Interview conducted by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
In this, the second part of our interview with Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, the chief shares with the MCJ details related to the releasing of the Williams video, his reaction to it and how it would reflect on the department, the arrests of four of his police officers for conducting illegal strip-searches of drug suspects and how he thinks the community feels about him and his department since the controversies.
MCJ: What was your reaction to the video of Williams struggling to breath and pleading for help?
Chief Flynn: Well, as I say, by the time I saw that video it was a year after the event. And my reaction was-like most professionals reviewing the tape-and…you know…keep in mind, this tape was seen by everybody relevant a year before, except the newspaper (Journal Sentinel).
Somehow the newspaper threw some Pixie Dust around and acted as if we somehow tried to hide the video. Understand that the night of the incident, an assistant D.A. viewed the video inside the squad (car). Within two months that video had been shared with the family and the family’s attorney; we showed it to them.
What happened is the newspaper asked for the video before the investigation was over and it was denied. They asked again five months later. This time it was denied because the family had not given permission in a legally acceptable manner. We got that permission from the family on September 14 and released the video on the 17th. So it was released to the public as soon as the paper work was straight. But everybody—including the family and their attorney-had seen it already, as had the D.A., as had everyone else.
When I watched that video, what I saw was a person who was certainly in stress. I’m not in a position—nor would have been as a 20-something police officer—say that’s a medical crisis he’s having. We deal with people in stress all the time. I do not mean to minimize this; it is a terrible thing to see.
I, now knowing that I’m seeing it, this is going to have a bad outcome. “Oh God, why couldn’t they have…?” Well, you know what? CPR wouldn’t have saved him. He didn’t die of a heart attack. He (Williams) died of a medical crisis they couldn’t have been fixed with any of their first aid (training). And that’s in the Medical Examiner’s reports.
I just wish, you know again, that they had thought. But they didn’t. Ordinary people are going to look at that and say: “Of course you call an ambulance!” Any reasonable police officer is going to say: “Okay, he’s breathing. Alright, he’s not bleeding. He’s not passing out. He’s probably going to be okay, he’ll get over it.”
Well, we’re not going to take that chance anymore. We have a new policy that says: “If they say they can’t breath, they can’t breath. Call an ambulance.” We’re going to be calling a lot of ambulances but, okay, we lost a life ‘cause we didn’t. Lesson learned.
MCJ: What level of accountability do you, as chief, have to the Black community as it relates to the Williams case and the recent charges against four MPD officers for conducting illegal strip searches?
Chief Flynn: Well, you know, I’m the accountable person for the organization and I’m accountable to the entire community obviously—not just the Black community but the entire community—and my accountability is do we have systems and processes in place that, generally speaking, will prevent misconduct and do we learn from errors. That’s my obligation.
A reasonable person looking at that video is going to say two police officers did not do a medical diagnosis. Once the passions have died down, once we’ve finished watching the tape—as I’ve said once we know what the outcome is—when the passions have subsided…neither one of the officers were in there (the squad car) the whole time. One was in there for like three and a half minutes, one was in there for three minutes. They did not diagnose a medical crisis accurately. They’re not doctors.
As the accountable official, I have a responsibility to the organization to draw a distinction between an error and an act of misconduct. We ask these young men and women to make critical life and death decisions under pressure and in ambiguous circumstances with insufficient information everyday. Sometimes they are going to make the wrong decision—not intentionally—but they are going to make the wrong decision.
My responsibility is to take the hit for it and not feed them to the wolves because I’m expecting them to go out there tomorrow and try to make a good faith decision in ambiguous circumstances with insufficient information and try to make things better.
Now that’s one set of facts; and we have taken that one set of facts: The only death in custody on my watch of Sickle Cell Crisis triggered by physical stress that we’ve had, and we’ve changed our policy and we’re going to be the first police department in the entire state to do any training that talks about it. Nobody else has training that talks about Sickle Cell Crisis because nobody’s had it before.
So, we’re learning from that error. That’s my obligation. On the illegal strip searching, that’s my obligation: To ascertain if there was a pattern of misconduct and aggressively move against it.
This was a strange one. In 2011, we got a single complaint against this group of officers by a convicted drug dealer who had been illegally strip searched. We investigated that case and we were unable to sustain the complaint. We (basically) had “one guy saying …” that’s all we had. We had no physical evidence, no witnesses, nothing. He got arrested, he had drugs, he had a long history…The complaint didn’t go anywhere, but it stayed in the record.
One year later we got a second complaint from a drug dealer. Same thing. This time we referred it to the District Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution. The D.A.’s office took several months to evaluate it—I’m not saying they were lazy; it just took months to get back to us.
After five months they get back to us and they say: “There’s not enough evidence here for a criminal charge. Do an internal (investigation).” In the interim, that complainant got murdered by another drug dealer.
Fast forward another year. In one month of 2012, we got two complaints…same guy—same officer. We got one dead complainant, we got one guy (whose allegations could not be substantiated). This is a pattern. We didn’t fool around. We went directly to the D.A. and we said: “We want a John Doe investigation! We want you to impanel a John Doe that can compel testimony. If this is going on, it’s intolerable; if it’s not going on, we got to get to the bottom of it and make people tell the truth under subpoena and penalties of purgery.
In the course of that investigation–which lasted six months–they talked to 30 police officers and 18 complainants. The extra complainants came because I did a press conference and said: “If anybody else has had this (strip searched) come see us.”
Like 50 people came to see us–and 40 of them probably lying—but, we came up with 18 people. The facts put everybody at that location at that time. That investigation resulted in criminal charges against four officers. Criminal charges. They could go to jail for this.
So in that situation my accountability is as soon as we discerned a pattern we aggressively moved to hold officers accountable for misconduct and did so. Willful misconduct is different than an error in judgment. My sense is I’ve done right by this organization. We learn from errors and we take aggressive action against misconduct.
MCJ: You commented recently that the community and the media need to stop dwelling on the past; that the department has changed greatly since the Brier years. Don’t you think it folly to ignore the past at the risk of repeating it as, in seems, the MPD had done…again?
Chief Flynn: The point I was trying to make was that I understand that every new incident triggers historical memories that go back decades, but that’s not the same as saying nothing’s changed. This department is more diverse along racial and ethnic lines than it ever has been. Forty-five percent of the command staff is from minority backgrounds. It’s more selective than it’s ever been , the training is greater than it ever has been, citizen complaints have gone down 40% in the last four years despite the fact that we’ve been very busy in the community.
The department is a different generation of people on the job now. This is not your grandfather’s police department or even your father’s police department. But, we are in the critical incident business. We hire human beings, some of whom don’t meet our expectations. As long as there are police departments in high crime environments, in stressful situations, there will be errors in judgment and there will be acts of misconduct. The challenge is whether or not errors in judgment or misconduct is emblematic of the department’s culture, and I would say it is not now. Misconduct was dealt with as misconduct and errors in judgment will occur. I understand they can enflame passions and take people back to unpleasant times. But I do know this. I go to 12 to 18 neighborhood meetings a month and even post exposure of these two dramatic incidences the fast majority of people at those meetings are positive about their relationships with their district based police officers and mainly concerned about issues in their neighborhoods. Their understandably concerned about these issues, but it’s interesting to me to have a roomful of people who are interested in only these two incidences who I never see at any other thing (neighborhood meeting) , and I go to a roomful of people who are invested in the district and appear at and work at the anti-crime meetings are concerned about this, but they’re invested … they’re real stakeholders. They know their cops, they know their district captain. That’s a different conversation. So I recognize there’s no one community. And just because someone is standing in front of the microphone doesn’t make them “the community.” There are a lot of opinions out there and these are dramatic incidences and we have a responsibility to answer for them. But I don’t want that to move the conversation away from neighborhood safety, because the greatest threat to our city’s residents right now is violent crime. We’re obligated to keep working closely with the community to have an impact on it. My worry is that if the conversation among those in front of the microphone gets too fraught that the coppers at the district level start backing off. Not in mean spiritedness but just like: “Whoa, if we don’t get community support…I don’t want to get in trouble!” One thing cops know (is) no cop ever got in trouble for doing nothing!
The great challenge that’s always out there is to go out and try to do things, and mix it up, and protect people, and question suspicious people, and go to the community meetings and give crime prevention lectures ; I don’t want to disrupt what is really—at the grassroots level—is a very positive relationship between our communities and our district people.
MCJ: What do you think is the status of your relationship with the community; with the average African American resident as it relates to your performance as chief and the performance of your officers?
Chief Flynn: The analogy that I use is that it’s a little bit like Congress. If you do a survey of Congress after they fail to pass a budget—which they routinely do—nobody like’s Congress, right? And yet year, after year, after year almost all of Congress gets reelected because everybody likes their congressman. “I called up his or her office. They did this for me. I had a problem they helped me through it. They got me my social security…”
Right now a lot of people–understandably –are concerned about the police department. They know the history of Milwaukee; these are dramatic incidents—both of which are on film—which makes it all the more dramatic. So the challenge is: “What does that mean at the grassroots level?”
As I said before, when I go to a district meeting, everybody used to like Captain Hudson. Now she’s a full inspector. Everybody seems to like Captain Brunson in the Third District; people like Captain O’Leary in the Fourth District; they like Captain Gordon in the Fifth District. They like their captains, and they like their CLO’s, and they like their foot cop, and they like their bicycles.
The people in those neighborhoods who are living behind locked doors and bars right now feel engaged with our department. But the point is those are their congressman, so to speak. And those are where the relationships are the most important.
I’ve gone to every one of those districts and people have legitimate concerns: “Well, what did it mean?” Well, why didn’t they do anything on this one…” and, “When did you know about the strip search thing?” They want to know about that. But neither one of those things drives the conversation for them because they say “Well, I still got this problem…” or “…My neighborhood is better now because…,” or “I want to say something nice about Captain Paulson because…” or “Oh Captain O’Leary did this great thing with our crime watch and we’re so happy about that, but we still have this problem over here…” That’s the nature of the grassroots conversation right now and that’s where we want to keep it.
We know we have to be held accountable as an organization for errors as well as wrong doing. But I think that—sincerely—that at the grassroots level, relationships are stronger than ever. And I think taking the risk of being transparent is going to help us ultimately get through this as well.
(Go on our website, communityjournal.net, and read the chief’s response to whether or not racism exists in his department and his reasons for forming a review board made up only of MPD commanders.)