Police/Community Relations

Jun 19, 2009

This segment of Project Milwaukee: Black and White focuses on what has been a flash point at times: the relationship between the police department and the community. While many officers have devoted their careers and even sacrificed their lives to keep residents safe and uphold the law, there have been instances of police abusing citizens, particularly African Americans. Beginning in the 1960s, activists increasingly brought such cases to light, demanding justice and change. WUWM’s Marge Pitrof reports.

When William Gore arrived in Milwaukee in the late 50s, he says the MPD had strengths but was living in the past.

Milwaukee recruited William Gore from Atlanta in the late 1950s to work here as a probation officer. Fifteen years later, the community tapped him to become only the second African American to serve on Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission during its 80 year history. It oversees the fire and police departments. Gore says he when he arrived, he was stunned by the segregation he found in housing. At the same time, Gore knew the city was viewed as one of the safest in the country. And the police department, then under the command of Chief Harold Breier, had been touted for decades as one of the finest.

"The majority of people, I’m talking about white Milwaukeeans, had a very positive opinion of the police department and were not bothered by the fact that the blacks were bottled up in the central city, in the ghetto. What I was hearing in a negative sense, was that police were not serving the inner city community as much as they were occupying it; like the citizens needed to be kept in their place," Gore says.

The demographics of the community had been changing, according to Will Pelfrey, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at U-W Milwaukee. He says African Americans had been moving here in sizeable numbers for good-paying manufacturing jobs.

“Police officers who were at that time middle class and white, were suddenly dealing with an influx of African Americans, and they weren’t prepared for the cultural difference and unfortunately, things did not work out very well," Pelfrey says.

Vince Vitale says education is key to a better police force.

Pelfrey says a few officers were involved in beatings of black residents. After civil disturbances occurred here and in other cities in the late '60s, changes began happening around the police department. Milwaukee appointed its first black member to the Fire and Police Commission. He eventually resigned, frustrated that the police chief then had lifetime tenure and was reticent to improve relations with the black community and integrate the department. About the same time, a federal judge ordered the MPD to diversify. For every three white officers the department hired, it had to bring two minority officers aboard. Vince Vitale, who’s white, came onto the force under that arrangement. He’s now Dean of Protective Services at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“During the Breier era, the people he surrounded himself with, were like him. They had maybe some military experience and didn’t have anything besides high school. And being a police officer meant doing what the chief said,” Vitale says.

Vitale says he found a mix of attitudes among officers: some tolerant of all residents, others aggressive against minorities. Community leaders began rebelling against the injustices however, in early 80s. That was after three white officers were blamed with causing the death of a black man, Ernest Lacy, after they mistakenly arrested him as a crime suspect. Howard Fuller, a community activist at the time, helped lead protests demanding that charges be filed against the officers.

“We know that they had handcuffed him and that (the officer) was no longer concerned about arresting him, he was trying to hurt him. And in the process of hurting him, he killed him."

"Most people know that it was the first time anything ever happened to any Milwaukee Police Department person for the death of an African American," Fuller says.

Fuller says the activism surrounding the Lacy case helped raise public conscientiousness that the police department needed further adjustment. Some did follow. While former Chief Breier held onto his job until he decided to retire, subsequent chiefs have lost lifetime tenure. They’re now appointed for seven year terms. Breier’s successors have included a Latino and African American. And in more recent times, there’s been an increasing emphasis on improving police-community relations and race relations within the MPD. UWM's Will Pelfrey says the Police Academy is training new officers to be cognizant of race relations issues.

“That’s going to reap long-term benefits. Twenty years ago, we’ll going to see a very different police department if they continue this pattern,” Pelfrey says.

Overall there’s been an increased emphasis on the education of officers, according to MATC’s Vince Vitale.

“You’ve got to learn a little bit more than a task,” Vitale says.

Vitale says there has been a lot of growth within the MPD in recent years, yet he says it’s a ways off from being a post-racial institution. There was a reminder just a few years ago when white off-duty officers beat Frank Jude, a bi-racial man. Vitale says the as long as race problems exist in the community, there will likely be similar attitudes within the department.