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Targeting Police Chief Edward Flynn

Oct. 10, 2012
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Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and his department have been taking a terrible beating lately. No one has to point out the irony of that sentence.

An incident involving a vicious, racist beating by drunken, off-duty, white Milwaukee police officers and a failed cover-up by on-duty ones is the reason why Flynn was brought in from the outside to clean up the department in January 2008.

In October 2004, Frank Jude Jr., who is half-black, and another African American made the mistake of accepting an invitation from two white women to drop in on a Bay View house party.

It turned out to be a party of off-duty police officers, many of whom had been drinking all day.

Jude’s friend escaped with relatively minor injuries, but Jude was severely beaten, kicked and tortured in what a federal prosecutor called “an intentional, methodical, purposeful, extensive beating over 15 minutes full of sickening acts.”

An all-white Milwaukee County jury acquitted the police officers, but a federal civil rights trial convicted seven officers, with three sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. Jude recently received a $2 million settlement.

Fast-forward to 2012.

After a series of incidents involving police treatment of African Americans, community activists are questioning whether the department has really changed. Some are calling for Flynn’s firing.

Some may argue details of the accusations against the police, but the bottom line is police treatment that few in the community could imagine ever taking place against white citizens.

Consider police conducting illegal strip searches of black suspects that involve taking down citizens’ pants on public streets and searching body cavities for drugs. Another name for that is sexual assault.

In another case, an African-American family was clearly the victim of a deadly crime.  A 76-year-old white man, suspicious of black neighbors, shot and killed a 13-year-old boy taking out the trash.

Police questioned the boy’s mother for an hour and a half at the scene, preventing her from going to the hospital until after her son was pronounced dead. The boy’s brother was arrested on municipal warrants. The family’s home was searched, fruitlessly, for guns the shooter imagined his neighbors might have stolen.

The latest outrage is over a video just released of an African American in 2011 dying in the back of a police squad as officers ignored his pleas that he was having trouble breathing for nearly eight minutes.

After viewing the video for the first time, the county medical examiner recently changed his ruling from natural causes to homicide.


Much to Overcome

Flynn came to Milwaukee as an eloquent spokesman for progressive, modern law enforcement, especially community policing, which encourages officers to develop a close relationship with the communities they patrol.

However, he has not always been the best example of it himself. In community meetings, when black leaders and others aggressively question police policies, Flynn sometimes comes off as arrogant and short with the public.

Flynn also has a lot more to overcome than just the Jude case. The Milwaukee Police Department has a well-documented history of racist practices, including Police Chief Harold Breier’s iron-fisted harassment of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It doesn’t help that Flynn has become increasingly at odds with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose reporting of him, frankly, hasn’t always been the most evenhanded and professional either.

As a result, Flynn sometimes stubbornly resists releasing what should be public information. The video at the center of the current controversy wasn’t publicly released for 10 months.

Flynn’s first reaction to criticism of police behavior is often either to rationalize missteps or stand behind his officers. That can look like the bad, old days of automatic dismissal of black community concerns.

After a recent Milwaukee Film Festival screening of The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, former police detective Patrick Kennedy, to whom Dahmer confessed torturing and killing 17 young men, many from the black community, recalled the tragic consequences of poor community policing.

In May 1991, early in the serial murders, a 14-year-old Asian boy escaped naked, bleeding and drugged from Dahmer’s apartment. Black neighbors called police. When two white officers arrived, they found an incoherent Asian boy and angry and excited black neighbors.

They chose to believe the calmest person on the scene, someone who looked like them. Dahmer told police the boy was his 19-year-old lover with whom he’d had a drunken argument. Police returned the naked boy to Dahmer, who murdered him shortly after police left.

Kennedy, who now teaches criminology at UW-Milwaukee, said if the officers had been trained in Flynn’s community policing, they might have trusted citizens of another race and stopped Dahmer’s horrors.

Instead of firing Flynn, department training in community policing obviously needs to be tremendously increased. It’s the right idea not just for beat officers, but for department management as well.


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