By Evan Casey
It was a chilly Wednesday night in Milwaukee, and Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old year old African- American man who suffered from schizophrenia, was trying to get some rest on a park bench downtown. He was woken up by a Milwaukee police officer who began to pat him down. Hamilton grabbed for the officer’s baton, and hit him on his neck, leading Milwaukee Police Department Officer Christopher Manney to shoot Hamilton 14 times, killing him. However, nearly eight months after the incident, the Milwaukee County District Attorney said the officer was justified in his use of force.
This event occurred in 2014, and although former Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn did fire Manney following the shooting and killing of a mentally unstable man who had not been taking his medication, it left many Milwaukee citizens angry and disappointed with their police department. This sentiment was carried over by protesters following another shooting of an African-American man, this time 23-year-old Sylville Smith, who was also shot and killed by Milwaukee Police Officers following a chase in August of 2016. The Sherman Park neighborhood in Milwaukee was literally set ablaze when others got word of the shooting, as three nights of protesting led to the burning down of a gas station and nearly 40 arrests. Another Milwaukee Police officer was acquitted of the shooting, leaving the community angry and upset yet again.
However, these events were seen as an opportunity to rebuild for many Milwaukee residents during an event called Dontre Day, a gathering of families and friends of Dontre Hamilton, on a breezy Saturday afternoon in early May.
Children weaved in and out of the crowd while a live band played just feet from where Dontre was killed on that spring night in 2014. Hamilton’s family spoke about the importance of staying positive while remembering Dontre, while Mayor Tom Barrett issued a proclamation signifying the importance of Dontre’s life. Events like the Sherman Park riots and Dontre Hamilton shooting have left a lasting impact on the minds of many citizens, many of whom are already impoverished and racially profiled, according to multiple American Civil Liberties Union reports. However, there is change on the minds of many, as a new police chief was sworn in months ago, following the retirement of former chief Flynn.
25-year MPD veteran Alfonso Morales was born and raised in Milwaukee. He has worked in the Gang Crimes Unit, Homicide Unit and Vice Control Division. He served as the Crisis Negotiator Commander, and was later picked by Flynn to command District Two in Milwaukee, according to a Milwaukee Police Department biography. He was sworn in with little trouble, being one of the early front runners in the new search for a chief led by the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, a civilian oversight committee. “We have been hearing a lot of the frustration…I’m asking for a chance,” said Chief Morales in an interview. “We have a job to do and we aren’t perfect. We will work on doing better.”
Chief Morales will have his work cut out for him. A 2017 ACLU lawsuit found that the MPD’s stop and frisk policy is often times impacted by the race of an individual. A leak of a draft of a Department of Justice Collaborative Reform document found that the Milwaukee Police Department does not have a department-wide strategy for community policing. Months ago, Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown sued the City of Milwaukee after a run-in with police last January, a run-in that his lawyer says was “discriminating against Mr. Brown on the basis of his race.” The Department is also facing millions of dollars in lawsuits regarding officer misconduct.
Milwaukee leaders and organizers remained vocal throughout the selection process for a new chief, chiming in during roundtables and city hall type meetings and expressing that they wanted a leader from within Milwaukee who understands the pressures that minorities face every day. African-Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 60 percent of the population of the city, according to the 2010 census. Following the selection of Morales, many across Milwaukee believe there is a real opportunity for transition and change across the department, and the city.
The new chief is looking to mend relationships with the African-American community, a population that has long felt the strain of city-wide policies that have negatively impacted their lives. Milwaukee is the fifth most impoverished city in the nation with a poverty rate of 29 percent, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. These numbers also show that nearly 1 in 3 African-American Milwaukeeans live in extreme poverty. A 2014 University of Wisconsin report, titled Statewide Imprisonment of Black Men in Wisconsin, found that “over half of African American men of prime working age (30-44 years) from Milwaukee County have served time in state prison or are currently incarcerated.” Morales is aware of this and he says he needs the community to help him.
That’s why Nate Hamilton, brother of Dontre, is remaining vocal. “They have to go out and gain our respect,” says Hamilton about the MPD during Dontre Day. “They are the leaders, and we have to expect leaders to be the bigger person, and they have to be the person to admit they are wrong, and be the person to say ‘we are going to fix this.’”
Markasa Tucker agrees with Hamilton. Tucker runs the African American Roundtable in Wisconsin, a community engagement resource attempting to improve the quality of life for African-Americans across the state. She sat down at a roundtable event with the new chief. “You have to recognize people’s experiences and meet people where they are,” she said. “Have respect for people situations and what traumatizes them.”
Respect seems to be a common concern in the voices of many community organizers and leaders. Former chief Flynn was often criticized for being too rigid in the way he dealt with the community. Even Morales said he felt the MPD is “often too robotic.” This was echoed in a Department of Justice report that said the MPD does not have a strategy to effectively communicate with the community. The report, known as a collaborative reform, was a voluntary step taken months ago by the MPD, and it said in part, “MPD’s attention to crime data has distracted the department from the primary tenet of modern policing: trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve.” Morales knows this, and he said that he plans on working to implement new strategies to focus on community policing. “The police is the community and the community is the police. That’s easier said than done,” he said. “We need to represent the whole community, by hiring and ensuring the police department is part of the community.”
Morales has been praised for the fact the he has put people of color in positions of leadership within the Department. He has promoted Raymond Banks to Assistant Chief and placed Sheronda Grant as the Public Information Officer, both African-Americans who have worked within the community for years. This is good news for NAACP Milwaukee Branch President Fred Royal. “He’s taking a positive direction…there’s more minorities on the 7th floor,” said Royal, regarding the administration sector of the MPD. “Diversity is always a good thing.”
But even Royal noted there was room for improvement, specifically in the realm of mental illness training for officers. Just last September, a Milwaukee man who was legally blind and who dealt with serious mental health issues according to his family, was shot and killed by Milwaukee Police Officers. The man, named Antwon Springer, shot a gun into the air, apparently attempting to stop a fight that was escalating on the street. Springer’s aunt said she believes the MPD should all have more training in this area. “Police officers should be peacemakers and mediators. Our office is reckless,” said Desiree Brown, Aunt of Antwon Springer. “There should be a level of professionalism because I fear for my life.”
“We can’t expect the police department to be the mental health department. They all have to collaborate,” Royal added. More mental health training is a promise that has been kept by the department and the City of Milwaukee. In 2014, following the Dontre Hamilton shooting, Mayor Tom Barrett said that all of MPD’s more than 1,800 officers would receive CIT training, a special training that teaches officers how to communicate with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses. Supervisors will receive the same training by the end of 2018, according to the Community Feedback Portal, a website set up in response to the many recommendations the DOJ laid out in their collaborative reform.
Proper training for supervisors is something that Dr. Stan Stojkovic, the dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee and an expert in criminal justice administration, says is past due for the department. “Supervision is everything but it is the least discussed,” said Stojkovic, who has studied the hiring and firing of police officers across the country at length. “Officers who are problematic and problematic a lot…you have to focus on those people.”
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found that the Milwaukee Police Department has paid $17.5 million in legal settlements since 2015 for police misconduct. Morales believes this number is far too high. “We spend a lot of time on training our front line officers. But we forget the front line supervisor,” he said. “That’s an important part of the department that we may not have focused on. The front line is often the one on camera, making mistakes. How do we reduce that to make it a marginal thing?”
Angela Lang, Executive Director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, says less police on the streets could possibly solve this issue. “When people are being profiled and they are being harassed… adding more police will not help that. Policing is only a band aid, it’s not actually eliminating crime,” said Lang. Stojkovic agrees. He says many departments tend to focus on putting more police on the streets in response to high crime rates, but he says evidence does not support that this is the answer. “The evidence suggests that effective policing is synchronizing the number of police with the current number of objectives you are trying to achieve within a community. Simply adding more police, does not make better policing.”
Morales agrees with this sentiment. That is why he has apparently re-assigned officers across the city, in an attempt to evenly distribute them. “We know that crime is higher in certain areas, but we just can’t over police that area and militarize that area,” he said.
So what does the Milwaukee Police Department and its new chief do next? Many in Milwaukee say the answer is simple: listen to the community. Morales just began his term, and he says many of his plans and initiatives will be introduced in the very near future. Many Milwaukee citizens are hoping to put behind the wounds of incidents like the Sherman Park riots behind them for good.
“It’s a constant challenge to communicate with the government partners and the community organizations…that’s a full time job,” Morales said. “It’s difficult and it’s a challenge but a lot of it is enjoyable. There is a common goal and all of us want our community to be safe.”