Milwaukee Aldermen Discuss, Table Idea to Elect Future Police Chiefs

Jul 3, 2018

Some Milwaukee residents and officials consider new Police Chief Alfonso Morales to be a breath of fresh air. Earlier this year, he took over for Edward Flynn, who retired. The Fire and Police Commission chose Morales to serve the final two years of Fynn's term. Morales has pledged to improve police-community relations, and some say he's making inroads. But a Milwaukee alderman thinks the public deserves a say in who heads the police department. 

He's pushing for a change that would allow citizens to elect the police chief.

Currently, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission appoints chiefs to four-year terms. But north side Ald. Khalif Rainey is proposing the idea of electing the chief. Rainey thinks an elected police chief would be more accountable to the public. He testified before the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation committee on Monday. Rainey says -- Common Council members are elected, so why not police chief?

“I have no qualms about Chief Morales, but it’s about process. It’s about how we get to the point where we have a chief, so how do we hold him accountable. Right now, we’ve circumvented the entire public, the same public that had the wisdom to send all of us down here, now we’re saying you guys don’t have the wisdom to elect a police chief,” Rainey says.

Rainey’s proposal would require a change in state law. He says job qualifications would have to be written into the law, and those seeking election as chief would have to familiarize themselves with the requirements.

“Like what we’re seeking, the experience, the education, things of that nature, so it’s not like any Joe Schmo could just jump up and be police chief tomorrow if we were to implement those policies,” Rainey says.

But, Ald. Cavalier Johnson has questions. He told Rainey that he's concerned that an elected police chief could be beholden to contributors.

“Have you taken into consideration where votes and where support, financial as well, comes from and the implications that that would have on a police chief that needs to see the entire city and deliver services to the entire city but if you’ve got donors or a large voting bloc in one part of the city, how that might affect the policy of the administration?” Johnson asks.

Only a handful of cities across the country have elected police chiefs. That's according to Stan Stojkovic, dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UWM. Stojkovic believes the proposal to elect a chief stems from ongoing concerns about police-community relations.

“I think this is largely a political run by individuals who are upset with the police department, the lack of responsivity, at least in the recent past, at least that’s their perception of it and as a result they want to throw the baby out with the bath water and start all over with an electoral process,” Stojkovic says.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee NAACP President Fred Royal has worries about Alderman Rainey's proposal. The NAACP has been advocating for improved police-community relations with the group Community Coalition for Quality Policing. Royal points to former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who became a divisive political figure.

“I don’t see any value added in having a chief that is not accountable to anybody but the folks that elect him. I think that’s what happened to David Clarke and his ego. He got too big for the position,” Royal says.

The Common Council committee tabled the measure, with Chairman Mark Borkowski noting the Legislature wouldn’t be back in session until January to consider it. Ald. Rainey said he'd make modifications, in hopes his proposal goes further in the future.