Conversation on Police and Community: Cynthia Adams Burrell and Alfonso Morales

A community activist and Milwaukee police chief discuss police and community.

Complaints, and snitches

Cynthia Adams Burrell, community activist
Alfonso Morales, Milwaukee police chief

Alfonso Morales joined the Milwaukee Police Department in 1993 and has been police chief since February. Cynthia Adams Burrell spends her days working for Cristo Rey High School, where she drives students to and from internships at local businesses. She’s also a very civic-oriented mom, having started two community gardens in her Franklin Heights neighborhood, including one in memory of a young man named Reggie who was shot 18 times. Morales and Burrell both are born-and-raised Milwaukeeans and come from huge families – Morales is one of 10 children, while Burrell is one of 13. Their Conversation opened with Burrell sharing a startling experience with a cop. – Moderated by Dan Simmons

This conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Complaints, and snitches: Cynthia Adams Burrell and Alfonso Morales

CAB: I’ve never had any bad interactions with police. But my son told me this story maybe last year. Him and his wife were in the car and got pulled over. One of the police told them, if he didn’t let him feel his wife’s breasts, he would do something. They were humiliated.

AM: There are channels for people to report abuses of power like that. There’s a current transition where we’re going through an ACLU lawsuit and there’s a request to have a central depository for complaints. I disagree [with that approach]. I think if an individual wants to complain at a district, at the Fire and Police Commission, at a training academy or our headquarters, we should be able to take that complaint. That’s the process we have currently. Those get documented.

CAB: He didn’t tell me for a year, so there was no complaint. I would have made a complaint. Because if it happened to him, it happened to other people with that officer. [If I had filed a complaint], maybe that officer will get reprimanded. I’m not asking for him to be fired, but you have people that come in our neighborhood and there’s a lot of, I’ll say, negativity towards our people. They say they give them training, but you can’t train somebody not to be racist.

AM: That’s true, you can’t train people not to be racist. What you do is expect a level of professionalism when you’re wearing this uniform or you’re carrying this badge. That’s one thing I will continue to push.

CAB: I had dedicated this orchard for this young man named Reggie who was shot 18 times. That was maybe four years ago. My son actually just told me this the other day: “Mom, the streets know who killed him, just the police haven’t caught him yet.” Because they all grew up together. My son doesn’t know who did it. They’re not going to tell him because he’s the nerd of the group.

AM: I don’t believe in the no-snitching rule. One of the arts in a police officer is the ability to extract information, whether they’re a victim, a witness or a suspect, to tell you what’s going on. I worked in a homicide unit that had a 93 percent clearance rate. I will tell you that there’s times in our department where we focus too much on the data and we’ve lost the  community part.

What I’m trying to do differently is how we communicate. Chicago PD has 26 sworn members in their public information office. Right now we have one sergeant, and we’re going to build upon that. For years, law enforcement agencies have been trying to promote their image, and part of that is the community policing. We have to be transparent on a regular basis. When you only see the negative video or you hear about that incident and don’t have anything to fall back on, the perception is going to be, we get it wrong most of the time. When we make a mistake, or we do something wrong, we’re going to tell you. I think the public will understand us and understand that: We’re moving parts, we make mistakes.

CAB: That’s what we want. We just want to know, instead of holding stuff [for] like weeks and weeks and weeks when something happens. We don’t find out nothing until you decide that we need to know.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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