The Institutional Culture of MPD Must Be Changed

By RL McNeely, JD, PhD

R.L. McNeely is chair of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board

R.L. McNeely is professor emeritus of social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Wisconsin Bar Association attorney emeritus. He has published two co-edited volumes including Race, Crime, and Criminal Justice (Sage Publications) in addition to eighty articles focusing on a variety of social welfare issues. He also is a co-author of the Milwaukee Urban League’s 1987 report, Milwaukee Today: A Racial Gap Study, and the Milwaukee NAACP’s 2011 monograph, Milwaukee Today: An Occasional Report, both of which detail, demographically, the plight of Milwaukee’s minority citizenry. He is chairman of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board which is a voluntary association comprised of private citizens guided by a shared concern for social justice, corrections policy, and the successful re-entry of former inmates as they return to their communities.

Nearly two years ago an editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel warning that, without certain changes, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) was bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. Now, having failed to heed that message, Milwaukee finds itself having achieved “poster-boy” status of what is wrong with big-city (and other city) policing. Consequently, the city is being perceived, nation-wide, either as an undesirable or less desirable location for mobile young professionals, as an undesirable location to raise young families, as a less desirable location for new businesses, and as a less desirable location for many conventions.

What’s more is that MPD has created this image of our City, not just with the mistreatment of Sterling Brown, but on many occasions, commencing as far back as my recollection allows to the 1950s, with the killing of Daniel Bell. More recently, we have had Dontré Hamilton, Sylville Smith and sickle-cell anemia sufferer, Eric Williams, all of whom died.

It’s no wonder that some of these events have precipitated riots, as was the case when Sylville Smith was killed. These events, too, especially when coupled with the poverty and segregation of our city, not only erode the image of Milwaukee but destroy it for many.

The convergence of these events and demographics have sometimes resulted in considerable pressure being placed on MPD and the City. But Gina Barton, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing in 2012 about how MPD responds to outraged neighborhoods, stated that the department will promise changes to the system and police training, “But time and again, the department … reverts to its old ways once the spotlight fades.”

So, what is to be done about this? The first thing that needs to be done is for the police chief and the Fire and Police Commission to step up to the plate and try to get rid of as many “bad apples” as possible. Coupling this initiative with oversight mechanisms composed of grass-roots representation and representation by metropolitan professionals also is likely to reap benefits. Next, MPD officers must dislodge the image of themselves as being “a force” and of being “warriors,” exclusively. Instead, as noted by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, officers need to internalize being “guardians,” unless the circumstances require otherwise. This means that the police will need to join with residents to solve problems that vex communities. This model of policing, known as “problem-oriented policing,” has been successful in reducing felony arrests in one city by 60% and reducing misdemeanors to about one-quarter of what they had been.

This is how problem-oriented policing works, with residents and officers working to achieve desirable goals. This model also helps, over time, to change the culture of a police department, in particular because it also helps to reduce many of the stressors that the police must abide. If we fail to change that culture, we simply are setting ourselves up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on July 09, 2018

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