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Zachery Lathen-Williams is the host of the “One Corner At A Time” podcast and author of “August: A Love Letter.”
I have three children, two girls and one boy. I’ve received emails from their school with instructions on how to talk to them about racism, social injustice and police brutality. A part of me is truly happy — I’d prefer some response as opposed to none at all. That also applies broadly, as we see a large-scale reckoning in America.
But notably, this reckoning has not reached police departments. And while changing the problematic names of food products is fine, police still wield the power to pillage Black lives.
How do I explain this to my children?
My children think like me, which is most evident in my oldest daughter. She asks difficult questions and never accepts boilerplate answers. On a drive home, she noticed an expletive-laden message directed at the police spray-painted on the bus shelter.
I told her, “It’s complicated.” Her sister pressed me. I responded that I’ll talk to them about it when they get older. I remember hearing that from my parents when I was younger and hating it.
The truth is, I have an answer, one that may pilfer any innocence and hope from her immediately. I refuse to give her that answer. Thus, the rationale for my tone — more hopeful than the times may call for — and the drive to learn more about the police.
Recently, such an opportunity presented itself.
In the midst of widespread protest, local church and political leaders organized a “unity walk” with the Milwaukee Police Department. During the walk, I had a chance to talk with MPD Chief Alfonzo Morales, as well as other officers and higher-ups. Of course, cameras were rolling, but it seemed that most officers present, including the chief, were truly engaged with the community and seemed well-intentioned.
The chief told me that police and community relations in Milwaukee were making progress, but “Minnesota set us all back.” With this in mind, I truly believe the Milwaukee Police Department, along with the Fire and Police Commission, has an opportunity to show just how well-intentioned they are and quite possibly spearhead change nationwide.
This can be accomplished by the implementation of the following:
In MPD’s 2018 annual Use of Force report (the most recent year available), there were 682 Incidents. A total of 580 out of 1,917 officers were involved in at least one incident, accounting for 30 percent of active duty officers. Also, 39 officers were involved in five or more incidents. Most alarming, one officer was involved in 24 Use of Force incidents.
I believe Use of Force reports can be improved upon in three ways.
One is being more specific and inclusive. The report identifies 39 officers with “five or more incidents,” which is vague. In the case of 2018’s report, we can presume it to mean anywhere between five and 24 incidents, since that is the maximum given. Also, reporting should include whenever an officer points his weapon or threatens force.
Secondly, there should be a historical account of Use of Force incidents, especially to find patterns among individual officers. How many incidents has the officer with 24 in 2018 had historically? Additionally, public complaints need to be included to corroborate findings that point out a problem officer and quite possibly indicate a larger issue that the city leaders and the Fire and Police Commission can address. If the police truly believe it’s just “a few bad apples,” then expose them and get rid of them.
Lastly, MPD needs to clearly distinguish between Use of Force that is deadly, criminal or excessive from force that is permitted.
2. Community Policing
In those 682 Use of Force incidents, 97 percent of the first officers involved were male and 72 percent were white. The first subject involved was male 86 percent of the time, and 78 percent of the time, he was Black.
In June 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the city could no longer enforce its residency requirement that required municipal workers to live within Milwaukee city limits. In turn, the Common Council requires police officers to “reside within 15 miles of the jurisdictional boundaries of the City.”
As of 2018, 33 percent of Milwaukee Police were non-residents. For example, an MPD officer can live in Waukesha, which according to the U.S Census, is 87.8 percent white (Blacks account for only 3.6 percent of the population). A white police officer, who has implicit bias (as we all do), but who also has the power of law to take away life, whose job requires him or her to police a people that he or she only encounters while on the job, can be absolutely perilous for each party involved.
The 15-mile jurisdictional requirement should be repealed, and the residency requirement should be reinstated.
If police officers are our neighbors, it might make it easier for them to exhaust all options before shooting. They may prefer to de-escalate a situation. They may think twice before placing their neighbor in a chokehold.
In an op-ed, Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer and police officer in Savannah, Georgia, (a place where Blacks represent the majority, 54.4 percent, according to the census) states: “I approach every person I meet on the streets as my neighbor. Often this is literally true because I live where I work. That was a deliberate choice for me, but I respect whatever others choose; I was just trying to figure out how to be a good cop, and, for me, that meant being a good neighbor.”
With the calls to defund/dismantle police increasing, it has to be understood that this outcry is rooted in failed police reform. I mean “failed” because a disproportionate amount of Black and brown people continue to be brutalized at the hands of law enforcement.
The suggestions I’ve offered are by no means revolutionary, but simply common sense. If ignored by the powers that be, it sends a clear message to the community — one that results in expletive-laden messages being written on bus stops, one that results in the calls for defunding or dismantling the police, one that results in me losing the sliver of optimism necessary to write this article.
My children are getting older, and soon I will no longer be able to stall. In years past, the answer has been abundantly clear for people of color, but hope, arising from my children, propels me to look at this as a potential inflection point. The Milwaukee Police Department, Fire and Police Commission and our political leaders have the opportunity to spearhead change.
History is watching.