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What Has & Hasn't Changed: A Conversation With Acting Milwaukee Police Chief Jeff Norman

Calls for changes in policing have amplified in Milwaukee over the last year, Acting Milwaukee Police Chief Jeff Norman talks about what has and has not changed within the department.
Courtesy of Milwaukee Police Department
Calls for changes in policing have amplified in Milwaukee over the last year, Acting Milwaukee Police Chief Jeff Norman talks about what has and has not changed within the department.

For the past week, WUWM has been examining policing in Wisconsin — how it’s changed in light of last summer’s racial justice protests and how it hasn’t.

Acting Milwaukee Police Chief Jeff Norman has been a part of the department for more than two decades. He started as an officer in 1996, later becoming a detective, a lieutenant, a captain and then assistant chief. He was appointed as acting chief less than six months ago.

Lake Effect’s Joy Powers talked with Acting Chief Norman about what has and hasn’t changed within the Milwaukee Police Department.

What are some concrete changes that have happened at the Milwaukee Police Department in light of last summer's protests?

“We've always been working on our policies and procedures," Norman says. "We did have to do a lot more, what we call, codification, meaning that we had to put a lot of our practices on paper — making sure that our words align with what is our policies. And so that did force us to kind of have a reflection of where we're at with, you know, making sure that we stand on, you know, what we expect from our personnel, it is in writing.”

People of color, especially Black Milwaukeeans and Native peoples have, historically and currently difficult relationships with the police. What is the department doing right now to connect with these communities?

“The biggest thing I think that we can look at as an opportunity is being in spaces where we have not been before or reintroducing ourselves to spaces where we used to be,” he says.

Norman says he doesn’t want community engagement to be about police officers handing out ice cream cones, but instead actually having conversations with residents and engaging with their concerns. He says his experience as a Black man living in Milwaukee informs his work as police chief.

“I'm absolutely sensitive to how it feels to be either minimized or have a disrespect, and that sensitivity is part of my core of being out there in the community,” he says. “We have to be communicative, understanding each other's needs. The Milwaukee Police Department is a service.”

If officers are acting inappropriately or they're abusing the public, in your view, what does accountability look like?

Norman says when taking over the position of acting police chief, he laid out four major points of what he wanted to address: violent crime, reckless driving, community engagement and accountability. He says accountability starts with him as the leader of the department.

“I don't have any tolerance for those who have unethical or unprofessional behavior, and in fact, I make it a point to understand and communicate frequently, in regards to my expectations, what accountability looks like,” he says. “I'm a resident of Milwaukee, been here all my life, my family lives here. If I cannot be comfortable having someone render police services or lack thereof to my own family, why should I allow that to happen to anyone else who resides in this community or visit this community? Accountability is real.”

When we're talking about a person complaining about a police officer’s conduct, what happens next? They go, they complain about their conduct, they file a report, what is the process of holding that officer accountable?

Norman says complaints are treated like any complaint brought against a person in a court of law, officers are treated as innocent until proven guilty but that investigations will be conducted into the incident. He says that includes interviewing the person filing the complaint, any potential witnesses and the involved officer.

“There's always multiple sides to the story that you need to be able to thoroughly vet. We have found that body-worn cameras is very helpful in regards to making sure that we get to the bottom of these particular situations,” he says. “If there's any unprofessional behavior, or inhumane or illegal behavior, it will not be tolerated by the Milwaukee Police Department, will not be tolerated by the city Milwaukee.”

There are some people who believe we should disarm the police. Is that possible?

“The unfortunate reality is that there are individuals who do not respect the sanctity of human life or the sanctity of your own freedom and physical safety, and thus we must have a coordinated professional response to intervene are those who are in need of protection,” Norman says.

There are some people who believe officers should take out personal liability insurance. Is that possible?

“I believe that qualified immunity has its place. Are there opportunities to look at it? And how we can, you know, strengthen it? Absolutely. But that's a greater discussion, more than just me as a police chief,” Norman says.

How are officers in the city of Milwaukee trained to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis?

“We do have what's called the Crisis Intervention Training, CIT, 40 hours of where you're a certified CIT officer, one of the big lifts that the Milwaukee Police Department have taken on years back is having the entire department train in that particular intervention,” Norman says.

Norman says training for officers is always on-going but when compared to a trained mental health professional like a therapist or psychiatrist, he says the training that police go through is “a blink in their eye."

“We are expected to handle some of the most challenging situations in split seconds. But we do you have training. I always say this, especially understanding that I know, I'm a lifelong learner, you always can do more,” he says.

Is the Milwaukee Police Department working with local organizations to help aid in responding to mental health crises?

Norman cites two specific examples with the Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention and the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division of police working with mental health professionals. He explains that police serve in different roles depending on the partnership and the situation.

“Assist in the safety of the social workers that we work or with a therapist we work with, but in other situations, you know, especially when you talk about trauma informed care, we are the referral process. So we understand our role as sometimes a protector, sometimes a liaison of sorts, but is to assist those who are very equipped in regards to deal with, again, what people get years of training on,” he says.

Does the Milwaukee Police Department maintain a database that is either open or closed of all the no knock warrants it has conducted?

“We do maintain a database; it is not open,” he says.

Norman says after a change of procedure, current operating procedure now dictates that to obtain a no-knock, the police chief or someone designated by the chief has to sign off.

A recent report found that Black people were given far more curfew tickets during last summer's protests. But perhaps more concerning many of them were then visited by the FBI. Is the Milwaukee Police Department coordinating with the FBI to ultimately penalize people who are protesting?

“The police department respects everyone's right to the First Amendment,” he says.

Norman says that because he wasn’t police chief at the time these tickets were issued, he is not speaking for his predecessors but to his knowledge, there was no cooperation with the federal government when it came to protest tickets.

“When we talk about peaceful protest, we understand that it is a respected and protected practice as a part of the fabric of our, you know, American history, but, you know, definitely the Milwaukee Police Department, to my understanding had no coordinate efforts with the federal government regardless to deal with the protest in that manner,” he says.

How do you hope the department continues to change as we move forward into another summer?

“I like to be able to have better relationships with our community, where there is a trust and cooperation on the front end,” he says. “You know, don't paint with a broad brush, understand that there's opportunities to collaborate. There's opportunities to be able to have better relationships, if we can step forward with that type of, I guess, faith, and you'll be surprised what comes out of it.”

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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