NewsLocal News


Milwaukee Police Chief improving police-community relations one step at a time

Posted at 7:09 PM, Jul 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-08 20:09:27-04

MILWAUKEE — Two weeks after a large group set a home on fire, Milwaukee's Police Chief was in the streets to hear from the neighborhood's residents.

"The reason I went back was, I was there on the night the house was burned down on 40th & Lloyd," Chief Alfonso Morales said. "I was out there and there were a ton of homeowners and residents from the community watching this take place. The vision I saw, they were totally disappointed and disgusted by it. I wanted to go back to talk to some of those residents I spoke to that night."

Morales is very familiar with this neighborhood but from a time well before he had a badge. He grew up near 33rd & Garfield.

"Not too far from that neighborhood," Morales said. "I know what some of those houses looked like in the past and present. Even the house that burned down, that was at one time a beautiful house."

Beautiful houses like Brian Holbrook's. He's lived on 39th near Lloyd for about five years. Two weeks ago, he watched the fire rage at the house behind his.

"There are a thousand people out here to burn a house down," Holbrook said. "That same thousand people could have come up with a different solution."

Holbrook is referring to the large gathering of people who came to the home near 40th & Lloyd in June. The group falsely suspected two young girls were being sex trafficked out of this home. It was a rumor that spread quickly among the large group, many feeling the police were not doing enough. Holbrook says, there wasn't much more they could do.

"I understand the emotion," Holbrook said. "I would want my kid back too. I would be crazy too. But, if police are telling you, they've been here so many times, the child is found and you still burn the house down? There is no reason for it."

Holbrook loves his neighborhood. His front yard is adorned with a subtle touch from a green thumb; the grass is lush and green. A flower bed with the softest touch of pink accents Holbrook's latest achievement; a yard sign showing his daughter's graduation from Washington High School.

"She's got a nice job, her own car," Holbrook said. "She's doing really good."

But he can't help but be concerned. He and his neighbors have done so much to help turn this neighborhood around. Another neighbor helped get a speed hump installed on the street to help protect the neighborhood kids from speeding cars. When his neighbor is out of town, Holbrook watches over his house, and his neighbor does the same. It's a rare block in this section of Milwaukee where the homeowners outnumber the renters; a big reason why Chief Morales felt he could make some progress here.

"Some of the residents are fairly new," Morales said. "The grass is cut. The flowers are tended to. Those are your homeowners who live there. You often hear me say, that's who the police work for. We work for them. These are residents in our community that are the productive piece of any community. The ones who live there that are part of it."

Morales spent time with Holbrook on Tuesday. Holbrook says, on the night the group set the home behind him on fire, some of the people grabbed his two trash cans, which were filled with cardboard, lit them on fire, and put them in the house.

"When he found out we were missing our trash cans, he called and ordered them yesterday," Holbrook said. "He's having them delivered and expedited. Just to know someone in that position does care. He remembered our names. It wasn't something his buddy wrote down for him. He actually knew who I was and knew who my neighbor was. He called us by name. I feel lucky to have that guy in my corner."

"There is a lot of need for me to go back there and talk to them," Morales said. "It's a must. It's important for the leadership in law enforcement to say yes, the community relationships are important and I'm going to lead the front on that."

Morales is leading by example. He says, for the last three years while he's been at the helm, he's done these walks of neighborhoods to listen and communicate with people. It's not lost on Holbrook.

"I haven't heard of anybody doing this," Holbrook said. "He came out here and got an opinion. For him to do it and actually follow through and be so thorough with it, it gives us a sense of security. I just thought he cared about the people who are here."

Unfortunately, less than 24 hours after Morales' trip to the neighborhood, the City of Milwaukee added to its growing number of homicides; a 28-year-old man was killed early Wednesday morning near the intersection of 39th & Lloyd.

"My heart dropped," Morales said. "The first thing I said when I came in this morning was please don't let it be one of the people I spoke with. There was a genuine contact that occurred with the homeowners and some of the children to those homeowners. The name that came up was not one that I spoke to but at the same time, it hurts. I see those homeowners and the family there are really trying to make a difference."

"We have a lot of work to do," Pastor Chris Ikanih of Bethany Lutheran Church said. "There is no doubt about it."

As a faith leader in the community, Ikanih frequently hosts events to help. He has opened soup kitchens at the church and community ministry events.

The police in this district are always there. So seeing Chief Morales was here was no surprise to him but it still filled him with joy for the future of the neighborhood.

"It has given us more peace of mind to know they are responding," Ikanih said. "Gives us confidence. He's a good cop. It's one of those things we expect from the police department. To see them more often in the community, we can not do it without them. Simple as that."

Simple, but not easy. The juxtaposition of Morales' visit and the murder just hours later is a reminder that nothing can be fixed overnight.

But they're taking steps to get there.

"Yesterday was a step towards the better," Holbrook said. "He's leading by example and I'm hoping some of the people get the message. The police are not always, not on our side, or are all bad. You're going to need police one day. You're going to need at least one friend. To make the police your enemy is just stupidity."

Report a typo or error // Submit a news tip