MILWAUKEE — Weeks of protests have gone by several police districts in Milwaukee, demanding police reform in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of law enforcement. The message has been shouted loud and Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales says it's being heard.
"Yes, we hear the message," Morales said. "We've been hearing them. We've been working on the change before this happened but here's one thing, we have to be careful and take in what's occurring and see how we're going to move forward. Knee jerk reactions are using this as a political advancement for leadership to say, let's address the police or attack the police. It's something that may have some negative impact later."
Morales spoke candidly about how the department is working on its techniques to better police-community relations. Including, their ongoing review of their use of force continuum.
"We use force as a last resort," Morales said. "We're trying to de-escalate them and that's what our training pushes. But as the event escalates, we try to use the force continuum."
But Morales says, ultimately the officers on scene can work as a check and balance to step in, should they need to. In the video when George Floyd was killed, Officer Derek Chauvin spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds with his knee on Floyd's neck. The other officers around did nothing to step in and stop it.
If that were to happen in Milwaukee, Morales says everyone would face disciplinary actions.
"It's part of our code of conduct," Morales said. "You don't act, you're in trouble. It may cause discipline up to being discharged from the department."
Some of Floyd's final words were chilling cries for his mother and three words that can be seen on homemade cardboard signs in protests across the United States; I can't breathe. They were the same words used 11 times by Eric Garner in 2014 before he was killed by an NYPD officer. The words have become a rallying cry for the unfair treatment of those killed in police custody in recent memory. But the idea of police brutality on the African American community started much earlier than either of these two men's deaths.
In Milwaukee specifically, former Chief Harold Breier was known as having racial bias in his policing. For 20 years he served as chief, from 1964 to 1984. He was opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. He ordered officers not to wear badges or anything identifiable if they were committing acts of police brutality while protecting the Youth Council for Milwaukee's NAACP. He was also quoted saying integrated busing was the cause of more crime on Milwaukee's South Side; an area that wasn't allowed to be patrolled by African American officers until the 1970s.
Now, some 36 years after Breier retired, Chief Morales says it's like comparing apples to oranges.
"That was an era where the type of policing strategy led the community to fear the police," Morales said. "Moving into this era of policing, we want the community to respect the police and by getting respect, we need to legitimize ourselves with the community. We need to work together."
Data from MPD shows in 2020, eight of the top 10 ZIP codes with the most arrests are home to an African American majority population. Morales says they are not targeting these communities.
"The police are being requested by the community to respond there," Morales said. "It's not like the police say, 'I think today we're going to go there. We're going to make arrests.' A lot of those arrests are activated by calls for service."
Morales says a majority of arrests across the city are made because of calls for service. However, he understands the perception of a biased law enforcement agency and he says it's likely there are officers in the Milwaukee Police Department who show bias on the job.
"Absolutely," Morales said. "I think one of the community frustrations is acknowledging that racism exists in law enforcement but I would also add on, that racism exists in our communities. Racism exists in our City Hall. Racism exists in our nation."
In an effort to lower these biases, Morales says the department is constantly working on ways to help.
"There is training," Morales said. "There is a current impartial policing that addresses our biases, implicit biases that each and every one of us have. We also look at professional communications. What we have to do is not conduct the training in communication skills, culture diversity, or fair and impartial policing only when that's litigation telling us to do. It has to be a constant."
Even in addressing disciplinary actions. Morales says, if transgressions come up related to implicit biases, officers will face action.
"We won't tolerate that type of nonsense," Morales said. "If it gets to the level of an investigation, where I have to impose discipline."
Even with all of the training they can provide, Morales feels it's ultimately up to the individual officers and the relationships they make. It's why he encourages officers to talk to other colleagues who may have different life experiences than them.
"Those eight hours in a vehicle are very important and have really changed opinions," Morales said. "Just by working together and having two people that once from different spectrums of the world."
Right now, only 17.2 percent of the Milwaukee Police Department is African American; which is less than half the makeup of the city as a whole. He'd like to hire a more diverse group of cadets but says the Fire and Police Commission is in charge of recruitment efforts.
But those interactions, both with colleagues and members of the community they serve, can go a long way in his eyes.
"God bless the person that comes from up north Wisconsin to work for the police department," Morales said. "It's well-intentioned. But if you've never worked with a person of color or grew up with a person of color or seen a person of color other than on TV, now you're assigned to the night shift. You may be assigned to a district where it's predominantly people of color and now, every call that you respond to is a call in crisis. It can have a negative impact on your opinions and those opinions can grow year after year if you don't have a diverse enough police department. If you say, 'well that's the norm that I'm going to,' because those calls for service are going to be a constant. But understand, that call for service is only a small percentage of the community."