Interview conducted by Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
On Monday, October 29, the MCJ interviewed Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn at the paper’s offices on King Drive. The chief contacted the Community Journal offering the newspaper and the community the chance to hear his perspective on the most tragic and controversial incident to occur involving the MPD and the African American community since the death of Ernest Lacy more than 30 years ago while in police custody.
In this first installment of a two-part interview, the chief discussed the Derrick Williams death, the controversy over the videotape, his reaction to it and the firestorm the video caused in the Black community.
Flynn also talked about the charges levied against four of his officers for conducting illegal strip searches, changes in police protocols as a result of the Williams incident. Flynn’s answers are lengthy and are printed here verbatim, with little editing except for punctuation and grammar.
MCJ: Until recently you have declined numerous requests for interviews about the Derrick Williams case. But in the last two to three weeks, you have been on a “media blitz,” appearing on television and radio and doing print interviews about the Williams incident and charges of misconduct levied at several of your officers as it relates to illegal strip searches. Why the reversal in dealing with the media?
Chief Flynn: Well, I don’t think it’s primarily a reversal (as it relates to) dealing with the media. I think it’s fair to say that at least one component of the media has taken what can only be described as a partisan position regarding the police department. I have not ever stopped talking to the media as a total entity.
When it comes to the last few weeks, there has been–now that we have a better grasp of the facts–a conscious attempt on my part to clarify the record. Much of the delay, of course, was that we had a pending John Doe investigation about which no one could comment. Once that investigation was concluded, which had to do with unlawful strip searches, I was in a position where I could comment on how that story had played out.
At that time, I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about the other pending issues as well. So, I would say it’s not that we did not want to talk to the media in general. We have been in a less than positive relationship with one component of the media. But, I think I’ll just let other people judge that for themselves.
I’m here. I’ve been willing to talk to the television; I’ve been willing to talk to other media outlets. But, in all fairness, I’ve grown suspicious of their motives and it’s been difficult to have a candid conversation.
MCJ: In retrospect, would you have responded differently to community outrage once the videotape was released to the public? What would you have done or said differently? Would you have been as quick to defend your officers’ actions?
Chief Flynn: We had done an investigation a year earlier of a death that had been ruled “natural causes.” The Medical Examiner had just released a new report in which the report itself still said he died of natural causes, but said that the police pursuit and the brief struggle were the triggering events for his (Williams) medical crisis.
What you saw was some not well restrained frustration on my part that, without any new facts, a change in the ruling created a firestorm that didn’t change what the officers had done and not done at the scene. In retrospect, if I could have taken a mulligan I would have paused and said: “I understand why people are upset. This is a horrifying video when you know how it ends.
“When you know for a fact that the person is, in fact, in medical crisis and is accurately reporting his condition and you know that he dies, it’s a horrible thing and it has to be a terrible thing for the family.”
But the backdrop of me standing in front of the cameras was nothing had changed in the Medical Examiners’ report and I was still holding in my hand a report that said the man died of natural causes, and the police had not caused his death; but the mere fact of them pursuing him triggered it.
It may sound like a fine point, but it’s an important point because I think in the general publics’ mind, understandably, when they saw the cause of death “homicide,” to them that meant murder. It didn’t mean there was a human triggering event, i.e., a pursuit and a handcuffing incident.
So I was “in the moment” and I was responding to: “This is a frustrating report to have to deal with…the officers did not do anything to him (Williams) that caused his death…” I was too much there and not enough feeling the community’s emotion of: “We just saw a terrible thing and the cops didn’t do anything.” I just…I wish I had that one over again. Sure, I would have responded more to: “This is a terrible looking tape… we’ve been to the bottom of it once…we welcome external review…I’m confident an external review will show we did not cause this, but this is a terrible thing…” I didn’t get around to saying that for a couple of days because I was just too much in the moment of the controversy.
MCJ: If the family of Derrick Williams were sitting here with us right now, what would you say to them?
Chief Flynn: I would say: “I’m sorry that he died in our custody. I wish we would have done things differently.” I’m not going to sit there and say: “The cops did a bad or a wrong thing. I wish he hadn’t died in our custody.” I wish we had done things differently. That’s not the same as saying: “Those two individual officers-each of whom spent about three minutes in the car with him-did a bad thing.”
If you listen to the tape as well as look at it, you never hear him treated disrespectfully. I know that sounds like: “What! The man just passed away!” But it’s just clear they (the officers) don’t believe him. I wish I could say no one ever hyperventilates in the backseat of a police car after a foot pursuit after a robbery, but that wouldn’t be true.
Too many of our officers have seen similar conduct and sooner or later the person relaxes and it’s all over with. They cranked his window down, they told him to relax, and they told him to take a deep breath. Nobody treats him (Williams) with contempt, nobody talks nasty to him. They have no reason to believe he’s having a medical crisis. They (the officers at the scene) were wrong! They got the judgment wrong! And I draw a distinction between getting the judgment wrong and doing a wrong thing.
But as I said, we don’t want anybody to die in our custody. That was on us. He died in our custody. There’s no getting around it. And I wish that hadn’t happened. He died of a medical crisis we couldn’t anticipate or prevent. Moving forward, we’re going to do things differently, but at that point in time those young men (the officers) did not recognize a medical crisis. They got it wrong. I wish they got it right. But they got it wrong.
Part two of our interview with Chief Flynn will appear in the November 14 edition of the Community Journal.