Like countless others before him, Sterling Brown discovered a harsh truth about his new city. Racism – interpersonal and systemic – continues to undercut law enforcement in Milwaukee. Just ask the families of the late Sylville Smith and Dontre Hamilton, or the thousands of Milwaukee residents of color subjected to, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, illegal stop-and-frisks just in the past decade. And while body-camera recordings may be new, the dynamics are not: In Milwaukee, as in so many other American cities, residents are still struggling to get law enforcement to confront its long history of racism, abuse of power and lax accountability.
Racism has shaped interactions between police and black Milwaukeeans for nearly a century, from even before expanded post-World War II migration and discriminatory housing policies consigned a large number of poor black youths to the city’s aging near north side, which suffered from a dearth of public resources. This once culturally vibrant black enclave, economically and physically decimated by urban renewal, was simultaneously over-patrolled and neglected by the MPD. Young black people came into frequent conflict with white law enforcers, sometimes harnessing their collective power to disrupt arrests in crowd-control situations. Officers disproportionately met even minor black transgressions, like loitering or jaywalking, with fines, beatings and detentions.
Discriminatory policing in postwar Milwaukee reflected broader white fears over African-American mobility – anxieties fueled by mainstream newspapers in their coverage of urban crime. As the news media linked blackness with criminality, racist double standards in policing grew more commonplace.
The MPD used its overpolicing of the near north side – which resulted in high arrest rates – to justify continued overpolicing. Black people were routinely stopped and questioned, unduly incarcerated and faced mounting surveillance, even as emergent civil rights organizations addressed police brutality, segregated public schooling and housing inequality. As a result, black distrust of law enforcement deepened, as did the city’s crisis of police legitimacy.
The abuse of police power was on full display in the summer of 1967, when a black rebellion – minor compared with Newark’s and Detroit’s that year – broke out on the near north side. Contentious exchanges between white police officers and black youths prompted scores of “inner core rioters” to loot and vandalize assorted symbols of white racial control. Chief Harold Breier’s MPD forcibly quelled the uprising, while Mayor Henry Maier swiftly issued a curfew and called in the Wisconsin National Guard.
In the aftermath, Breier further consolidated white support for his handling of the “civil disturbance,” which included mass arrests and the police killing of unarmed black collegian Clifford McKissick. The event emboldened Milwaukee’s “chief for life,” who already benefited from a 1911 statute that insulated him from outside control. It became exceedingly difficult for city officials to challenge Breier’s authority after 1967, for fear of alienating white voters. And besides, most Common Council members approved of his “law-and-order” tactics.
The problem of racism in the MPD was not limited to police-civilian relations. In the late 1960s, Milwaukee’s civilian review board, the Fire and Police Commission, pushed for greater diversification in the MPD, a recommendation embraced by city leaders who believed that expanding the department’s minority roster would help restore order after unrest without having to completely modify existing oversight structures.
As their number increased, African-American officers experienced discrimination from the top down. Police administrators assigned only black recruits to majority-minority districts and overlooked them for desirable shifts and appointments. Breier, the police chief, systematically denied black patrolmen promotions to full detective, kept tabs on their movements and forbade them to ride in all-black squads or gather in all-black groups. According to one officer in 1980, “The department promoted racism by promoting racists.” If black officers decried poor treatment, they experienced verbal and physical intimidation from white peers.
High attrition rates resulted. Demoralized in their struggle to transcend these barriers, black officers in the League of Martin – an association of black police officers – worked to leverage federal civil rights protections and compel more just internal practices. In 1975, after a federal investigation, a court ordered that the department hire two minority candidates for every five white candidates hired, and the department later settled a class-action lawsuit initiated by black officers. These actions, while imperfect and steadily undermined by Breier’s regime, advanced racial equality on the force.
Under Breier, the MPD continued to abuse its power in black Milwaukee well into the 1980s. A prime offender was the department’s Tactical Squad – a then-all-white, handpicked special assignments unit. Officers fatally shot several young black people, some in murky circumstances: Jacqueline Ford in 1972, Andrew Friend in 1973, Jerry Brookshire in 1974 and Charles Dailey in 1975, to name only a few. Lacking the video recordings of today, offending officers typically cited self-defense and faced little to no reprimand for their deadly actions. Black community groups were livid but largely impotent.
The 1981 police asphyxiation of Ernest Lacy – a mistakenly identified rape suspect killed by a former Tactical Squad officer – finally provided some grass-roots momentum for change. Milwaukee’s first “Coalition for Justice” protested with strong public support, eventually netting five guilty verdicts, a state law requiring that police seek medical aid for distressed suspects, a statute limiting the tenure of police chiefs and a six-figure settlement for the Lacy family.
Breier retired soon after, and Milwaukee’s civilian review board and city government started to implement long-shunned “community policing” strategies. Still, Breier’s impact lingered for decades – in the biased attitudes of the officers he helped advance to high rank and in the “us-versus-them” mentality of department officers in navigating nonwhite spaces and engaging with aggrieved citizens concerned about police violence.
Community-based policing reforms that showed respect for all residents – poor, working-class and affluent alike – proved challenging to implement as Milwaukee’s urban terrain grew progressively harsher in the late 20th century. High rates of inner-city joblessness, disproportionate poverty and street crime helped politicians and voters justify government cuts in public services, the use of militarized “tough-on-crime” policing in minority neighborhoods, and growing rates of black and brown incarceration. Investing in a police department that continued to overpolice poor and minority neighborhoods seemed a sensible response for many observers as the 2000s neared.
As recently appointed Police Chief Alfonso Morales, city leaders and community groups reckon today with the legacies of these historical realities, they would do well to heed Sterling Brown’s call to take on the systemic roots of racialized police violence in Milwaukee and invest in solutions that empower rather than continue to alienate black citizens – no matter their fame. Brown’s unjust tasing and arrest demonstrate that across the country, real police reform will require constant vigilance and ever greater community participation. While releasing the body-camera video, suspending three officers involved and requiring policy review courses – as Morales did – are good initial steps, those in power know they must do more to build police legitimacy. As Mayor Tom Barrett stated, “I think it’s an opportunity for us to do better. … We have to do better.”