The Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales addressed the recent rash of homicides in the city at a press conference on Monday. He also gave an update on the department’s public safety efforts over the next six months, which includes establishing community relationships.
Morales called the news conference after at least 15 people died by gun violence in August. Then, he put the numbers in context.
“After these last two weeks of violence, our number of homicides is still at the same as last year," he said "Fortunately, we are still down 14 percent in non-fatal shootings, but those numbers could improve as well."
Morales said most people arrested in the shootings are felons with prior arrests for felon-in-possession gun charges, adding that six neighborhoods have accounted for 40 percent of the homicides.
But the police department is working to do something about it, he said, including a new initiative to combat violent crime. The initiative combines specialized units from different police districts into the criminal investigation bureau.
“In less than a week, the police personnel assigned to this initiative have arrested 26 people for misdemeanor and felony firearms-related, drug-related, and other assorted crimes," said Morales.
However, some community members continue to feel that police unfairly target racial and ethnic minorities when looking for suspects. Andre Lee Ellis said there’s an underlying disrespect for communities of color among police. Ellis is a self-described community grandfather who runs the We Got This community garden.
He said he was recently a victim of racial profiling. After finishing a Saturday morning session with youth at the garden, partnering with the Office of Violence Prevention, Ellis greeted a friend, shaking hands through a car window. Then, he said, three or four police cars descended upon them.
"The cop came towards me and he asked me what did I just give [the driver] ... I said 'my hand, sir.' I said 'as we do in my culture, black men when they see each other, they greet each other with a handshake,' and I said, 'I'm not in a gang. Is there any other way that I can help you, officer?'"
Ellis said the officer went on to ask him a lot of questions and search the car.
“Sad, that in 2018, and 58, I’m begging and asking for the same thing I saw people at that age asking for when I was 10 and 18 years old," Ellis added.
Since Saturday's incident, he said there were other cases involving black youth being profiled.
"I think it's time to put the issue of racial profiling high on the platform of discussion and execution and do whatever it takes to get it done," said Ellis.
He believes police need to be retrained, and an emphasis should be placed on officer mental health as well.
"You can be one person when you first start that sort of job. But you might become somebody else after you see blood, after you see shots, after you see mistreatment, after you see children [mistreated]."
Ellis wants police officers in his community who want to be there.
Jamaal Smith, a racial justice activist with the YWCA, said he understands that Chief Morales is trying to create safer neighborhoods. Smith added that people in communities of color want that too.
But he said Ellis' experience is one that Morales will have to fight hard to eradicate from police-community interactions. Smith said that's hard to do when the police chief has only been in charge for a relatively short period, having inherited an issue decades in the making.
“The idea is, with Chief Morales, really figuring out how do I change the culture within my department. How do I get officers to really look at ways in which we view our citizens as humans versus viewing them as animals, or viewing them as criminals," he said.
At Monday’s news conference, Morales said he will continue to prioritize community listening sessions. He said he's proud of the community prosecution unit which partners with city, state and non-profit organizations to deal with quality of life.
But he understands they can't outsource their community policing to one small unit in each district and call themselves community-focused. So, they are incorporating that philosophy department-wide.
"Our community piece includes providing trauma-informed care city-wide, working with at-risk youth, participating in 'promise-zones,' partnering with a private company to provide and incentivizing the community to provide tips through crime-stopper programs," said Morales.
He has participated in numerous listening sessions throughout the city, and he said those listening sessions will continue. Also, he’ll continue building partnerships with community organizations to better understand everyone's role, capacity and ability to improve public safety in the city.
Morales said that police-community cooperation is especially necessary given the recent violence. "Just like each of you expect results out of your police department, I expect results out of our community partners," he said.
When working with community organizations, Morales said the Milwaukee Police Department's strategy is to work with the ones that will 'walk the walk.' He expects to decide which groups the department will partner with over the next six months.