It was a crime that has played itself out all too frequently in Milwaukee. Police officers were dispatched to the city’s northwest side late at night to investigate a report of a shooting. They saw a blue Dodge mini-van driving recklessly in a nearby parking lot. After running its plates, they realized that the van had been stolen earlier that day.
As they approached, the van’s driver and several passengers jumped out and ran. Officers caught up with the driver and took him into custody. His name was Qushawn Thompson, an 18 year-old from Milwaukee. Like hundreds of other teenagers in the city, he said that he and his friends stole the van to take it for a joyride—a crime that has played itself all too frequently in Milwaukee.
What made this theft unique was that Qushawn Thompson was an employee of the Milwaukee Police Department and, ironically enough, assigned to the Stolen Auto Desk.
How could this have happened? How could a police aide—a uniformed civilian employee who generally performs administrative duties for the Milwaukee Police Department—be a criminal? Wasn’t he vetted? Wasn’t a background check performed on him?
Yes…and no. A group of whistleblowers has come forward with deep concerns about how the Milwaukee Police Department has over the past several years diluted the background checks performed on prospective applicants to the point of uselessness. This, they allege, has allowed for dangerously unqualified applicants to be hired in both civilian positions and as sworn officers.
“The Milwaukee Police had a system in place where the decisions on hiring were made completely objectively,” said a whistleblower who spoke to “The Dan O’Donnell Show” on behalf of them all. “We had a system where people were assessed points for different types of behavior. That’s gone by the wayside. Things that maybe important are being eliminated from the background checks so that it doesn’t appear that some of these applicants are as bad as they are.”
Among those abandoned requirements are a minimum high school grade point average of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale, a prohibition on marijuana use in the past three years, and even prior gang affiliation.
One applicant identified himself as a former member of a known street gang who had been repeatedly arrested for fighting with rival gang members while in high school. He admitted during background interviews that he had helped his gang sell marijuana and cocaine, often while armed with a gun that belonged to the gang.
Although the applicant said he had left the gang years before applying to be a Milwaukee Police officer, he kept in contact with known gang members and a drug dealer.
In the past, this contact combined with his past gang affiliation would have disqualified the applicant, but the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission overruled then-Police Chief Edward Flynn’s objection to his hiring and the applicant was sworn in as a Milwaukee Police officer.
He remains on the force to this day.
“In years past, we wouldn’t do as many background checks because we didn’t have to because enough people would pass that could hire them,” the whistleblower spokesman said. “Now we’ll go through a whole list. If you took the written test to be a police officer and you finished last on that list, we’re going to get to you. In years past, you could have forgotten it. I mean, go find a job somewhere else.
“But it has gotten to the point where people in higher places don’t like the fact that there are so many people who are eliminated. Well I can’t help that they’re eliminated. It’s their behavior that eliminates them, not me!”
In a disturbing twist, however, over the past two years the Milwaukee Police Department has eliminated eight Police Services Specialist-Investigators (PSSIs) who conducted background checks on prospective employees.
Seven of them were fired or forced to resign on the same day, something that Milwaukee Police sources say is unprecedented.
None of the eight PSSIs (who are all retired Milwaukee Police officers) were given clear reasons for their firing, but many believe it was because they did not go easy enough on applicants during their background checks.
In April 2017, the whistleblowers say newly-hired Milwaukee Police Department Human Resources manager Arvis Williams called a meeting to introduce herself to the Department’s PSSIs.
One of the whistleblowers, who took copious notes on interactions with supervisors, says that Williams told the PSSIs during this initial meeting “that she had crossed paths with Mary Nell Regan during her employment with the City of Milwaukee. At the time of this meeting, Mary Nell was the Executive Director of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.
“Mary Nell Regan made comments that, in her opinion, background investigators were looking for more ways to disqualify police officer applicants rather than just doing investigations. She had made it known that she was looking to go in a different direction.”
This was significant, as the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission is a powerful civilian oversight board which “oversees all aspects of Fire Department and Police Department operations.”
“Since 1885, no person has been appointed or promoted to any position in either the Police Department or the Fire Department without Commission approval,” the Commission says on its website. “Commission staff administer a variety of examinations, including written, physical ability and oral tests, background investigations, and medical, drug, and psychological screenings. Applicants who pass all components are hired according to their total score on an eligible list.”
In recent years, the whistleblowers allege, the Commission has increasingly overruled the Police Department’s Applicant Review Committee after background checks determine applicants to be ineligible to work for the Milwaukee Police Department and even Police Chiefs Flynn and Alfonso Morales when they have determined a candidate to be unsuitable for employment.
“It’s being done so that some candidates are given special treatment so that some of the bad things in their background are not revealed so that they look like a better candidate than they are,” the whistleblower spokesman said.
This policy was communicated to PSSIs repeatedly.
“In early June 2018, there was a meeting where Arvis stood her ground, threatening PSSIs regarding the disqualification of applicants,” one whistleblower wrote in contemporaneous notes about the meeting. “During the meeting she continually told PSSIs that in no way would PSSIs disqualify an applicant.”
When several of the PSSIs balked, telling Williams that PSSIs do not and have never disqualified applicants—that instead their supervisors disqualified applicants—Williams “indicate that there would be new disqualification procedures implemented.”
“We have a fairly new administrator who doesn’t understand the system,” the spokesman for the whistleblowers alleged. “Some things that she sees that she does not believe should be in a background she is forcing these investigators to eliminate from their investigations.
“Whether it’s her own personal preference or she’s been giving her marching orders from somebody else, these bits of information should be in a background.”
Throughout 2018, Williams began taking issue with background investigation reports that the PSSIs handed in. On February 5, 2019, she called an impromptu meeting in which she tore into the PSSIs for “not filing proper reports” and indicating that “some of the investigators should be looking for other jobs.”
The next day, one of the PSSIs abruptly resigned.
On February 22, seven more were fired or forced to resign. When they attempted to appeal their termination to the Fire and Police Commission, they were informed that their status with the Department had at some point been changed from Milwaukee Police contractors to at-will employees, meaning that they had no appeal rights whatsoever. This, too, they claim, was unprecedented.
“We’d never heard of anyone being fired in the Milwaukee Police Department as an at-will employee,” the spokesman for the whistleblowers said.
What had they done to deserve such unparalleled treatment? They still aren’t sure. All they know is that their supervisors and the Fire and Police Commission kept demanding quicker and less thorough background checks, something they were unwilling to do.
“To do the job properly takes a lot more time than anybody wants us to take,” the whistleblower spokesman said.
But the Milwaukee Police Department denies their allegations.
“Chief Morales terminated or received resignations, from seven Police Services Specialist-Investigators due to overall work performance issues,” the Department said in a statement. “Their exempt (or ‘at-will’) status was not changed, nor could it be, after they left the Department. At all times during their employment, they were designated by the Fire & Police Commission as exempt employees.”
Moreover, the Department denies that Williams ever told PSSIs to go easier on applicants.
“In fact, Ms. Williams has required a higher standard and accountability for background checks,” the Department said.
MPD did, however, admit that standards for applicants have changed in the past few years but pointed the finger at the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.
“Under Chief Morales, background checks have not been diluted. On the contrary, Chief Morales has required background checks to more comprehensive, thorough and concise than from the previous administration. While it is true the standards for appointments have changed, those decisions are made by the Fire & Police Commission and not the Milwaukee Police Department.”
The Fire and Police Commission responded.
“The Fire and Police Commission (FPC) has not approved, nor has it ever, communicated to the police department that there should be ‘less stringent’ background investigations or to loosen background investigations,” the Commission said in a statement. “We continue to follow the ARC matrix put in place years ago due to a prior lawsuit against the City of Milwaukee.”
That lawsuit, League of Martin v. City of Milwaukee, was settled in 1984 and dictated that the Milwaukee Police Department “shall not engage in any act or practice which has the purpose or effect of unlawfully discriminating because of race against police officers in assignment, transfer, and promotion within the MPD.”
Some PSSIs believe that the Commission’s adherence to the terms of this settlement have caused it in recent years to lower the standards for minority applicants, as the Milwaukee Police Department has been attacked in recent years for not being reflective of the city it serves.
“Overall, 34% of the department’s sworn officers and command staff are non-white minorities, a figure that has not changed since 2008, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of department and Fire and Police Commission records,” wrote Journal Sentinel reporters Ahsley Luthern and Kevin Crowe in 2017, shortly before Williams was hired and the Police Department’s background check policy appears to have changed. “The analysis of city data from 2008 through 2015, the most recent year available, found black officers accounted for 18% of the department’s ranks, while blacks and African-Americans comprised 39% of the city's population. In 2008, black officers accounted for 20% of the force.
“Those results were not surprising to Fred Royal, president of the NAACP Milwaukee branch and a founder of the Community Coalition for Quality Policing,” the article continued.
“‘I’d like to see it become more in line with the actual representation of minorities in the city,’ he said. ‘The only way to have an impact on a system is to get involved in the system.’”
Could that push for greater involvement have led to a lowering of standards for minority applicants? Some PSSIs think so, while others believe that the Milwaukee Police Department has been struggling to find qualified candidates of any race.
Across the country, a survey from the Police Executive Research Forum reports that two-thirds of police departments have reported seeing declining numbers of applications, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that “the number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents decreased, from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016.”
In Milwaukee, this has combined with a battle with Mayor Tom Barrett over police officer staffing levels and apparent dysfunction in the Fire and Police Commission that has led to dramatic staff turnaround throughout 2019 to create an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty.
This atmosphere, the whistleblowers allege, has created a paradox in which Department supervisors and the Fire and Police Commission put officers under far more scrutiny than ever before yet refuse to allow for a stringent hiring process that weeds out bad applicants before they can become bad officers.
They claim the PSSIs who tried to uphold the Milwaukee Police Department’s past standards paid for it with their jobs.
“They became a rock in the roadway and the only thing to do was to get rid of the rock,” the spokesman for the whistleblowers said. “There was no disciplinary reason to get rid of them; they just didn’t fit the new agenda.”
That agenda, whether in the name of diversity or desperation to find qualified candidates, has had a demonstrable impact on the Milwaukee Police Department’s hiring process. From a police aide whole stole a car while working at the stolen car desk to an officer who was once a gang-banger and still associates with known drug dealers, clearly unqualified candidates are being hired.
“What the public should know is that at one time in their life or maybe more, they’re going to have to call the Milwaukee Police for some service,” the whistleblower spokesman said. “You’re going to be affected by the police officers that are hired, one way or another.”