Milwaukee Police Chief Demoted After Questions Over Protest Response

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Alfonso Morales, the police chief of Milwaukee, was demoted on Thursday after an oversight board questioned the police’s performance under his leadership, including the recent use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters.

The Fire and Police Commission, an independent oversight board, voted unanimously to return Mr. Morales to the rank of captain, which he held before being promoted to interim chief in April 2018. He was appointed to a four-year term as chief in December 2019.

There was no single incident that caused Mr. Morales to fall out of favor. Rather, the board expressed broad disappointment in his performance after having laid out 11 directives for the chief to follow in July as part of a six-month review. Among other things, Mr. Morales was told to explain publicly certain investigations and decisions, and to ensure that officers did not use tear gas against protesters.

Ray Robakowski, a board member, said at the meeting that Mr. Morales had “intentionally misled the public.”

“His conduct is unbecoming, filled with ethical lapses and flawed decision-making,” he said.

Franklyn Gimbel, a lawyer for Mr. Morales, said the former chief was considering his options and would “cooperate with the acting chief to serve the people of Milwaukee in the interim.”

Michael Brunson, who had been the assistant chief, will become the acting chief. In a statement on Thursday night, Mr. Brunson said he had “great respect for all of the men and women of the Milwaukee Police Department,” and thanked Mr. Morales for his service.

“I look forward to continuing to serve the residents of this city,” he said.

Like many other police departments in the United States, Milwaukee’s has been challenged by protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, as longstanding grievances have bubbled over into broader calls for police accountability. This week, Mr. Morales defended the department’s use of tear gas to break up protests on six occasions, saying that each use was needed to disperse crowds that threatened violence, according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The 11 directives called for further explanation of several high-profile cases, including an officer’s use of a stun gun against Sterling Brown, an N.B.A. player, in May 2018. Mr. Morales said officers in that case had acted inappropriately; eight officers were disciplined but not fired.

The directives also included demands for a policy requiring officers to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic and for a partnership with local organizations to create community policing standards.

The Police Department pushed back against the 11 directives given to Mr. Morales, saying they would compromise current investigations, distract from police work and, in some cases, were based on false premises or would be illegal.

The Milwaukee Police Association, an officers union, did not respond to a message seeking comment on Thursday night.

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