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More Police - Not The Answer

By R.L. McNeely, Chair Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board (FCAB)

There’s an old adage that expresses its wisdom by asking the following question: “Is it foolish to think that a different outcome will result when you continue to do the same thing?” Or, how about “A person who does not know history is doomed to repeat it.” Both admonitions apply to Milwaukee. Just last year, for example, the City of Milwaukee paid out about 12.5 million dollars in settlements to the victims of police misconduct or to their families. Imagine what could have been done with that money if it had been allocated in ways that would have benefitted Milwaukee’s citizenry. Are we doomed to keep repeating paying off large annual settlements because of police misconduct?

What police misconduct, you ask? How about the deaths or serious injuries suffered by unarmed blacks and Latinos that have resulted from altercations with the police? What about the case of Daniel Bell, nearly sixty years ago, who was killed despite being unarmed, but who had a knife placed in his hand by police? That case was only solved officially decades later when a police officer courageously came forward to testify to the placement of the knife.

Today, we have Dontré Hamilton as the most prominent unarmed decedent, and Frank Jude as the most prominent beating victim, but there are many other not-so-well-known unarmed victims who could be invoked, such as, but not limited to Samuel Rodriguez, Ernest Lacy, Larry Jenkins, Michael Page, Justin Fields, and sickle-cell anemia sufferer, Eric Williams, who suffocated in the back of a squad car while beseeching the intentionally distracted squad car’s officer for help.

This is what many in Milwaukee’s larger metropolitan community don’t understand. The tendency is to think that the disturbance in Sherman Park resulted strictly from the shooting of Sylville Smith. Many folks tend to not pay attention to the 75 known cavity searches of both men and women, some of which occurred in public, that contributed to community rage. How many even know that a widespread belief among young central city adults is that there are squads of brutal police officers known as “The Punishers,” “The Midnight Riders,” and the “Jump-Out Boys”? In Detroit, back in 1967, before the riots, the equivalent squad was known as “The Big Four.” So disturbances such as that occurring recently in Sherman Park typically result from years of police-misconduct frustration, and subsequent outrage, rather than flowing from just a single event.

Gina Barton, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing in 2012 about how MPD responds to outraged neighborhoods, stated that MPD will promise changes to the system and police training, “But time and again, the Department reverts to its old ways once the spotlight fades.” This is why adding more police, as the mayor has recently proposed, is not the answer. We can’t just expect things will change when we do the same thing – add police - as we have in the past. Succinctly put, we are doomed to repeat our history if we don’t change things moving forward.

Changing police culture, enhancing morale

Changing things will require that the police are able to work hand-in-hand with community residents to eradicate or minimize crime. But this means that the culture of the police will need to change. After all, if the police expect community residents to provide tips to the police, that is to “snitch,” then the police will need to be willing to snitch, i.e., to break the “Blue Code of Silence,” as did the police officer who testified in the Daniel Bell case.

But more will be required. The police will need to move from having a constant “warrior” mentality to having a “guardian” mentality. This means that the police will need to focus on solving problems with the residents, themselves, that vex communities, rather than viewing the residents as potential targets for arrest and imprisonment. Fortunately, a model of policing that could serve Milwaukee well was invented in 1979 by University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor Herman Goldstein. It is called “problem-oriented policing.”

Problem-oriented policing can be illustrated by the type of policing that MPD beat-cop Felmers Chaney practiced, sixty years ago, even before professor Weinstein invented it. Chaney, instead of targeting and arresting juveniles engaged in minor crimes, would do things such as walk children from school and talk to their parents to keep the children out of trouble, assist drunks in getting on buses for their own safety and the safety of motorists, and always abided by his personal rule to treat others fairly. To change the culture of MPD, we need to consider a model such as the guardian model, i.e., problem-oriented policing. Recent examples occurred in Sherman Park, where the 7th district police captain wisely listened to members of the Sherman Park Community Association, who insisted that members of Sylville Smith’s family would see to it that a 10:00 p.m. curfew would be enforced by family members, and that people would vacate the memorial site at Auer Street by 6:00 P.M. so that near-by residents would not be disturbed. The captain also deployed squads such that they would be available in the event the Smith family was unable to achieve compliance. However, the family, indeed, for one week, did achieve compliance, thereby benefitting both the neighborhood and the neighborhood’s police.

This is how problem-oriented policing works. It is not just effective in crime abatement. It is also effective in rendering benefits to the police. They have reported enhanced job satisfaction in places where it has been implemented, such as Cincinnati. This morale enhancement is no small feat when you consider the stress, danger, and terror that police must abide, and horrible traumas that they must witness.

But, for it truly to take hold, the reward structure (merit awards, promotions, etc.) at MPD must be set to encourage officers’ compliance with the guardian role when adherence to that role is possible. City officials must be steadfast and firm in supporting the transition from warrior to guardian mode. There’s bound to be push-back from the police and the police union, at least until the benefits of this sort of policing become clear. Yet, if we hire more police without changing Milwaukee’s traditional culture of policing, we are simply setting ourselves up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Also, because there are bad guys in our community, MPD also must be able to engage the warrior mode when necessary, as did beat-cop Chaney, who had no trouble making the transition when necessary.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on June 01, 2018, at 05:46 PM

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