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Chief Ed Flynn and the Future of Constitutional Policing

Apr. 11, 2017
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Now more than ever, it will be up to local police chiefs like Milwaukee’s Ed Flynn to make sure their officers are enforcing the law in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. That means treating everyone equally under the law, something citizens in black neighborhoods and even many in white neighborhoods know really hasn’t been historically true in America.

Many community activists probably shudder to think about Flynn policing himself. Flynn can come across with an arrogant air of superiority even when he’s adopted such positive police reforms as body cameras and department-wide training in mental health intervention.

But Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions clearly wants to end all federal oversight and civil rights enforcement of local police reforms by the U.S. Justice Department.

This comes as absolutely no surprise. This is the same Jeff Sessions whose 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship was withdrawn by President Reagan after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him because of his shabby history of opposing civil rights.

One of Sessions’ first actions as attorney general is ordering a review of every consent decree reached between the Justice Department’s civil rights division and local police departments. Those agreements were to correct widespread, systemic police patterns and practices in training and supervision that resulted in unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests and disproportionate use of excessive and deadly force against black and Latino residents.

We all know what led to those agreements. The series of unjustified deadly incidents between police and unarmed citizens since Ferguson, Mo., differed from those occurring year after year beforehand for as long as we can remember only because videos of the later incidents made all of us witnesses.

The dirty little secret about the ugly, racist culture Sessions wants to perpetuate is that it’s dangerous for both police and the community. Just last week, Sessions tried unsuccessfully in Baltimore to delay a federal judge’s appointment of an independent monitor to oversee department reforms of unconstitutional police practices—practices, which a scathing Justice report said unnecessarily endangered both officers and civilians.


Sessions’ Intervention ‘A Punch in the Gut’


Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called Sessions’ attempt to delay the agreement “a punch in the gut.” He said reform “will make the Baltimore police department better both with the crime fight and our community relationships.”

Ed Flynn came to town in 2008 extolling the value of community policing. Police who know and are known in the community aren’t automatically considered the enemy. And those officers don’t fear everyone they encounter based on skin color, leading to deadly overreactions.

However, Flynn sometimes seems to like the idea of community a lot more than many of its individual members, especially those who challenge him. To Flynn’s credit, one of his first extended media appearances as chief was on the morning radio show my partner Cassandra and I co-hosted on 1290 WMCS-AM, which had a strong following in the African American community.

Cassandra and I asked tough, but certainly respectful questions. Some of the callers may not have been quite as respectful, but their concerns about policing were exactly what a new chief from out of town needed to hear. But we could never get Flynn to come on again after that.

Flynn occasionally appears at Community Brainstorming, a monthly gathering to discuss issues in the black community. He seems most comfortable dominating the room with his self-assured rhetoric. Less so when he’s challenged with questions he feels he’s already addressed quite admirably. You can almost see his eyes glaze over after a while.

Flynn’s somewhat prickly public interactions obscure commendable department reforms including body cameras and retraining. The family of Dontre Hamilton, the mentally ill man shot and killed in a Downtown park, understandably believe the officer should have been prosecuted, but Flynn did fire that officer.

Flynn also deserves credit for rejecting the idea of harassing immigrants as Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is eager to do. Flynn said the core mission of his department “is to protect and serve the residents of our community. And you can’t do that if you’re terrifying them and trying to round them up.”

Milwaukee is not one of more than a dozen departments nationally with consent decrees to end unconstitutional police practices that Sessions now wants to second-guess. More than a year ago in the wake of the Hamilton case, however, Flynn requested a review by the Justice Department’s civil rights division of his department’s practices, agreeing to voluntarily implement any recommended reforms.

The results of that yearlong investigation may never see the light of day now. If civil rights enforcement evaporates under Trump and Sessions, it will be up to local officials everywhere including Flynn, Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council to continue department reforms to assure equal treatment at the hands of police.

Community safety, police safety and now the future of constitutional policing in America itself depend upon it.

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