It’s been nearly 100 years since the first African American police officer was sworn in here in Milwaukee, but progress has been slow for minorities to assume the position of top cop in the state.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, there are 12 African American leaders of law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin, making up just 2.1 percent of the total.
The I-Team spoke with four of those Chiefs; Milwaukee Police Acting Chief, Jeffrey Norman, Waukesha Chief Dan Thompson, Beloit Chief Andre Sayles and Monona Chief Brian Chaney Austin.
“I am honored to be in this position,” Thompson said. “I’m blessed to be a person of color but as a police chief, I want to be seen by my character.”
“I recognize that I’m a man of color but as Chief Thompson talks about, we also recognize our high responsibility to all diverse backgrounds,” Norman said. “Having the ability to be part of that conversation.”
The road to being a top cop wasn’t always easy for these men of color. All four say they’ve been profiled by police during their lives. Those experiences, good and bad, were motivators for why they got into law enforcement.
“I wasn’t maybe profiled, I was profiled as a kid,” Chaney Austin said. “There were several times in which I was stopped and it became so common nature, it was shared experiences when I’d talk to friends and family members.”
Chaney Austin faced a lot of adversity growing up as a child. In his words, growing up a gay Black male in the City of Chicago who played hockey, he didn’t see many officers who looked like him. Because of the frequency, he’d get stopped by police, he says he’d often thrust his hands in the air as soon as he saw an officer. One day though, that all changed as an officer approached him to establish a connection.
“A police officer just stopped to say hi and introduce himself to me,” Chaney Austin said. “That completely floored me. I thought it was a ruse or something but he said no. He was simply stopping to introduce himself because he had seen me in the neighborhood of the precinct he worked for years. ‘If you ever need anything, reach out to the police. We’re here to help you.’ That completely, 100 percent, changed my outlook on policing. Period.”
Seeing police in a different light led Chaney Austin to pursue law enforcement so he could be that change. Thompson agreed on making an impact on children.
“We need to show these young kids of all colors that this is a worthy profession to be a law enforcement officer,” Thompson said. “It’s a worthy profession for us to be partners in the community. It’s not the police and the community. It’s the community. The police are part of the community and the community is part of the police department.”
Thompson’s experience being profiled had a similar outcome to Chaney Austin’s. He was pulled over when he was 19 while riding a motorcycle. When he drove it off the lot, he didn’t have the appropriate license for it.
“I got put in jail for like seven hours,” Thompson said. “I know now, they should have given me a citation and be done with it but that didn’t happen.”
Thompson says it turned out to be a positive and pivotal moment for him getting into law enforcement.”
“They kind of recruited me a little bit and said, you want to be part of the solution? Then get involved and get engaged,” Thompson said. “That was the best thing that a person told me. You always hear this negative context of profiling. I’ll be honest with you, tell me one good officer that doesn’t profile because if I see someone at two o’clock in the morning in the neighborhood that’s normally not there, there might be something that’s not right with that situation. There has to be probable cause and it has to be a reasonable suspicion associated with that. But racial profiling, does it happen? Yes. Have I ever been profiled? Yes. But I responded the right way. We have to have those positive encounters.”
For others, the motivation to make the change came from a different place.
Growing up in Aurora, Ill., Sayles was on the front step to gang activity regularly; he says his cousin was a leader in a local gang who encouraged him to go down a different path. Sayles got into sports as an outlet but still would have run-ins with police. He and his brother were once taken into custody because they fit the description of suspects in a nearby shooting. Sayles and his brother had just finished playing basketball at the local Boys & Girls Club, so they were in sneakers and basketball shorts.
“I got a size eleven pair of shoes, a tank top, and basketball shorts on, there is no guns on us,” Sayles said. “Well, they heard shots and people pointed to us so they threw us in the back of the Paddywagon.”
Six months later, his family moved to a small town in Iowa that was predominantly white. The profiling continued.
“The police showed up at our house and they were like, yeah, you guys were at Jack & Jill stealing,” Sayles said.
Sayles spent his high school years here. His experience of being accused of stealing from a convenience store extended into his college years.
“We would get stopped all the time,” Sayles said. “We would have totes in the back of my car and they would take them out all the time and search and search and search and I’m like why? You stopped me for speeding, saying I was doing 71 in a 65. Why are you taking all my stuff out of my car? That’s when I really honed in on being a police officer. I said I want to know what they know or what they think they know about certain groups of people and I want to go back into communities that are less educated about laws and provide the information for these communities so we are just as educated on our rights as other people think they are.”
Policing has been at the forefront of the conversation on racial inequity over the last year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis Police Officer. It’s opened up conversations both publicly and professionally for these law enforcement leaders.
“Our minority officers at the police department have an opportunity to go to briefings on Wednesdays and talk about some signs that they may see that their white counterparts don’t,” Sayles said. “We continue to train them, continue to educate them and continue to have those courageous conversations.”
A focus has been on increasing diversity within their departments. Sayles says they’ve increased from three African American officers to nine in five years. The others say they’re working to recruit more diverse candidates as well to make change.
“We do need diversity in the state,” Thompson said. “We do need diversity in our cities. Diversity brings opportunity and opportunity is where we get the different lens of problem-solving things.”
Thompson also points to the community’s role in change. His focus is around community engagement and he preaches that to his officers. But he wants to make sure the community is open to engagement too.
“The bottom line is about relationships,” Thompson said. “We need to be able to listen to each other. Once we listen and see past the superficial thing of color, we start to see character. We get to learn people and amazing things happen. We’re here to be engaged in these neighborhoods and each one of us is passionate about being engaged.”
“We got to be able to be comfortable with diversity,” Norman said. “Diversity and humanity kind of goes hand in hand in regards to that. I’m comfortable enough to have a discussion with someone who can give me the Latino experience or the Caucasian experience or give me the African American experience. We are stronger because of that.”
Getting the community comfortable with diversity and having more humanity is imperative for Norman. For Norman, who came up through the ranks in the mid-90s, he’s experienced his share of racism on the job from the community.
“I had a situation when I was an officer with my other African American Officer going to a residence on the Southside of Milwaukee, where the resident who had called for service say that he doesn’t want Black officers,” Norman said. “He wanted white officers. The response was, well then you don’t want he services, because this is what you’re going to get. I think that we all can share multiple different stories and, of course, our experiences on the job and off the job.”
In the 97 years since Judson Walter Minor Jr. was sworn in as the first African American police officer in Milwaukee, having 12 leaders of law enforcement may seem remarkable considering the systemic issues facing communities of color. However, all of these men acknowledge, there is a long way to go still.
“I hope to say would like the number to be  years and there are 97 chiefs of color in the position,” Sayles said. “I think we got a long way to go. The biggest thing is, we’re overlooked sometimes. We need to be provided those opportunities and I think it’s our opportunity now to mold individuals, not just people of color but most people to be leaders. We’re not always going to be here, we’re all going to want to enjoy our retirement. So, it’s putting people in positions to be promotable.”
“At some point, you’re going to run out of these topics where, hopefully, there’s no longer a need to talk about what it’s like to be a Black Chief in Wisconsin or what it’s like to be a gay Chief in Wisconsin. Some point, hopefully, maybe in the next lifetime, we’ll get to that point where there will be enough diversity where you have to pick another topic.”
Increasing diversity inherently increases representation. For Chaney Austin, an openly gay, Black Chief, he hopes his being there can inspire others to understand, they can do it too. He hopes to be there along the way to help those interested.
“There are some institutional barriers that might exist for persons of color,” Chaney Austin said. “What I love to do in my new position here, is make sure that there are mentorship opportunities and maybe formalize that more so that officers of color can be more promotable.”
Diversity isn’t just focused on race for these leaders. They’re all hoping to hire more women in law enforcement as well. Currently, there are 28 women who lead law enforcement agencies in the state.