. Floyd, who was Black, died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly eight minutes.

The decision to use tear gas and pepper spray drew criticism from Barrett. The commission in July banned the police department from using tear gas, prompting a number of departments from across the state slated to help with convention security to rescind their support during the DNC.

The commission on July 20 ordered Morales to produce reams of records related to multiple incidents, including the decision to tear gas and pepper spray protesters, Brown's arrest and the June arrest of a local activist on suspicion of burglary. The panel also demanded Morales draft community policing standards, develop a discipline matrix to clarify how officers are disciplined and draft a policy requiring officers to wear face masks during the pandemic.

“We are in the midst of an urgent overdue reckoning on race and policing in this country," the commission said in a statement on Monday, Aug. 3. "Only with transparency, accountability and truth will we move on as a society. This discussion may make some uncomfortable, and may bluntly scare others.”

None of the commissioners, including DeVougas, returned messages Thursday.

Law enforcement respond to protests near 6th and Fond du Lac in Milwaukee on June 2, 2020.

The commission gave Morales a week to respond to some of the requests and threatened to discipline or fire him if he didn't comply. Gimbel has said those expectations are ridiculous; he noted the commission gave Morales' predecessor, Ed Flynn, 50 days to respond to a similar request for information on the department's pursuit policy.

The police department Wednesday, Aug. 5 blasted the orders as vague, invalid and possibly illegal. The department noted the orders weren't approved during an open meeting and the requests seek information from still-open criminal and internal investigations.

"I think the public needs to see and hear that for themselves because we're hearing one narrative," said Morales. "With that narrative, it can create a perception that is not reality."

The orders also could violate a 2018 settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over stop-and-frisk policies because the department would have to release confidential information it has been sharing with a consultant group monitoring compliance with the settlement, the department said.

"The directives have distracted not only myself as chief of police but my executive staff," said Morales.

“The (orders) attempt to paint a picture that MPD has been non-compliant or outright insubordinate with the FPC,” the department said in a statement. “The manner in which business is being conducted at the FPC causes alarm.”

Barrett dove into the fray on Wednesday, sending a letter to the commission calling for an “orderly review” of the orders and the commission to remove DeVougas as chairman since he's under investigation.

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