Former Chief Alfonso Morales is taking his case to court, alleging that the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission “exhibited bias” against him, denied him due process, harmed his reputation, and breached his contract when it demoted Morales to captain on Aug. 6. The former Milwaukee police chief is seeking $625,000 in damages.
According to the notice of claim filed by his attorney on Aug. 20, the Board “took disciplinary action against Morales adversely affecting his property and reputational interests without specific notice of the charges giving rise to disciplinary action taken against him, without just cause, and without due process of law. Morales was denied due process of law in that he was denied adequate notice, a fair hearing, and an opportunity to be heard.”
The Board “exihibed bias against Morales prior to the Aug. 6 meeting, including former Board President Steven DeVougas in both his written statement and press conference before the meeting on Aug. 6,” the claim says, adding that Morales was “denied a fair hearing before a neutral and unbiased tribunal and denied due process of law.”
Wisconsin Right Now reached out to DeVougas and new FPC Chair Nelson Soler to give them a chance to comment. Their comments will be added into this story if received.
On July 28, the city attorney told Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett that one of the directives the Board gave the chief would jeopardize “a settlement agreement resolving a federal civil rights case.” The city attorney, Tearman Spencer, urged Barrett to overrule the directive, but he did nothing, the notice says.
Morales has decided to retire from the Department but has suffered a decrease in pay and benefits equal to the difference between his salary as Chief and his salary as Captain, which amounts to $30,000 a year from Aug. 6, 2020 through Jan. 8, 2024, it says. He also suffers the financial loss of increases in compensation and benefits.
The Board’s actions caused him to be “subjected to public approbation and reputational harm, which will have substantial and serious consequences, including adversely impacting his ability to secure a similar position in law enforcement and, perhaps other executive or managerial employment.”
The claim demands $625,000 for the difference in salary and diminished retirement pay, damages arising from denial of due process and attorney fees, and damages arising from loss of reputation in the community and future career opportunities.
Morales filed the notice in Milwaukee County Circuit Court against the City of Milwaukee and its Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.
The Claim Says That Morales Was Never Given a Written Explanation for Why He Was Demoted
Filed by the law firm of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP on Aug. 19, the claim says, “Please take notice that Alfonso Morales hereby demands that the circuit court of Milwaukee County review the decision of the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners on Aug. 6, 2020, demoting him from the position (of) Chief of Police of the City of Milwaukee Police department to Captain. As of this date, despite repeated requests, Morales has not received a copy of any final, written findings or order encapsulating the Board’s decision to demote him and does not know if any such document exists.”
The Notice of Injury and Claim was sent to the City of Milwaukee and Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.
Morales was first named interim chief in February 2018 and, that April, he was appointed to serve as chief until Jan. 8, 2020. Then Board Chairman Steven DeVougas, on Dec. 16, 2019, announced the Board would not vote on the reappointment citing “unanswered questions,” the claim states.
Two commissioners eventually called for a vote, and on Dec. 18, 2020, Morales was appointed to serve a four-year term on a 4-2 vote. Morales and the Board “entered into a written employment contract setting forth a four-year term of employment,” the claim states.
In June and July 2020, the Police Department’s “handling of civil unrest arising from protests in the City following the death of George Floyd were brought into question by some citizens and the media,” the claim says, adding that on July 2, 2020, Mel Johnson, an attorney hired to investigate ethics complaints about DeVougas “issued a report in which Morales is cited as having said that DeVougas had told Morales he would vote to reappoint Morales, if Morales fired a City of Milwaukee Police Officer involved in the arrest of Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown.”
On July 7 and July 13, a supervisory officer of the MPD informed other executive officers of the Department that he had been “advised by a current member of the Board and its Executive Director that the Board had decided to remove Morales as Chief of Police and that the officer who made the disclosure or another senior officer would be candidates to replace Morales.”
On July 20, 2020, the Board issued an executive order “setting forth multiple directives to Morales,” demanding compliance within seven to 30 days and warning that “failure to comply fully and promptly with these directives shall result in disciplinary action by the board, including discharge, suspension, or reduction in rank.”
On July 21, Morales through his attorney requested the “immediate return of the exact directives” because, at that time, the Board had not provided a copy of the written directives. The second letter from Morales’ attorney asked for more time to provide the demanded information. The Executive Director Griselda Aldrete told Morales on Aug. 1 that the Board would extend the deadline for one directive but not others.
On Aug. 4, Morales and then-Assistant (and now Acting Chief) Michael Brunson Sr. appeared in a police video “defending officers’ use of tear gas and pepper spray during the civil unrest that grew out of protests.” This fulfilled the Board’s directive that Morales “publicly explain the Department’s use of non-lethal chemical irritants,” the claim says.
On Aug. 5, the MPD issued a report stating that the Board’s directives were “filled with factual errors and unclear requirements and some of them possibly could be illegal” and that “some of the information requested related to incidents that were part of… internal investigations, pending cases or civil litigation and, therefore, releasing information could compromise those matters.”
Morales and MPD provided the information required in the Board’s directives and executive order on Aug. 6, the same day Morales was demoted, the claim says, adding, “Based on the voluminous nature of the materials tendered, it is highly unlikely that this response was read and/or considered by all Board members prior to unanimously voting to remove Morales as Chief later that day.”
Hours before the scheduled meeting, DeVougas held a press conference and released a statement “during which he divulged discussions he had with Morales and Mayor Barrett about a police officer-involved shooting and also disclosed his previously undisclosed ‘concerns’ that led him to slow down the reappointment process in December 2019.”
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At the Aug. 6 meeting, where Morales was demoted, the Board did not question him, “did not allow him to explain his response to the Board’s directives, and did not allow him to be heard in response to either the motion to demote him or the statements Board members made about him during the meeting.”
The notice claims that Wisconsin statutes authorize the Board to issue written directive to a police chief but do not authorize the Board to impose discipline against a chief for failure to follow a Board directive. Morales still hasn’t received a written document “reflecting the Board’s decision to demote him,” it says.