Undercover Wisconsin Cops Targeted Teen “Forts” in the Woods

The human tendency to hoard knowledge for a few has never been more transparent than in the modern digital age. With it came a ravenous, collective thirst for vast stores of information just a click, or tap, away. Even so, we seem no closer to laying one enduring philosophical question to rest: do we need to know everything? Do you deserve to know everything? What would we do if we could truly know everything? What if someone decided for you that you can’t know anything? Even if it’s in your own backyard, obvious, and wrong?

That’s what happened in Wauwatosa Wisconsin, shortly before Tosa Police launched a bold operation throughout the suburb. No one was supposed to know, their hunt to disappear, their prey to cower and learn. Their choice policy for keeping it quiet, however, wasn’t exactly enacted, or designed, for cover ups.

Wauwatosa’s teenagers had a long history of erecting oftentimes elaborate fort’s in its local woods for recreation. There wasn’t much to do in Tosa, so teens often got creative in relieving their boredom. Most of them couldn’t even go to the mall without an adult, after a series of riots led to unnecessary restrictions and bans. Unfortunately, another manifestation of youth boredom can be substance use, among other things. Drug use did happen at the woodland constructions, but were not their intended purpose. Mostly, they wanted something that was their own. Come as you are, as you were, and be accepted.

The vast majority of fort’s active when I was in high school were erected between 2009 and 2011. When older students graduated, it was left to their younger peers to maintain the tradition. By no means was this subculture noisy enough to really earn a name, or title. From what I’d been told while making my documentary, Speak Friend And Enter, it was mostly scattered tribes of friends coming together who otherwise wouldn’t. That’s when Tosa Police came, and when I’d decided to document what was happening.

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What provoked me was being stopped 23 times in a single summer, oftentimes shamelessly using my race as pretense. I told my friends each and every time, they’d sometimes have their own stories. Most had been stopped, even searched, sometimes under worse circumstances than my own. Some felt violated, everyone felt powerless to do anything about it, unheard.

When WPD started its fort targeting campaign, even kids who had nothing to do with anything felt watched. As the film project took a nosedive down the rabbit hole, it’s story came into picturesque view. This was bigger than cops clearing out a few pot smoking teenagers from the woods. What’s more, Tosa PD’s newly implemented report redaction policy was poised to make the whole thing disappear. What we were experiencing, if the story didn’t get out, would be but a ghost story we’d remember as a school year.

One of the first reports on the redaction policy from Wauwatosa Now was published in 2013 by contributor Scottie Meyers. The piece read like outcry over WPD’s new policy, which was beginning to seriously starve Wauwatosa Now of content. After a three week period where Tosa PD released no reports at all, the outlet was forced to release an editorial apology. Although the note cited a recent court ruling in Illinois as the policies catalyst, others in the film weren’t so sure.

“This may or may not be the same phenomenon that stems from the 2012 federal court ruling”, explained free information advocate Bill Leuders to me over phone. “There may be other factors that are coming into play that affect what the department is releasing, or what it’s not releasing.” Bill was then the president of Wisconsin’s Freedom Of Information Council, and was quoted in ‘Wauwatosa Now’ regarding the policy. He felt redaction of reports could lead to “secret arrests” if taken too far, it’d already happened in Tosa.

The policy, which redacts information from police reports found on drivers licenses, stems from Senne V. Village of Palatine (III.), Illinois. Jason Senne, Insurance Journal reports, argued officers violated his privacy by providing too much information on a parking citation left on his car. Senne’s name, address, weight, height, gender, birth date, and driver’s license number were all listed, and the court ruled in his favor. Fearing further lawsuits, an unknown number of midwestern municipalities began “unprecedented” redaction policies, Wauwatosa Now reports.

Milwaukee PD, according to Insurance Journal, ceased publishing traffic accident reports all together. It’s manifestation in Tosa was more, say, thorough than the court, or Jason Senne, likely intended. According to Wauwatosa Now writer Ryan Runyon, who I’d emailed research questions, the policy really brought the wall down. Journalists weren’t even allowed the car rides and tours they once enjoyed to do their jobs. Everything, according to Wauwatosa Now, expect on-going investigations was once fair game. Now they were being treated like unwelcome guests in their own city and, in WPD, the order came down from the top.  One of Runyon’s 2013 police reports, which also has the editor’s apology, had an interesting singular drug possession entry.

“9A boy was arrested for having .9 grams of marijuana after he and his friends ran from police at Honey Creek Parkway and Portland Avenue at 2:22 p.m. May 24. He and his friends were dumping marijuana in the river when caught. The boy’s name, age and community were redacted from the report.” Honey Creek Parkway is nearby Wauwatosa’s Hart Park, an epicenter of the crackdown and home of several forts.

“While we are waiting for the supreme court to decide if it’s going to look at (the Senne case)”, says Tosa city attorney Alan Kesner, “we had to develop our own set of policies.” Exactly what Tosa’s guidelines were and are remains unclear, perhaps explaining Bill’s earlier comment. “There may be other factors coming into play that affect what the department is releasing, or what it’s not releasing.”

In 2013, according to Wauwatosa Now, then WPD Captain promised reports would continue to get out in a timely manner. When promises proved empty, Sharpee said, “right now it doesn’t look like we have anything in place that’s gonna enable us to do that electronically, so a clerk has to print out a report and redact all that information.” According to Sharpee, WPD had three records clerks on payroll when the policy arrived.

Probably the most damaging aspect of Wauwatosa’s personalized redaction policy was the discontinuation of Tosa PD’s yearly reports. Unlike the individual descriptions of police activity found in Tosa Now, the annual reports read like WPD handbooks. Statistics, divisions, even the names and faces of officers who’d been promoted. They were released from 2004-2011, ending abruptly without any real explanation. Due to the timing, it was assumed, not validated, that the redaction policy was responsible.

The same year, Tosa Now published a concerning article on a crippling wave of retirements WPD was then enduring. Essentially, according to the piece, several older officers and supervisors were at the end of their contracts, bad timing. As a result, 10% of a department sworn for 94 officers retired within a four month period. To replenish ranks, Tosa PD supplemented “experience for youth”— new recruits instead of veterans. Three years before the articles publication, in 2010, the department was facing a different kind of threat.

According to it’s own annual reports, federal funding for Tosa PD’s drug and vice-focused Special Operations Group (SOG) dipped from $72,682 to $4,271.15. That same year the unit captured 4, 271 grams of marijuana, 69.46 grams of coke, 6.58 grams of heroin, and 13, 547 prescription pills. The following year SOG captured 38,238 grams of marijuana, 11 grams of coke, 14 grams of heroin, and just 400 prescription pills. Around this time, 2010-2011, many local teenagers, regardless of race, gender, or background, became the targets of seemingly random stops, searches, and other harassment. All of this, from the funding cuts, to the redaction policy, to the retirements, to the reports from teens ultimately set the stage for what would eventually occur in Tosa’s woods.

Although the earliest raids reputedly saw vest-clad, shotgun wielding officers chasing fort goers away WPD eventually dialed back to undercovers. Of all the interviews conducted for Speak Friend And Enter, none stuck me more at the time than Adam’s. I didn’t know Adam, and neither will you, as he requested I obscure his face. He’d walked into my home one evening with friends, Danny and Tyler, who also played critical roles in the film. Adam seemed excited to share with me his experience with WPD’s undercovers, who’d stalked the woods from late 2012 to 2014.

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Adam claimed the plain clothed man “came down and started searching me” without saying anything, who he was or what was happening. After using Adams knife, which they broke and returned to him, to slash his bike tires they came upon his weed and grinder. Interestingly, instead of questioning him on the drugs, Adam claimed “they wanted everybody’s names.” They eventually released him after providing a card, asking him to contact them with information. Although they threatened to ticket him for marijuana possession, the citation for the dirty jump n’ search never arrived.

Adam also recalled a separate raid where younger officers enthusiastically asked the “older guy” if they wanted to “fuck up the place.” Their superior chose to preserve the “nicest spot they’ve [the teens] had.” Other teens consistently described officers setting fire to forts for all in the area to witness. Other times they’d leave large piles of sticks, branches, and logs, for the fort goers to discover later on. Graffiti saying such things as “Warning! Tosa undercovers are around” and “they watch” littered epicenters of the crackdown. For three years, by no means did Tosa’s youth see cops as their protectors. They were their hunters.

In spite of anything that happened at the forts on the teen’s end, no one can say the operation truly helped anything. Teenagers still use drugs and, in fact, a growing portion of them have added heroin to their habits. Some brave, or ignorant, souls have returned to the woods to rebuild, and the rest have moved on. What the operation did help was Tosa PD’s SOG–and the department as a whole–through the revenue collected via these undertakings. It also put an end to a genuine sub-culture brewing in the heart of Governor Scott Walker’s hometown. It probably even helped the school, or at least it’s relationship with WPD. During the crackdown, School Resource Officers played critical roles in gathering intelligence directly from the school environment. It probably even helped nearby adult residents, who found it worthwhile to phone the police over kids hanging out in the woods.

It didn’t help the fort goers, even the ones who didn’t get caught. It didn’t help all the completely unrelated kids who were stopped and harassed over that period. It didn’t decrease drug use amongst adolescents at all, nor the flow of drugs into the suburb. And with the redaction policy in place, all of it would’ve disappeared if it wasn’t for the project.

Nowhere in Wauwatosa Now’s archives will you find any references to a police operation this scale conducted by WPD, only hints. The department’s annual reports would’ve helped clear the air, either through explicit mentioning or hidden in statistics and data. With their last annual report having been released five years ago, despite other local departments continuing publication, WPD wouldn’t be exactly forthcoming.

This brings us to a very important point– why should you care at all about what happened here? Well, according to Insurance Journal, the number of departments with redaction policies is unaccounted for. Additionally, at least as of yet, no standard policy exists, meaning each department could have its own unique variation. Sometimes it may be mundane, and sometimes it may lead to something like what happened in Wauwatosa.

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If nothing else, the tax pays of that suburb deserve to know that their money went to an ineffective police operation against their children. Maybe they don’t need to know names, or addresses, but they deserve to know what happened if they so choose. “Government should never be able to take a citizen’s liberty away by not saying who it was that was arrested”, says Bill Lueders, Tosa Now reports.  You deserve to know what your department is doing in your community with your tax money. It’s difficult to hold police accountable if you leave them to police themselves while they shut you out completely.

In any modern democracy, it’s a travesty that requesting simple arrest requests can be as jarring and frustrating as it often is. There’s no reason why journalists, of all people, should be so specifically shut out. Most people have not the time, energy, or knowledge to actively hold the authority accountable. Journalists act as the constitutionally protected messengers of the people, the first vanguard. When you shut them out, you cut the flow of free information from which sovereign adults make their decisions. Being that Tosa PD pilots many tactics, programs, and equipment to be used by larger departments, what they got away with should be of deep concern to all.


Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a writer and freelance journalist native to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing can be found on Cop Block, The Pontiac Tribune, and The Fifth Column News. Video's produced by Isiah are published under the tag YungCartographer Productions.