By George Martin

How can we talk about torture at Abu Gharib and not talk about police brutality right here at home? Having been to Iraq and lived in Milwaukee, there are too many similarities. Peace Action WI has joined with the NAACP, MICAH, ACLU and other community organizations in working together for a federal investigation of our Milwaukee Police Department MPD) and institutional change.

This is not only about Derek Williams, the most current case in Milwaukee. Hundreds of thousands have viewed his suffocating death in the back of a squad car on YouTube. This is about the MPD’s “policies and practices” that over my lifetime have allowed civil and human rights injustices to our African American community. 

In 1958, Daniel Bell was unarmed, shot in the back and killed by MPD with no wrongdoing found. This was the catalyst for Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement to demonstrate for five years under great duress from MPD. Twenty years later, Officer Thomas Grady pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and perjury after his partner said that Grady planted a knife in Bell’s hand.

My personal research has found an established pattern of at least six cases of unarmed African Americans being shot and killed from behind by MPD since the Bell case above.

In 1981, Earnest Lacy died while in MPD custody after being pinned to the street and loaded motionless into the back of a police van. This was a lightning rod for Milwaukee, especially its African American citizens, against the police brutality tactics of then MPD Chief Harold Breier. Two years later, the Fire and Police Commission found five officers guilty of failing to render first aid.

My research has found a pattern of at least five cases of African Americans who died while in MPD custody in the back seat of a squad car or in the back of a van. 

As we here in America became aware of the torture of prisoners in Iraq, here in Milwaukee we had one of the biggest police brutality cases in the US. In 2007, Frank Jude, Jr. was savagely beaten and tortured by off-duty MPD officers. Especially due to its racial overtones, this spurred huge community-wide demonstrations, not just from the African American community. At that time, Peace Action WI formed a coalition with the NAACP, Justice for Jude, and other community groups to call for justice.

After no MPD convictions locally, the federal government convicted three MPD officers who are still in prison after they were found guilty on charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and assault under cover of law. Significantly five years earlier, one of these officers had shot ten times and killed an unarmed Larry Jenkins with no charges filed.

This history of bad MPD practices continues today with illegal strip and cavity searches over a two-year period before the arrest of officers after a seven-month investigation. Three Journal Sentinel investigations raise questions about the department’s procedures.  One found wide racial disparities in traffic stops and searches. One found under-reporting of crime statistics making the MPD look more effective than reality and the third showed how 93 officers kept their jobs despite run-ins with the law.

With 240,000 citizen stops per year in 2010 and 2011 disproportionately focused on African Americans, the ACLU of WI states that his “proactive policing” is clearly racial profiling, harassment, and often detention without charges. This policy of traffic stops focused on African Americans along with MPD morning roll calls in Northside neighborhoods reminds me of military occupation in Iraq.

These “policies and practices” warrant federal investigation of our local police structure. Call the Federal Dept of Justice (414) 297-1700 and ask for a broad investigation into the pattern of Civil and Human Rights abuses committed by the MPD.