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Portland Deputy Chief hopes to bring racial bridge-building to Milwaukee

Posted at 6:34 PM, Oct 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-15 10:17:31-04

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission announced its six finalists for the position of Milwaukee Police Chief. Over the next week, TMJ4 News will be interviewing each candidate to see why they believe they are the best fit for the position.

The Deputy Chief for the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon says he was quick to jump at the opportunity for multiple reasons.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity right now in our profession to be in a leadership role,” Deputy Chief Chris Davis said. “We are at a pivotal moment in our profession where we are having to finally come to terms in our profession. We just have to be able to own that and recognize where harm has been done and move on.”

Davis also has ties to Wisconsin. His wife is from the Green Bay area and he has extended family in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

Davis is one of six finalists. While each person will answer different questions, all six will answer three core questions facing the community of Milwaukee:

  • What examples are you proud of in your career as it relates to working with communities of color?
  • What have you done to promote racial and social justice issues within those communities?
  • Why do you want to be the Chief of Police in the City of Milwaukee?

The professional and personal reasons are evident for Davis. This affords his family an opportunity to get closer to their family in the Midwest, but it’s also a chance to make real change.

“We’ve had this conversation lots and lots of times,” Davis said. “I think a lot of people in our communities are a little tired of having the conversation and it’s time to start moving forward with some action.”

In order to make some progress, Davis feels it’s important to rebuild, or even just build, relationships with communities of color. On the surface, Davis, a white male working in a predominantly white city, may not have the connection to communities of color. But he’s intentional in how he learns, seeking out community leaders and establishing programs to help tear down disparities facing those groups.

Milwaukee is a stark difference to Portland though. While Portland presents a population that is 77.1 percent white, compared to 44.6 percent in Milwaukee. As a result, Portland’s African American population is just 5.8 percent compared to Milwaukee’s 38.8 percent.

“I think it is possible to understand those things if you are willing to pay attention and you’re willing to listen to people with lived experience,” Davis said. “I have had the benefit, even here in Portland, to have some really amazing and very patient teachers to help me understand what that lived experience is like. But I’m also not going to ever say that I’ve got it. I understand that there is always more that you can understand. I will always be open to input from people with lived experience in these areas. These are big issues that we need to take on and we’ve got to get it right. Especially in a city like Milwaukee.”

Some of the ways Davis is trying to get it right in Portland is by looking at disparities facing communities of color. According to the ACLU, African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate 3.3 times higher than their white counterparts, despite making up a significantly lower portion of the population.

"This program was intended to start to get at that,” Davis said. “Also, to divert people whose real problem was addictions into either addiction treatment or at least harm reduction programming.”

He also supports a diverse police department. He says in the last few years, they have made strong efforts to bring in more women and people of color into the bureau.

In 2017, 62 percent of their hires were white men. Last year, that number was 44 percent. As a result, women hired went from 13 percent to 28 percent. African Americans were at an all-time low of one percent. They’re still working on those numbers, but increased to five percent in 2019.

But Davis doesn’t make any excuses for the low numbers. He is coming up with solutions to figure out better ways to recruit.

“We did a lot of work on our recruiting and hiring practices,” Davis said. “We looked at the recruitment materials that we sent out because we were having a really hard time hiring diverse police officers. We had really low rates of women and people of color who were making it through our hiring processes.”

On top of creating a more diverse police department and working towards eliminating disparities, Davis works to establish relationships.

“I think the most important thing that we need to be doing as a profession is rebuilding and, in some cases, building the trust in all of the different communities that we serve,” Davis said. “That means doing a much better job of community engagement.”

To do that, Davis helped create a neighborhood safety coalition. That resulted in a 49 percent reduction in violent crimes and they didn’t receive any police complaints. He says there is also a lot of community policing in Portland; something protesters in Milwaukee have urged for in their demands for change.

One effort paid dividends. Davis helped create a youth basketball league where officers would play with the kids. Within a few weeks, those relationships helped with a situation police were called to.

“There is a disturbance call one night, involving a group of youth out in the neighborhood and things weren’t going that well between the people involved,” Davis said. “Until one of the officers who participated in those basketball games showed up. One of the kids recognized the officer and it diffused the whole situation.”

In addition, Davis supports more transparency between the police and the community. He believes body camera video should be put out as soon as possible, even if it is a bad portrayal of police. These efforts, he believes, could go a long way to fixing relationships.

“I think the biggest problem in Milwaukee is really one of the biggest problems we have in major cities everywhere,” Davis said. “That is, the relationship between the community and the police.”

He says he will hold officers accountable if there is any wrongdoing as well.

“We’re going to make decisions based on what the facts are,” Davis said. “We’re going to apply the policies and we’re going to be consistent in those decisions. Corrective action will be proportional to whatever the problem was. There are a lot of things that police officers can do wrong where the appropriate corrective action is not firing. There are some things that they can do wrong that is so bad, that we can’t have you work here anymore. As a chief, you have to be able to call balls and strikes. You have to be able to hold people accountable. Our corrective action systems tend to be very punitive and very adversarial. I think if we can step back from those things and have the focus of our corrective action systems be, to correct behavior and to do it in an even-handed and legitimate and procedurally just manner, I think our officers will have a lot more trust in the system. That will translate.”

Davis’ city has been in the spotlight because of protests and marches turning destructive. He says they’re no different than any other city in America after the George Floyd protests. He says they may have just been a little more intense.

But he supports the right to protest and what it represents.

“We deal with over 300 protest events a year in this city,” Davis said. “The vast majority of which don’t even need police presence. Protests in Portland are talked about like it’s a bad thing. I want to correct the record. Protests are a good thing. That’s what we have the First Amendment of the Constitution for. This more violent criminal activity has been extremely taxing on the city and on the organization. Most of it has been confined to a few pretty small geographic areas, mostly downtown, and then a couple of other areas where there are police facilities. It also doesn't have a whole lot of support of the broader community. This smaller group that’s engaged in more violent activity is taking away from the message and really the movement that we’re in right now, to start to address some of these bigger social justice issues.”

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission says they plan to make a decision on the next chief by December 3.

To learn more about the other candidates, we will update the list as our stories air below:

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