MILWAUKEE — In the year since George Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, massive changes have happened in police departments across the country, including Milwaukee.
“I always use that word, hate to say it, a watershed moment,” Acting Chief Jeffrey Norman said. “Are we doing everything in our power, in our respective roles, to dispense accountable policing, responsible, professional and humane? It’s been tough.”
Norman took over as the department’s top officer in December. While the Fire and Police Commission continues its process to fill the Chief position on a full-time basis, Norman takes the responsibility seriously during this incredibly stressful time.
“We’re dealing with a situation now where we have to earn credibility instead of having it by default,” Norman said. “We are aware that our feet are to the fire in regards to, did we do everything right? Did we cross all the t’s, dot all the i’s? That’s a big paradigm shift in regards to, we had a default, you are on the right side of what happened here. The unfortunate actions of a few are painting a broad picture to the many. I would not be in this project for 25 years if I saw the type of behaviors we’ve seen across the nation and in our own community, even in our own house.”
Norman is referencing the scrutiny the Milwaukee Police Department has received over the last few years. While much of the last year has seen calls for police reform from tens of thousands taking to the streets of Milwaukee, protesters are far from the only ones calling for change.
State and local elected officials have been pushing for more accountability and transparency. The Milwaukee Common Council passed at least 14 resolutions related to police reform in the last year. The Milwaukee Police Department is heeding the advice, making massive changes to its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). While George Floyd’s death was the start of an increased consciousness around the treatment of African Americans, Norman says it’s not the sole reason things are changing within the department.
“Has the incident in Minneapolis affected and brought a level of scrutiny and dialogue to what we’re changing? Yes, it has,” Norman said. “But a lot of it, we’ve already been doing.”
Norman points to the department’s willingness to adopt the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ protocols that push for more de-escalation techniques. In fact, the largest change in the Use of Force SOP is all about de-escalation, adding more explicit language in what is expected from MPD officers during any incident. The techniques and protocols are designed to minimize the likelihood of the need to use force during an incident.
“We talk about using all options before being engaged into a deadly force situation,” Norman said. “It’s trained but to also place into our SOP in regards to the expectation in using other means. We’ve trained in de-escalation and talked about it in training. Making sure we’re putting our words where our actions are is important. 8 Can’t Wait helped with that, to have clarity there.”
And they are ever-evolving. On May 6, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission voted to ban chokeholds without any life or death exceptions. A contentious decision, but one Norman says Milwaukee Police will adopt.
“The FPC made their decision and I have to respect their decision,” Norman said. “We will reflect that decision in our policy. I’m always concerned about officer safety. It’s extremely important to me and I’ve made statements in the past, we know what this looks like but it’s a balancing act. You try to respect both sides of the interest there.”
As of Monday, May 17, the Use of Force SOP reflects the change.
While the changes are meant to improve policing, there are some areas that still have some holes. One area was highlighted nationally when George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin. As Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, three other officers stood by and did nothing. In Minneapolis, as well as in Milwaukee, officers have a Duty to Intervene. The requirement is a way for officers to police themselves. The I-Team requested disciplinary records for MPD officers who did not intervene, but were told no such records exist.
“That can be a challenge of looking for those types of instances,” Norman said. “It has to be shown on video or something reporting it. To my knowledge, I don’t know what our records look like for any level of accountability for that. But the expectation still stands. It’s codified in our SOPs.”
In essence, if MPD isn’t told about officers not intervening, it’s hard to enforce. So in a case like George Floyd, the cell phone video of a bystander was the impetus to knowing something happened.
“I’m dependent on everyone’s eyes,” Norman said. “We’re responsive to the community. I want to hear input from the community but that’s only one part of the solution. The expectation is clear. Even as we go through training and programming and putting things into place, it does not absolve anyone from any type of personal accountability or accountability from leadership. Those particular incidents can come in multiple forms, whether from the public, our staff, our partners. This is a team effort in regards to ensuring accountability and professionalism and responsibility.”
To encourage other officers to step up and do the right thing, the Use of Force SOP also includes protections for whistleblowers. But in an effort to avoid the human aspect of speaking out, MPD is also keeping more tabs on what officers are doing while they’re in the field.
Milwaukee Police are required to file a Use of Force report whenever an incident occurs. That could be something as extreme as firing their gun down to the use of a baton. However, the new Use of Force SOP includes an additional item: pointing a firearm at a person. So now, whenever a Milwaukee Police Officer points their gun at anyone, it’s noted. The officer does not have to fire their weapon in order for a report to be filed.
This kind of data can provide MPD a better look at what officers are drawing their weapons and how frequently to help identify potential issues before they arise.
“All data needs to be examined and looked at,” Norman said. “We have what we call 'early warning systems' or review systems. That’s all part of our process and accountability. Looking at all provided information to see if any concern about red-flagging any officer’s particular behavior.”
Norman says there was a time in MPD history where pointing a weapon was documented in the Use of Force report. However, it fell by the wayside at some point.
The changes that have happened in the last 51 weeks since Floyd’s death have been intensive and forced the department to take a hard look at its procedures. However, it’s not to say problems in policing have been cured. Norman says it’s a fluid process and they’re always willing to make adjustments as they’re needed.
But today, 358 days after George Floyd took his last breath, sparking a global wave calling for police reform, Norman says policing is better now than it’s ever been, and they can still get better.
“I believe we have a level of openness about what’s going on within our respective departments,” Norman said. “We saw, across the nation, a unified denouncement of what happened in Minneapolis. That gives you, I would hope, a reassurance that there is no circling of the wagons of some sort or that anything you do in the name of police is going to be alright. Do we have a lot of work to do still? Absolutely.”