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Milwaukee NAACP Leader: Police Need Better Training to Weed Out Prejudice, Bad Practices

photo courtesy of Marquette University

As protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, a black leader in Milwaukee says serious work is needed to mend relations between police and citizens across the country.

Thursday on Morning Edition, we heard Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn talk about police tactics, as protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager.

Flynn touted the Milwaukee department’s focus on community engagement, and said it may be a reason protests here over police-related incidents have not escalated.

Today, another community leader offers his perspective on relations between police and minority citizens.

James Hall is president of the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP.

When he looks at the unrest occurring in Ferguson, he sees just the tip of an iceberg.

“So I think we really need to be outraged and concerned about the violence and everything that’s there now, but I think we need to be just as concerned and outraged about those conditions that exist that are, in my view, the root causes,” Hall says.

Hall says what exist just below the surface are extreme disparities between whites and blacks in terms of income and education. And, the races are largely segregated.

He says those social conditions bubbled to the surface here recently, when citizens protested the fatal police shooting of 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton. Hamilton was black, unarmed and according to his family, mentally ill. The officer fired multiple shots into Hamilton, explaining that he was threatening and combative. Prosecutors are reviewing the case.

Hall says whatever the outcome, police need better training.

“We all know that the incidents where African American young men are shot multiple times, it’s clear and it's been documented that there is either an overreaction, or something with more malice, like an intentional disregard for the life of young black males,” he says.

The Milwaukee PD is also accused of violating citizens’ civil rights by conducting illegal strip and cavity searches on suspects. Most of those who have sued are black men.

Hall credits Milwaukee police for engaging with residents under Chief Flynn, who has promoted community policing. But Hall says recent incidents highlight the need for more transparency and accountability when allegations of misconduct arise.

“I remember quite frankly sitting with the chief in 2011 with him saying specifically or precisely that actions such as the body cavity searches and other things like that were not occurring and we could be assured that those actions were not going on, that things like that were – quote – ‘urban legend,’” Hall says.

While Hall emphasizes the need to change bad police practices, he says the more pressing issue is how leaders will respond to the symptoms behind much of the violent crime here.

“If people…had more access and opportunity and more jobs and were more dispersed and you didn’t have this concentrated type of situation, then these other problems would not exist in the same way,” Hall says.

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