Detective who labeled Wisconsin mayor a 'higher value target' is now sergeant

Recently, the Wisconsin Examiner learned that a detective who created a PowerPoint presentation which labeled Wauwatosa's mayor as a “higher value target" was promoted after an internal investigation of the matter was completed. The PowerPoint, which was obtained through open records requests in January, shone a light on how police viewed those who supported protests against police violence in 2020.

The document was created by Joseph Lewandowski, who at that time was a detective at the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) assigned to WPD's Special Operations Group. The unit has several functions including conducting covert surveillance and extracting data from seized phones. Lewandowski used the PowerPoint for an in-house briefing with two WPD supervisors, according to an internal investigation. The subject of the briefing was an incident in which a gun was fired during a demonstration outside the home of former police officer Joseph Mensah.

The presentation identified four individuals as “higher value targets" for the department. Among them was Mayor Dennis McBride, who the presentation said supported the protests. Though McBride wasn't connected to the August incident the slide read, “no PC for Mensah shooting … yet," referring to probable cause. Others were also either listed directly as or in association with the so-called “higher value targets." A month later, during Wauwatosa's curfew, then-Detective Lewandowski disparaged McBride and attorney Kimberley Motley—who's mentioned among the slides—during an interrogation of an arrested protester.

Although his supervisors were aware of the PowerPoint's existence, an internal investigation wasn't launched until the Wisconsin Examiner's first report. The investigation itself was completed by February, though it wasn't finalized by the out-going Chief Barry Weber until March. Lewandowski was found to be in violation of department policies around obscene or defamatory language, and professional image. A written reprimand was placed in his file.

The investigation concluded that Lewandowski was “embarrassed by the distraction this information caused and understands the gravity of the situation." However, the investigation did not take into account Lewandowski's comments during the interrogation. It also claimed that WPD “did not conduct any investigation into Mayor Dennis McBride," but didn't include other reports Lewandowski authored on McBride's “questionable conduct" and his contact with protesters.

Other Democratic elected officials perceived as supporting Black Lives Matter protests were also referenced in Lewandowski's reports. They include Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), and Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa). Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), along with Bowen, is also named in the protester list, separately made within WPD's investigative division.

The investigation acknowledged that the PowerPoint was of investigative relevance, and that all of the “higher value targets" should have been referred to as “prominent people." The report was finalized on March 1. On April 6, a little over a month after the investigation ended, Lewandowski was promoted to sergeant.

He was also moved out of the investigative division and was reassigned to the patrol division. Weber retired after over 30 years as WPD's chief on June 1. In late July, former Milwaukee PD captain and Wauwatosa-native James MacGillis took over as chief. Besides Weber, 14 other WPD staff members resigned or retired from the department between July 2020 and June 2021, about 11% of the department.

Among those who left were two captains–including one who was involved in the internal investigation–a lieutenant who became a regular face during WPD's protest enforcement actions, a detective, six officers including Joseph Mensah and two others who were still on probation, a parking specialist, a desk clerk, a dispatcher, and a station support employee. Lewandowski remains employed at WPD, and is now nearing 20 years at the department.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Inside the secret Google group Wisconsin police used to monitor 2020 protests

Last year, as the streets in towns across Wisconsin filled with marches against police violence, local law enforcement agencies established numerous ways of sharing updates and information on the protests. One response was the Milwaukee County Law Enforcement Executives COVID/Protest group, which became an online hub for local agencies monitoring the movements of protesters in 2020.

Wisconsin Examiner obtained emails sent within the Google group through an open records request to the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office. Specifically, the request asked for emails within the inbox of Sheriff Earnell Lucas.

Although it was initially created to allow law enforcement to discuss and adapt to policy changes during the pandemic's early weeks, the online group, of which Lucas was a part, shifted focus after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Within days protests were formed in Wisconsin, with Milwaukee experiencing some of the largest and most frequent demonstrations.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff Office didn't respond to a request for comment for this story. Chief William Jessup of the South Milwaukee Police Department, however, offered some insights into the group's creation and purpose. Jessup told Wisconsin Examiner that once the protests began, “We used the same Google group to exchange information and coordinate plans." Jessup was also president of the Milwaukee County Law Enforcement Executives' Association (MCLEETA) and helped “coordinate information exchanges and virtual meetings with other chiefs, often using Google group."

Jessup's name appears frequently in the group's emails, among many other law enforcement leaders, including chiefs, supervisors, and other personnel from the police departments of Milwaukee, Oak Creek, St. Francis, West Allis, Wauwatosa, Marquette University, and other municipalities. Personnel from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Milwaukee's intelligence fusion center, and related national security offices also sent messages.

The emails offer a glimpse of the activities and attitudes of many agencies involved in protest enforcement. On June 1, 2020 a few days after Milwaukee's protests began, Jessup sent an email out to the Google group. “If you haven't received the HSIN link to monitor the events during the protests, please send an email to Captain Craig Sarnow at the Fusion Center and he will add you to his list," wrote Jessup. “As we discussed in the call, if you have an active protest in your city with live video, the Fusion center can walk you through the steps to connect your video to the HISN." These links essentially act as secure portals for law enforcement officials to communicate and access information. These are monitored by the Fusion Center and other entities.

Jessup sent another email on June 1 mentioning the FBI's growing interest in Milwaukee's protests. “As we discussed in our call, the FBI is asking for our assistance in collecting some information about injuries, arrests, and property damage during the course of the protests." A data sheet was attached to the email, but wasn't provided as part of the records request. During Milwaukee's first protest night, officers fired less-lethal munitions at protesters. Later that night as the crowds dispersed some businesses were damaged and had goods stolen.

Although property destruction only occurred in the late evening hours, officers continued to confront daytime marchers with tear gas and other tactics. This resulted in a hearing by Milwaukee's Common Council into the Milwaukee Police Department's crowd-control methods and military-style equipment. Meanwhile, residents across the city began reporting visits by FBI agents, or receiving tickets in the mail after posting videos of themselves out past curfew. The curfew tickets were both later linked to units within the Fusion Center, and dropped by the city.

When asked about why agencies were looking for certain information on the protests Jessup recalled that, “we had a virtual meeting (group call) to plan for the ongoing protests and someone on the call asked the group for information regarding injured officers, damaged government equipment, and arrests." He added that, “I don't recall who asked for the information but I believe it was being collected to provide information to the public and to elected officials."

Some emails, however, suggest an interest in steering the narrative around the city's protests. On June 3, 2020, Jessup emailed, “As we discussed in our call, law enforcement will need to provide context to the community regarding the protests and the violent nature of some protesters. Please provide the Fusion Center with any video/photos of damage to government property, assaults on officers, and injuries sustained by our personnel. In addition, please provide the Fusion Center with any protest-related arrest information on a daily basis so they can provide that information to the FBI." Part of Fusion, called the Southeastern Threat Analysis Center (STAC), hosts a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

As Milwaukee's Common Council probed Milwaukee PD's gear, the department began pushing back. Then-Chief Alfonso Morales famously compared criticism of police actions to Christ's crucifixion. On June 4, West Allis' police chief sent an email with the subject line: “Getting Our Message Out." Chief Mitchel discussed suggestions he'd received regarding hiring a public relations firm and that the idea had backing from Morales and lobbyists from the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association. “They are in agreement that this is a state-wide need," Mitchel wrote.

Milwaukee PD would also claim it deployed tear gas and rubber bullets in broad daylight, and before a curfew, to counter of what it said were Molotov Cocktails. Subsequent investigations showed that what police claimed was a firebomb was actually just a plastic water bottle.

Heads of local departments also communicated about specific protesters. In an email sent on June 4, 2020, St. Francis PD's Chief Kevin Hunter provided an update on a protest held by local resident Bethany Crevensten. She'd planned a small protest outside the home of someone who allegedly made racist comments regarding owning Black people. That individual was also on parole at the time, Chief Hunter noted, adding, “this will not stop Bethany according to our conversation with her today, but again, sounds like it will be peaceful." A screenshot of a social media post made by Crevenseten to announce the protest was also attached to the email.

Creventsen went on to protest throughout the state alongside many other Wisconsinites over the following months. She told Wisconsin Examiner that officers from St. Francis and Cudahy paid her a house visit. “They showed up to my house and told me the whole city knows," said Crevensten. She added that, “the cops wanted to know details. What my route was going to be, followed us, sat outside. I protested for like an hour and a half." Like many other protesters, Crevensten feels she and her husband were placed under surveillance last summer. From being shadowed around town by police vehicles, to odd things happening to their phones and social media. “I try not to make a big deal out of it because I know they are watching," said Crevensten.

Like dozens of other protesters, elected officials, and one journalist, Crevensten was also placed on a list by police. The list, created by a Wauwatosa Police Department crime analyst last summer and shared with the FBI and numerous other agencies, was both called a “protester list" and a “target list" by the analyst. While that list focuses on a specific group of protesters known as The People's Revolution, it also includes activists from across Milwaukee.

Jessup told Wisconsin Examiner that his department did not receive the list from Wauwatosa PD. Emails in the Google group also included updates and information on a wide variety of left-wing protest events. He also stated that, “I don't recall any discussion regarding specific protesters. Law enforcement's goal was simply to have context when answering questions about injuries, damage, and arrests."

On June 9, 2020, Oak Creek PD's Chief Steve Anderson sent out an email requesting details on a small demonstration. “Somebody is organizing a planned chalk event demonstration at our Drexel Town Square this week Thursday," said Anderson. “I am recalling that these have been peaceful events but am wondering if any other agency had issues there was one in your community. At this time I am planning on just monitoring the area but am curious what others experienced."

The Fusion Center's Captain Sarnow responded that, by his count, there have been three such chalk events in Milwaukee. “They have all been peaceful," he said. “The crowds consisted mostly of families and their kids, and usually incorporate some speeches. They're good about posting their marching route (if applicable), gathering point, and time frame." He added, “Crowds varied with largest being approximately 300 at the event by the Art Museum."

At the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in August, Fusion again provided protest information, and another secure DHS meeting link. One email, sent on Aug. 17 by a lieutenant within Fusion, included a list of planned DNC protests. These included groups supporting Bernie Sanders, Our Wisconsin Revolution, Extinction Rebellion, Unity Fire MKE, the Coalition to March on the DNC, and others. It provided social media links, brief descriptions of each demonstration, estimates on crowd size based on Facebook commitments, and whether there were any records of potential violence, “civil disobedience," or arrests associated with any particular group or march. A small section also documented protests with approved permits, but no social media presence.

Examples of emails including the DNC protest event list


Some departments also used the group to vent about not being able to use certain crowd-control equipment for the DNC. It was a debate which ultimately led to many departments opting to not assist in the DNC. Chief Hunter emailed about questions he'd received from local reporters on the issue. “I would not subject my officers to potential danger if they were not able to utilize all of the tools at their disposal," Hunter wrote. But he also stated that Milwaukee PD had been a good partner to suburban agencies under Morales and that “we too would respond in time of crisis if called upon."


Discussion of counter-protesters or right-wing demonstrations were absent from the dozens of emails obtained through the Google group. Jessup told Wisconsin Examiner, “I don't recall the specific conversations in great detail and therefore cannot say whether any right-wing groups were discussed."

As the year went on and curfews would come and go, the Google group was also used to share tallies of equipment. Various departments shared spreadsheets with the group counting the number of armored vehicles, drones, tear gas, and other munitions different departments could provide. During Wauwatosa's curfew, alternate jailing options and transport vans were also discussed.

The Google group appears to have been used mainly by Milwaukee-area law enforcement agencies and their federal peers. Other departments, such as those in and around Kenosha, are absent from the Google group. However, messages gathered from other requests show that Milwaukee's fusion center also fed intelligence and social media updates during Kenosha's unrest. Details continue to emerge as to how law enforcement coordinated protest operations last year.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Senate candidate faces charges of embezzlement and fraud

Milwaukee alderwoman and U.S. Senate candidate Chantia Lewis has been charged with defrauding the city and campaign donors of more than $21,000. The charges come from the office of Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm.

This article was originally published at the Wisconsin Examiner

Lewis is charged with five felony offenses, including misconduct in office, theft by fraud, embezzlement and falsifying campaign finance reports. The embezzlement charge alone, Urban Milwaukee reported, carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Lewis says she is innocent, and calls the issues triggering the charges “accounting errors."

The criminal complaint states that she “misappropriated funds belonging to her campaign by depositing campaign contributions into her personal bank accounts, as well as using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses." It further reads that, “Lewis further falsely represented to the City of Milwaukee that she was owed reimbursement for expenses incurred on City-travel, when in fact she paid for those expenses out of her campaign account."

The investigation started in May 2020 as a review of travel expenses and campaign finance disclosures from multiple council members. Lewis is accused of misusing funds for numerous things including trips to Las Vegas, Pittsburg, Houston, Washington D.C., Little Rock, Minneapolis, and Florida. She's also accused of falsely reporting a donation more than twice the legal limit by developer Kalan Haywood, which was reported as being from three different people.

Lewis denounced the charges in a statement. “After four years as an elected official, we were recently advised, for the first time, by the DA's office about some potential campaign reporting error," she said. “Upon notification of these accounting errors, we have worked with and cooperated fully with the DA's investigation. We will make the necessary corrections. But make no mistake, I am innocent of any criminal wrongdoing."

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Law enforcement agencies shared 'target list' of left-wing Wisconsin protesters

“TPR target list," reads the subject line of the email. It was sent last October by Wauwatosa Police Department crime analyst Dominick Ratkowski. Attached to his email was the now infamous list of people the department created and maintained since last summer.

This article was originally published at Wisconsin Examiner

Ratkowski's email was sent one day before the city's curfew was activated last year, following the Milwaukee County district attorney's decision not to charge former officer Joseph Mensah for fatally shooting 17-year-old Alvin Cole in February 2020. The letters “TPR" refer to The People's Revolution, a decentralized group of protesters who demonstrated throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

The Wauwatosa “protester list" was known to exist since January, after other emails sent by Ratkowski were obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner. However, the list itself was not released until last month, and it documents a range of information on nearly 200 people who police view as involved in protests over the past year or longer. These most recent emails using the phrase “target list" appeared in an amended complaint filed by attorney Kimberly Motley in ongoing lawsuits stemming from police actions during the curfew.

The list, which appears to be part of a much broader effort by Wisconsin law enforcement to gather intelligence on protests, includes a variety of people, from Cole's mother and sister to Motley and her legal partners, to outspoken Democratic elected officials and this journalist. The list includes people from across Milwaukee's activist network, both well known and not, including Black Lives Matter protesters, community organizers and occasional protesters who were also involved in Milwaukee's labor rights movement fueled by COVID-19 job loss. WPD has said the list was a tool used to identify witnesses, suspects or victims of any criminal activity related to the marches.

More information is now coming to light on how the list was used. The People's Revolution grew out of the mass George Floyd-inspired marches and members continued to protest for 412 consecutive days after Floyd's murder. Although law enforcement responses to TPR varied across the county, standoffs with Wauwatosa police became common when the group began frequent Wauwatosa protests. Officers were filmed photographing legal observers and reporters and would occasionally call out to protesters by name.

During the curfew last October, several TPR protesters said they felt they'd been targeted for arrest. Tracy Cole, the mother of police shooting victim Alvin Cole, his older sister Taleavia Cole and another of his family members were arrested on the curfew's second night. Tracy was injured during her arrest and had to go to the hospital, while Taleavia was sent to the Waukesha County jail. Other protesters were detained in the City of West Allis.

Motley's amended complaint cites testimony Ratkowski gave under deposition, as well as images of various emails. Sgt. Abby Pavlik, a WPD spokesperson, was unable to answer why Ratkowski referred to the “TPR target list." When asked if specific people were targeted for arrest during the curfew, Pavlik replied, “individuals were arrested or detained that were in violation of the emergency order, city ordinances, or state law." When asked whether the list was shared with the U.S. Marshals, who were involved in the arrest of the Cole family, Pavlik responded that “the information was shared with the Milwaukee Police Department and the local FBI office."

The FBI denied a Freedom Of Information Request by the Wisconsin Examiner regarding the presence of one of its journalists on the list. The denial was vague though noted that the FBI “can neither confirm nor deny" the presence of anyone on a watch list.

Ratkowski's emails, however, show that the list was shared throughout Milwaukee-area law enforcement. An email sent on Sept. 24, 2020, suggested that the list could have been freely shared by other departments once obtained. “I attached a list of The People's Revolution members that I have been working on," Ratkowski's email states. “It identifies a large chunk of the people who were on I-94 last night. Let me know if you guys need help ID-ing people. Feel free to pass this along to who you think would find it useful."

The email was sent to Brian Conte, a member of the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office who's also on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Association of SWAT Personnel. At the end of September, the association will hold “lessons learned" conferences on “civil unrest" in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Wauwatosa. The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office didn't respond to a request for comment. The office also stated in a separate open records request from the Wisconsin Examiner that it had no records in response to requests for the protester list.

On Nov. 10, following Wauwatosa's curfew, Ratkowski sent the protester list to the Burlington Police Department. TPR members and other protesters had attended a Burlington School Board meeting regarding adopting anti-racism policies. Several people testified, from young people who'd directly experienced racism in the school district to parents who didn't want Black Lives Matter-inspired teachings in the classroom. The meeting ended with chanting by the protesters who'd attended the meeting. Ratkowski emailed, “I saw that Burlington had a disruptive protest at the school board meeting last night. I attached a list of known People's Revolution members. This group has been targeting the Milwaukee/Wauwatosa Area for 150+ days." He ended the message by saying, “I have been following them from the start, and know them all."

Wisconsin Examiner briefly spoke with Burlington PD's public information sergeant, who said he needed to ask around the department for more information before commenting, but has yet to respond with any comment. The West Allis Police Department was also sent the list by Ratkowski. “Yes, a deputy chief with the West Allis Police Department (WAPD) did receive the email and attached document from a crime analyst at the Wauwatosa PD," Deputy Chief Robert “Bob" Fletcher confirmed. “The WAPD did not share the list with any other agency, law enforcement or otherwise." Fletcher added that the department, “did not utilize the list provided and individuals on the list, whether they live in West Allis or not, were not placed under surveillance. On the date of the march, some WAPD officers were in the area of the event but they were not specifically surveilling any particular individual."

According to the amended complaint from attorney Motley, the list was also shared with city police departments of Racine, Brookfield, Oak Creek and Greenfield. The Marquette University Police Department also received the list, as well as the district attorney offices of Milwaukee and Racine counties.

In a previous Examiner story on the list Michael German, a former FBI agent of 16 years, and a current a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school, expressed concerns about such a list being passed around. “I have concerns about all of these agencies possessing this kind of record," said German. “But, more importantly, if the conclusion of these court actions are for the police department to purge this list, which seems to be appropriatehow are they going to purge it out of the fusion center? And out of the FBI? Once they've disseminated it, it's got a level of permanence that even if the FBI agrees to destroy the information, how are we not sure it continues to exist in some other place, by some other agency?"

In addition to information such as name, age, date of birth, race and gender, the list also included social media URL links and vehicle information for some of the people on the list. Some entries were more detailed than others, and at times people were identified not by their actual names but by their social media names. Motley, Tracy Cole, and Taleavia Cole, however, are among the very few individuals on the list who had their phone numbers confirmed by Wauwatosa police and put on the list. Under their names, their phone numbers can be seen, including a number under Tracy Cole's name which is noted as “likely landline." Each of those entries reads “ZetX confirmed."

ZetX is a private company which provides various cell phone-related training and services to law enforcement. Wauwatosa police spokesperson Pavlik stated that ZetX “is a free software program that provides subscriber information which the Investigative Division uses as an investigative tool. The use of the term 'ZetX confirmed' simply indicates that a number [is] associated with a name."

While the company advertises services related to pen registers and wiretaps to obtain information, Pavlik said WPD, “does not use ZetX related to pen registers or wiretaps, nor have we utilized wiretaps or pen registers 'against' Attorney Motley or Ms. Cole." ZetX didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Cole family, as well as other families killed by Milwaukee-area police and the protesters who support them, have long felt they've been under various kinds of surveillance. It remains unclear exactly how far within the law enforcement and intelligence community the protester list has been shared, or whether similar protester target lists exist elsewhere in the state. Among the demands of Motley's lawsuit are that the list be purged from all agencies and departments which received it.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Private security company pitched services to Kenosha sheriff days after Rittenhouse shooting

Days after unrest in Kenosha last year caught the world's attention, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth received an email with an offer. It came from Bill Tallen, executive vice president of training for the private security company Distributed Security Inc. (DSI). “As a retired federal LEO," Tallen wrote on Aug. 31, 2020, “I sympathize 100% with your response to the request for deputization of armed citizens during the current civil unrest. However, I would like to suggest an approach that is more realistic and defensible, with advantages both for your Department and the private sector in your county."

This article was originally published at Wisconsin Examiner

Tallen was referring to comments Beth made on CNN when he rejected the idea of deputizing armed civilians. “Oh hell no," Beth declared, “what happened last night — and I think Chief Miskinis is going to talk about it, is probably the perfect reason why I wouldn't. Once I deputize somebody, they fall under the constitution of the State of Wisconsin. They fall under the county of Kenosha, they fall under my guidance. They have to follow my policies, they have to follow my supervisors, they are a liability to me, and the county, and the State of Wisconsin."

The shooting allegedly involving then 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was still fresh in Beth's mind. An Illinois resident, Rittenhouse was among hundreds of self-styled militia members mobilized by a Facebook group calling itself the Kenosha Guard. In the hours prior to the shooting, police in an armored vehicle gave Rittenhouse's group water and thanked them for coming to town. Internal messages sent between various law enforcement agencies during those chaotic nights showed how police regarded the armed groups as friendly, and said they were there to protect property. Many questions remain today about what police did and did not know about the armed groups, and how closely they may have cooperated with them during Kenosha's unrest.

In his email to Beth, Tallen said DSI “offers training and consultation for individuals and management personnel of enterprises that wish to both enhance and take responsibility for their own security. We provide in-depth training and assistance in organization and infrastructure development for in-house (vs. contracted) armed security, for any enterprise or institution, with the fundamental requirement that such efforts be undertaken with the full knowledge and concurrence of local law enforcement, and entirely within the boundaries of applicable statutes."

Tallen stated, “This is not intended as a pathway to deputization, but only as a security solution for enterprises seeking to protect life and property in an environment where political, budgetary, and/or manpower constraints may limit the capabilities and extend the average response time of law enforcement, and leave private entities exposed to evolving threats." Jack Aubrey, a spokesperson for DSI, told Wisconsin Examiner that Beth never responded to Tallen's email. Nor has DSI been in contact with any other branches of Kenosha city or county government, the company spokesman stated.

On its website, DSI describes itself as a “private security company. We train, advise, and operate proprietary teams to actively defend enterprise life and property." Using military lingo, the company presentation state they create bases and “operate private security forces capable of defending immediate community assets" from “mob action" functioning as an “armed security cadre."

Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner that the company did not have any personnel active in Kenosha during the unrest. “No," he said, “we do not engage in any activities that are not sponsored by an existing client and approved by local law enforcement." Aubrey stated that DSI does not “offer rent-a-guard or standard security guard services. We do offer contract security services for established clients for whom all licenses and local law enforcement approvals have been received." He added, however, that, “contract security services are retainer-based with mobilization fees paid as utilized. All clients must be on a retainer and must have completed our preliminary on-site assessment prior to deploying a team."

DSI advocates for establishing networks of “distributed security," wherein individuals or groups of individuals can be trained to defend specific buildings or neighborhoods during unstable times. Through DSI, those individuals can even be trained at a SWAT-level competency. “Every military special operator begins as an untrained civilian," Tallen said in a video posted to DSI's YouTube channel.

In that video, Tallen describes several “myths" in the context of unrest or disorder. Those include myth No. 1, “the cops will protect you," myth No. 2, “a retired cop (security guard) will protect you," myth No. 3, “technology will protect you," myth No. 4, “A gun-free zone will protect you" and myth No. 5 “civilians can't be trained to confront violence." Tallen said during the webinar video, “the enterprise doesn't need police officers. It only needs people capable of protecting innocent life and property, on the scene and in the moment that violence presents itself. Civilians are very easily trained in that narrow skill set."

Posted on June 1, 2020, the video was uploaded just days after protesters around the world took to the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Tallen described the protests at that time as a “wave over the last two weeks now of nationwide civil disorder." He added that the protests and unrest were fueled by, “a whole stew of divisive, polarizing political and race-based movements," as well as economic instability from COVID and other factors. “Protests, many of them violent, have occurred so far in 140 cities." Tallen said that violence breaks out from otherwise peaceful protests because “all it takes is one person acting out."

Looking back over the last year, studies now suggest that some 96% of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful. “DSI is not concerned with peaceful protests by any group or cause," Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner. In Kenosha, damages in the city topped $50 million, the Kenosha News reported. In September 2020, the Trump Administration's Department of Justice allocated $41 million in public safety grants to Wisconsin.

“We are concerned with civil unrest or criminal activities that result in violent threats to life and property. Such threats, which have become more frequent in many locales around the country in the last 18 months, have high consequences for those affected."

Kenosha Guard vs DSI

The company highlighted several ways in which its approach could have changed what happened in Kenosha. First, DSI stresses that an armed security force must fully analyze any situation including threat assessments, area studies or surveys, inventory of outside assets like police or EMS, as well as response times. “Understand the law," said Aubrey, “and its constraints (what you must do) and restraints (what you cannot do). Take a realistic look at the political, social, and legal environment." He stressed that, “this kind of information collection can't be done overnight."

Additionally, a strong relationship must be built between local or even federal law enforcement, and the security group. “If you can't get law enforcement concurrence and support for your efforts, you should consider probably voting with your feet — relocating — rather than trying to defend under conditions that will put you at odds with local government and the legal system."

DSI stresses that security networks must be well organized, “so you don't face a crisis with a last-minute, pick-up crew," said Aubrey. “Recruit volunteers from within the enterprise, institution, or community and vet them carefully. Neighbors and friends pitching in on the spur of the moment might be better than nothing — but it's much worse than what can be accomplished with the prior planning, organization and preparation." Aubrey stressed that “important elements" like understanding teamwork to avoid individuals aren't facing threats alone are critical. “That alone could have changed the outcomes in Kenosha," said Aubrey.

Security networks envisioned by DSI also are meant to have clear discipline through chain of command, communication capabilities and understanding use-of-force. “Make sure everyone involved clearly understands their rights and responsibilities under the law," said Aubrey, “to include the crucial distinction between defensive actions wholly within private property versus engaging in melees, or projecting force, into public areas." Aubrey points to these as some of the things DSI advocates for, which were “absent (or inadequate) in Kenosha," he told Wisconsin Examiner.

Aubrey emphasized that DSI offers “well-developed models" for how businesses, churches, schools and others can be defended during civil unrest. “In Kenosha August 2020, the response of armed citizens appears to have occurred in the midst of the crisis, improvised on the spur of the moment, on an ad hoc basis with minimal or no prior planning, coordination or training. This is not a formula for success."

Nevertheless in its June 2020 video, Tallen and other members of DSI pointed to examples of citizens taking security into their own hands during times of crisis. One example offered was the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles, during which residents of a largely Asian American neighborhood defended businesses with rifles from rooftops. Tallen pointed to this as “an iconic example" of armed citizens mobilizing to protect property “when law enforcement response was absolutely unavailable to them."

When militias go rogue

One obvious concern about the model DSI proposes is vetting and oversight of armed groups: Who is ultimately responsible for the groups when or if things go wrong? DSI says it provides the tools and training to help establish a network, but largely it's up to the people involved in that network to formulate their own outfit. At 35 minutes and 56 seconds into the company's webinar one speaker states, “If you find yourself at odds with local law enforcement, which I know some of you are at this point, then you're going to have a decision to make. But I will emphasize that all of our programs are implemented only with the approval of local law enforcement."

Aubrey told Wisconsin Examiner that “local law enforcement will be involved from the start in DSI's security models." If a group were to act outside the constraints of the law, “they would be subject to the possibility of criminal charges and/or civil action," said Aubrey. “They will be far better monitored and vetted than the groups that generate disruptive protests that sometimes develop into riots and mob action." Aubrey added that, “if law enforcement agencies were universally capable of securing their communities against riot and mayhem, these private initiatives would not be necessary. When law enforcement capabilities and response are not adequate, some will find it necessary to act on their own initiative to protect themselves. DSI offers models that would contain and control that response."

Many groups describing themselves as organized, trained, militia-style collectives descended on Kenosha during protests in the city. At times, some of those individuals could be seen fully clad in tactical gear, and were easily confused with National Guard troops. Half an hour before Rittenhouse fired his first shots, authorities in Kenosha texted one another about “armed counter-protesters" slashing people's tires. Many Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha the night of the shooting recalled being pursued by pickup trucks filled with armed people.

“These events, as well as the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops from Wisconsin and other states and tens of millions of dollars of property damage, were consequences of local law enforcement's inability to control the events and protect their community," said Aubrey. “In defense of Sheriff Beth, there are few jurisdictions prepared to handle incidents of this magnitude. Under the Distributed Security model, local residents and enterprises are properly trained to protect themselves in these conditions, and very importantly, potential protestors understand that local residents, under control of local law enforcement, will protect their life and property in a competent, controlled and coordinated manner. This is usually a sufficient deterrent."

As Wisconsinites processed the events in Kenosha, similar groups emerged in Wauwatosa. Militia members were arrested in an apparent plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and bring her back to Wisconsin for an unofficial “trial." The group, which called itself Wolverine Watchmen, was infiltrated by FBI informants and the plot was derailed. The surge of armed right-wing violence under the Trump Administration culminated on Jan. 6, when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to halt the certification of election results and the transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden.

Hearings into the events at the Capitol by elected officials also focused on the question of how many current and former police and military personnel participated in what was called an attempted insurrection. According to NPR, nearly one in five defendants arrested after the Jan. 6 unrest had a military record. Other investigations by ProPublica have shown an interest among right-wing extremist groups to use military or police training to gain the needed experience to commit similar acts.

Security networks like those DSI proposes would have to deal with the challenge of vetting potential extremists. “DSI does not support or encourage extremist ideologies or any form of lawless violence," said Aubrey. “It supports enterprises and communities defending themselves against lawless violence through legal means, within their rights and in cooperation with local law enforcement."

DSI would not comment on whether it has successfully implemented this sort of model anywhere in the country. The Kenosha County Sheriff's Department would not respond to requests for comment. Tallen's email was obtained by Wisconsin Examiner via open records requests to the Kenosha County Sheriffs Department. Aubrey stressed that DSI's purpose is providing security for individuals, enterprises and institutions.

“We offer the most comprehensive training curriculum and the highest standards in the industry, relative to what it takes to be a safe and effective gun owner," said Aubrey. He added that, “every ward in the city of Chicago, or in any jurisdiction challenged by violence to which local authorities cannot respond to or control effectively, would benefit from a distributed security model."

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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