The NAACP Milwaukee Branch is troubled by the tragic manner in which Derek Williams, a 22 year old African American male, died on the back seat of a Milwaukee Police Department car on July 6, 2011. The indifference of police officers to his obvious suffering and distress, the circumstances surrounding the investigation by the Medical Examiner, District Attorney, the Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission, all call into question the credibility of responsible officials. A credible investigation must occur in a manner to provide justice for Derek Williams and to hold accountable those responsible for his death. This certainly requires District Attorney Chisholm to appoint an independent special prosecutor with charging authority.
As Derek Williams’ death is the most recent of many incidents involving the Milwaukee Police Department, U. S. Attorney Santelle should pursue a Federal investigation of “pattern and practice,” with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice. Mr. Williams’ survivors should also pursue appropriate civil rights actions.
More broadly, there must be reforms to the system resulting from Derek Williams’ death as the video depicts a clear disregard of life. Perhaps this may finally prove to be the catalyst necessary to deal with these breaches. A primary problem is the lack of enforcement of civil and human rights laws. The NAACP and others have been greatly concerned that we either lack critical laws to address civil and human rights concerns, or where we have laws, they are not enforced. Many communities have elevated the importance of enforcement of civil rights laws. When that occurs, it becomes a part of the culture. When a community such as Milwaukee fails to embrace these laws, it signals that the community does not value the laws or the people they protect.
We propose changes at City, County and State levels that, if implemented, we believe would enhance civil rights enforcement in our community. First, the Fire and Police Commission should be restructured as an independent, citizen led review board with subpoena powers. It must not be a mere “rubber stamp” but a body that takes seriously its responsibilities in recruiting, hiring, monitoring, disciplining, addressing citizen complaints and holding wrongdoers accountable. There are other cities that have review boards that are effective and transparent.
Second, the City Equal Rights Commission should be strengthened to enable it to hear and address citizen complaints of discrimination and equal rights violation. It would provide a forum for aggrieved citizens to address their complaints at the City level and serve as an additional deterrent for would-be wrong doers.
At the County level, we urge the Board of Supervisors to complete the re-establishment of the County Human Rights Commission and empower it in accordance with the County ordinances.
Its functions and duties include to receive reports on matters concerning equal rights of all persons within the county, to hold hearings, to provide advice to the County leaders and to act as a liaison with the community.
However, this Commission, like the City’s Equal rights Commission, has been inactive and dormant for many years – notwithstanding that we have some of the largest disparities in quality of life along racial lines in the nation.
Third, an Office of Human Rights should be created at the State level with the purpose of promoting human rights and equal opportunity throughout the State. Again, many other states, including our neighbors such as Minnesota and Iowa have such cabinet level departments while civil rights enforcement in the State of Wisconsin is buried several level down in the Equal Rights Division within the Department of Workforce Development.
In addition, our City and metropolitan area, its political, business, and civic leaders and citizens, must develop a culture of diversity and inclusion that values education and opportunity. The reduction and eradication of the poverty and hyper-segregation impacting our city must be a priority.
Public officials are charged with executing their duties in accordance with the requirements of laws protecting civil rights and providing for equal protection. The community demands that fairness and respect must be part of the equation, along with diversity and inclusion. The extent to which public officials incorporate, promote and implement policies and practices consistent with these values should weigh significantly in measuring their performance. The community deserves nothing less.