Community confidence in police may be shattered with release of Williams tape

By Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs

Milele Coggs

Anger, frustration, pain, and disappointment are a few of the emotions that came over me this past weekend when, like so many members of this community, I read about the latest information in the death of Derek Williams. The medical examiner has switched his position on the death from natural causes to homicide, prompted by the painfully disturbing video of Williams saying he couldn’t breathe, being ignored, and ultimately dying in police custody.

As a child I recall my mother telling me stories of Earnie Lacy, the brutality he faced at the hands of MPD, the community outrage and the reaction. Almost 30 years later, the Williams incident is having too familiar a feel for the community. Any loss of life in this community, while in police custody or on a street corner, whether from natural causes or homicide, is a loss for this entire city.

We have a storied, strained, and fragile history of community- police relations, and that relationship may be shattered with the death of Derek Williams in police custody. We want to feel like the police are our partners—not our adversaries— in making our neighborhoods a safer place to live for all residents.

In July 2011, after the Williams incident initially occurred, I sponsored and Alderman Willie C. Wade co-sponsored a resolution to have the Fire and Police Commission come before the Common Council and the public twice a year to discuss deaths in police custody. This was but one of a series of resolutions designed to lead to more transparency.

I, joined by 11 of my colleagues, have requested that the U.S. Attorney take on the Williams case to restore some independence and community confidence in justice being served to the investigation. We believe having the same entities investigate this case for a second time would almost certainly encourage an outcome no different from the initial investigation. The U.S. Attorney has said he is watching, and the District Attorney has requested an independent prosecutor and an inquest. The person who is selected to handle the case is critical, and the community needs to keep a keen eye on that process.

I will continue to fight for increased transparency, improved legislative policies, changed protocol and procedures, greater accountability measures, improved communication with the public, greater sensitivity from the Chief and officers, fair, expedient investigations and trials, prompt discipline for anyone proved to have violated rights, and consequences for whoever allowed this atmosphere to be created. I will fight alongside this community and any colleagues who choose to join me. We cannot allow the circumstances under which Derek Williams died to happen again in our city.

I, for one, am fighting for a Milwaukee where, 30 years from now, my daughter is not waging the same battle for justice as a member of her community dies a preventable death in police custody.