How Can the Milwaukee Police Department Improve Community Relations?

Chief Jeffrey Norman answers that and more in this wide-ranging MilMag interview.

You might see Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman as the head coach of a team of officers and detectives. But he sees himself as part of a much bigger team.

Photo by Sara Stathas

Since his days as captain in charge of Police District 3, Norman has focused on building relationships and partnerships with every sector of the community. He knows how difficult that might be, as a lifelong Milwaukee resident who grew up in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of the North Side where distrust of the police is most widespread. And improving police-community relations is just one of the challenges that he faces, along with reducing violent crime and reckless driving.

Norman, 48, joined the department in 1996 after graduating from UW-Milwaukee. While serving as an officer and later a detective, he earned a law degree from Marquette University, then left to become a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney in 2003, but soon returned to the department. After unsuccessful races for municipal judge in 2007 and circuit judge in 2008, he rose to District 3 commander in March 2018. 

When the Fire and Police Commission fired then-Chief Alfonso Morales, Norman became assistant chief in August 2020 and acting chief in December 2020, during a tumultuous period in which Morales won a court order to be reinstated before reaching a settlement with the city. The commission appointed Norman to a four-year term in the job last November. 

Norman talked with Milwaukee Magazine about his first 15 months running the department and his plans for its future.

How has your background prepared you to be chief? 

Seeing my father work at a foundry for over 23 years was a great life teacher for me in what commitment looks like. Being a student [in the Milwaukee Public Schools], we had the District 5 commander come in and speak to us, and also working in [the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program] with a Milwaukee police detective – that helped kindle that spirit of wanting to come into law enforcement. I have an undergrad degree in criminal justice, [and] those instructors gave me the real-world view, not the television style of policing. Being in the department 26 years, I’ve always been a student, to watch those in leadership, to challenge myself to take on more opportunities and roles, to further my training. Combining all those experiences built me into the individual you see today. 

What are you doing to improve community engagement and relations?

The first thing is to model it – engaging our community of all walks, of all backgrounds: our elected officials, our community stakeholders, our activists, our residents, business community, legal community. In recruiting, we want [officer applicants] who are community-minded, those who are not afraid to build relationships. We all have our respective expertise, insight, perspective. We should all be at the table. Only through community engagement do you learn that. Community engagement, in my mind, is building relationships.

And how can those relationships help you fight crime?

When you have trust amongst your residents, you are provided information. You get support. Public safety is a team activity. There are so many different sources of expertise, so many different resources out there. Police departments far too long believed we had the answers all in-house. I’m not saying all of us are like that, but unfortunately we’ve had those silos that we create ourselves. You can pick up a log by yourself, but it makes it so much easier when you have other hands helping that lift. It’s still a heavy log, but you see that there is a shared effort. We have to be genuine, we have to be trustworthy, we have to be proactive in being ready to hear what our partners have to say, and really look at them as partners.

How does implementing the stop-and-frisk settlement help build that trust?

There is that hanging over our head – not only the checks and balances of it, but what led up to it: lack of trust, our not communicating the challenges of our work, and then some of those who were doing the wrong work. We need to show ourselves to be accountable and that we understand what constitutional policing looks like. That’s not supposed to be some type of temporary work, but to actually have consistent constitutional policing, which has always been and should be demanded from us.

How important is it to have a department and a command staff that looks like the community?

Extremely important. But we sometimes take diversity out of context, as it’s reduced to Black and brown. We need to understand diversity is gender and socioeconomic and also sexual orientation – all those contribute to what I like to say is true diversity. We should be looking for those bridge-builders, from our Asian brothers and sisters, to Latinos, to females, to African Americans. There is a lot of opportunity in an urban environment.

How is your Traffic Safety Unit working out?

I’d like to say it’s successful. We’re still looking at the data. We just came up on the [unit’s] one-year anniversary [in February]. We employ a lot of different strategies, having our officers in high-risk areas for motor vehicle crashes. We also have a platform where the residents can send in their concerns. We put out where we’re going to be before we get there. We’re not some squad hiding behind a big billboard like in the days of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” We’re not just centering our efforts on one side of town. We all know the pervasiveness of reckless driving. We also have [traffic safety officers] educating and talking to our public. Traffic safety is more than just squads on the roads. 

What is MPD doing to reduce violent crime on your watch?

We have robust partnerships with [the state] Department of Corrections, our federal partners, community stakeholders, public health. We all understand that crime is coming from certain types of underlying issues, whether it’s housing or unemployment. We have Milwaukee Fire Department, [the city] Office of Violence Prevention, [the county] Department of Health and Human Services working on a regular basis, breaking down some of our more violent incidents and seeing what else can be done – besides enforcement – that can get to the heart of what generated these situations. Was it a housing issue, a mental health issue? 

We have weekly reviews of serious incidents. We have [the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], FBI, Department of Corrections probation and parole, Office of Violence Prevention, the DA’s office, the city Housing Authority, saying, “What do we know about this, and how can we target the right location and the right people?” We work steadily with our federal partners, targeting those who are armed offenders, those who are violent offenders in the drug trade. We have finite resources, but working together, we are force multipliers to get the most results to impact the violence. 

It’s no secret that we’re still challenged with homicides. For 2021, the No. 1 issue for nonfatal shootings was argument, conflict. That was No. 2 for homicides, but the No. 1 cause was “unknown.” We are seeing poor conflict resolution – combine it with the availability of firearms, it has a horrible result. I don’t think there’s a police strategy that can deal with poor conflict resolution. We are sharing this with our partners who have other resources. Firearms are our wheelhouse – illegally used or obtained – but there are some situations where people are lawfully carrying firearms and using that as a resolution for a disagreement.

What approach do you favor for police to deal with the mentally ill

You cannot say one particular tool is the most effective tool. Being able to have a CART (Crisis Assessment Response Team, which pairs officers and therapists), utilizing [Crisis Intervention Team] training, all those are tools that will assist in dealing with individuals with mental health challenges. We also need to look to other alternatives, [such as] having someone as a dedicated [911] call-taker, so we can have an appropriate diversion of those calls to the appropriate resources. 

One of the challenges that the Milwaukee Police Department shares with law enforcement across the country is that we’re 24/7. Mental health crises [don’t] just happen Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. How do we have a robust response, 24/7, 365 days a year, no holidays off? I know that we’re expanding our CART team to have later hours. The problem is we’re trying to find therapists to work with officers. Those hours [are] not really appealing.

Where do you stand on using community service officers (unarmed, uniformed civilian police employees)? 

At the end of the day, I want a safe community. However we get to that point, barring anything extreme or immoral [laughs], I am all about it. Community service officers – as a former district commander, I understand what they bring to the table. I don’t see a difference between sworn and non-sworn. We’re all members of the Milwaukee Police Department. They [perform] work that helps free up our sworn [officers] for more violent or serious incidents, but they’re just as much part of the team in my eyes. And, in fact, a lot of our community service officers go on and become sworn officers.

What other alternatives do you see to armed officers responding to all calls? 

Diversion [to other agencies] is important, because there are calls where we can find better ways. The challenge always, though, is who is going to take them? We always talk about it, but there is no one true resource that really can take on what we have unfortunately historically been taking on. I know there’s some out there, but having a true robust system, we’re not there yet. Who’s going to take that responsibility for those calls that (happen) at 2:00 in the morning? It’s easy to say, 9 to 5, we can make sure we have somebody here, but what about 12:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday when many others like to have a little free time with their families, go to a mall, go to a movie? Those are sacrifices I had to deal with and still deal with. It takes a special person for our work.

How do you expect your time as chief to differ from your predecessors?

[Laughs] I guess the public will tell me that. When people are more focused on the works of this department than on who is leading it, when they are saying they are seeing a different department, where it’s not surprising for us to be in certain spaces because we’ve always been a part of the community, when we can look at officers as not “us vs. them” but as “we,” I believe that will set the tone of what my leadership embodies. I don’t need anyone to remember me. I want them to see the works of a dedicated team. We are empowered by the community. We are the community. The community is us. There’s no separation between the two in my eyes.


Changing Chiefs

FOR MOST OF ITS HISTORY, the Milwaukee Police Department has been led by white male chiefs chosen from within its ranks. The longest-consecutively- serving chiefs were John Janssen (1888-1921) and Harold Breier (1964-1984). Since Breier’s retirement, a more diverse and educated generation of chiefs has emerged, particularly once former Mayors John Norquist and Tom Barrett started appointing Fire and Police Commission members. The commission selected:

1984-89: Robert Ziarnik

Last white man chosen from within MPD

1989-96: Philip Arreola

First Hispanic chief, first with a law degree and first chosen from outside MPD in at least a century

1996-2003: Arthur Jones

First Black chief

2003-07: Nannette Hegerty

First woman chief

2008-18: Edward Flynn 

Second modern-day chief chosen from outside the department

2018-20: Alfonso Morales

Second Hispanic chief

2021-Present: Jeffrey Norman

Second Black chief and second with a law degree


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.