Milwaukee Orders Police to Develop an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Policy

Milwaukee Orders Police to Develop an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Policy


By Jonathon Sadowski

June 16, 2020

Police have ignored pleas of breathless, unarmed Black men.

Some of George Floyd and Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” a desperate plea that has become a rallying cry as demonstrators against systemic racism and police brutality march around the world

Now the Milwaukee Police and Fire Commission will have to come up with a policy for Milwaukee police to follow when a detained individual utters those words. 

The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution urging the Police and Fire Commission to create such a policy, the latest effort in a wave of police reforms happening across the country after the murder of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“I went through every emotion watching that police officer put his knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds,” said Alderman Russell Stamper, II, who brought forward the resolution.

Stamper, who is Black, added, “What I’m attempting to do here is stop this particular way of killing unarmed Black men…. This particular way of killing people at the cause of chokeholds and use of force where you can’t breathe has to stop.”

Stamper said he hopes the resolution will lead to the Police and Fire Commission adopting a policy ordering cops to seek medical attention for people who say they cannot breathe. 

“You have to give them some air. You have to let them live so they can have their day in court,” Stamper said.

Milwaukee Orders Police To Develop An ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Policy
Many people held “I can’t breathe” signs at the Justice for George rally May 30 in Madison. (Photo © Lola Abu)

One alderman, Michael Murphy, said he was concerned that suspects will simply begin to say they can’t breathe at virtually every arrest. Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said “it would be better for us to err on the side of caution to protect (against) any loss of life.”

Floyd’s death sparked outrage and reform across the country. Minneapolis’ City Council voted to disband the city’s Police Department, Los Angeles is moving to cut $150 million from its police budget, and Racine is creating a task force on police reform.

Milwaukee aldermen also unanimously voted Tuesday to direct the city’s finance director to cut 10 percent, or about $30 million, from the 2021 police budget.

Proponents of defunding the police argue for redistributing parts of cities’ police budget to community health and neighborhood services.


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