Sparked by a mix of anti-police sentiment, “vigilantism,” and apparent misinformation via social media, chaos erupted in Milwaukee on Tuesday during the search for missing teen girls.
According to local news reports and video footage, in the process of the urgent search, officers and other first responders had bricks thrown at them, three people were injured in a related shooting, and a house was burned to the ground.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Wednesday that the crowd outside the home that was later burned to the ground included “a mix of neighbors observing the situation, people expressing frustration with police and activists who’d marched in Milwaukee’s racial justice protests.”
“What started Tuesday as a missing-persons investigation morphed over the course of several hours as tensions about police treatment ran high and rumors spread online,” the report outlined. “By nightfall, three people — including two 14-year-olds — had been shot, a house was set on fire, and police had fired tear gas and pepper spray on some members of a scattered crowd of hundreds who’d gathered outside a Milwaukee house where police earlier conducted an investigation into two missing teenage girls.”
The missing teens, aged 13 and 15, were reportedly located on Wednesday.
Rumors of sex trafficking have not been confirmed by authorities, though police spokeswoman Sgt. Sheronda Grant said it is “something that we are looking into.”
“So that’s under review,” she said. “However, I cannot confirm that that is the case.”
According to ABC News-affiliate 12 WISN, the home that was burned to the ground was not where the girls were found.
As people broke into the home and set it ablaze, “police say people in the crowd fired shots and hit three people,” 12 WISN reported Wednesday. “Officers also say people in the crowd started throwing bricks and pieces of concrete at police. … Police also say both missing teenagers have been found and they were not at that home.”
The report noted that a man named Pat Bills said his grandmother lived in the home that was torched. Bills excoriated the protesters for suggesting they were “empowered,” stating they are “terrorizing,” not “empowering.”
“She’s a loving lady,” he said of his grandmother. “She had three strokes. She’s fighting for the last little life she got left. I’m surprised this here didn’t set her off.”
“After they get the right information, for them to come back and still burn down the house, terrorism stuff, that’s wrong,” Bills continued. “And then, y’all gonna use that to make a move and talk about some empowerment? Y’all are being empowering? You’re not empowering at all. Y’all are terrorists.”
The landlord of the home, Anna Bartsch, is a former missionary who’s poured her life into helping the inner city of Milwaukee.
“I was in tears,” Bartsch said. “When we moved back to Milwaukee, we did all we could to help build up this whole community. And so, yes, (it’s) devastating.”
An angered Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morale ripped the “vigilantism” and the obstruction of their police work.
“We had to go out there and now do a rescue in the middle of an angry crowd,” he told reporters.
“We investigate the information that is given to us,” Morale said. “We can’t allow an unruly crowd to determine what that investigation is. What you had today is vigilantism. You had people take the law into their own hands and run off of information that has not been proven …We need to investigate that. That’s what the police is here for.”
Caroline Reinwald of 12 WISN reported on the incident until she was forced out.
“Things getting very tense in an alley at 39th and Lloyd in a missing girls case,” she posted, at around 4 p.m. on Tuesday (posts below). “Two teenage girls are missing, the crowd here says this house is where they were last seen. People in the crowd tell me it’s a known sex trafficking house. Police have not confirmed. Minutes later, police left and the crowd began breaking windows/breaking into the house. People said they were upset because they believed sex trafficking was happening inside the home. You can see people in the crowd getting physical with other members of the media.”
“As we were leaving the area, we saw more people smashing the windows of the house. Police were nearby but not intervening. Later – the house was set on fire,” reported Reinwald. Citing another video she shot from the scene, she wrote: “Police standing in line, dressed in riot gear, in front of a crowd. People here said MPD doesn’t care/investigate when black children go missing.” Citing the final video, Reinwald reported: “Last video I shot before we were forced back by a few angry people in the crow. Chief Morales confirms 3 people were shot on scene, he said not by police. He said police deployed tear gas and other non-lethal weapons into the crowd. 7 officers, 1 firefighter injured.”
Things getting very tense in an alley at 39th and Lloyd in a missing girls case. Two teenage girls are missing, the crowd here says this house is where they were last seen. People in the crowd tell me it’s a known sex trafficking house. Police have not confirmed. @WISN12News pic.twitter.com/GiGiDhVKUp
— Caroline Reinwald (@WISN_Caroline) June 23, 2020
— Caroline Reinwald (@WISN_Caroline) June 24, 2020
Last video I shot before we were forced back by a few angry people in the crowd. Chief Morales confirms 3 people were shot on scene, he said not by police. He said police deployed tear gas and other non-lethal weapons into the crowd. 7 officers, 1 firefighter injured. @WISN12News pic.twitter.com/7dhmz7Cuqo
— Caroline Reinwald (@WISN_Caroline) June 24, 2020
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