Photographers’ attorney says incident shows “police-protect-police culture.”
Multiple Milwaukee police officers are under investigation after an off-duty officer attacked two photographers at a march early this month. The cops who responded to the incident were combative toward the photographers and tried to sweep the incident under the rug, according to the victims’ attorney and state Reps. Jonathan Brostoff and David Bowen, both Milwaukee Democrats, who were on the scene after the scuffle.
Nicole Muller, a criminal defense attorney representing the photographers, said the incident illustrates the “police-protect-police culture” that millions are protesting throughout the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
The altercation, captured by eyewitnesses and security cameras, happened the evening of July 5 in Milwaukee as a march in support of the Black women and LGBTQ communities made its way through downtown.
As the march passed Old World Third Street, just a couple blocks from the Fiserv Forum, an unidentified woman threw a drink at protesters and berated them, video of the incident shared with UpNorthNews shows.
Her partner, later identified as off-duty Milwaukee Police Officer Matthew Willmann, eventually attacked the two photographers documenting the encounter, giving one a concussion, and causing $700 in damage to the other’s camera.
It took five hours for the victims to be released from the scene but not before being given $195 fines for disorderly conduct after extended questioning from responding officers.
Muller said her clients, LaTasha Lux and Sean Kafer, were not doing anything other than taking photographs of Willmann and his partner on the public street, which is protected by the First Amendment. The citations have since been dismissed. WUWM reports that Willmann was cited for vandalism, but not arrested or charged.
“A criminal charge is what anyone on the street would be facing in this situation,” Muller said.
Police made Lux, the photographer who was concussed, give multiple statements and never offered her medical attention despite her lip being split open from the assault, Muller said.
Brostoff was at the march but left before Willmann hit Lux and Kafer.
When Brostoff heard that there had been an altercation, he returned downtown and went to the scene. He and Bowen, who was at the march but did not personally witness the altercation, spoke with the police supervisor on the scene, Sgt. Michael Dix. Brostoff said Dix seemed defensive of Willmann.
“He kept trying to kind of like discredit the two photographers at every step,” Brostoff said.
Bowen and Brostoff said Dix told them Willmann would not be charged with battery or assault because the off-duty officer never verbalized that he was going to attack Kafer and Lux.
“It seems to me like he was doing everything he could not to have a paper trail,” Brostoff said.
The Old German Beer Hall, where Willmann and his partner were drinking before the altercation, issued a statement on Facebook a day later explicitly saying the two went to the corner of the street “to antagonize the protesters.” The restaurant also banned Willmann and his partner from the establishment.
Brostoff, Bowen, and Muller said that Dix told the photographers that Willmann would not receive a citation unless Lux and Kafer were also cited.
“Officer Willmann wouldn’t be accountable for what he did,” Bowen said. “He would only be accountable if he got the chance to seek revenge that way. It just didn’t add up.”
Bowen characterized it as “unneeded coordination” between Willmann and Dix.
The Milwaukee Police Department told UpNorthNews in an emailed statement that its Internal Affairs office is “reviewing the actions of all members associated with the incident.” Willmann has not been placed on leave and is still employed, the department said.
The so-called “Blue Wall of Silence” has been extensively documented nationwide, including in Milwaukee, but MPD said in its statement that “any suggestion that MPD unfairly protects its members is a myth,” citing “dozens of discharges and lengthy suspensions” issued since Chief Alfonso Morales took over in 2018.
Brostoff said “every single officer who is trying to cover this up should be fired, and specifically Sgt. Dix.”
“Even though he (Dix) might have quote-unquote protected the Thin Blue Line of one of his colleagues … he’s doing damage to every other officer and the whole institution by doing that and everyone participating in that type of corruption is hurting every single police officer more than any kind of Black Lives Matter protest,” Brostoff said.
Bowen said Willmann should face some form of discipline and spoke of the broader need for a systemic change to the culture of police.
“Instead of being open to being accountable, it seems that there are those that are part of and benefit from the status quo that don’t want to see that go,” Bowen said.