Commitment to working on improving police accountability is strong at Law School conference

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Speakers at Marquette

There was unanimous concern about the overall issue. There was unanimous willingness to work together. There was open and substantial conversation. But it will take time to see what will actually happen when it comes to progress on how to police communities and how to achieve good  accountability when things related to police go bad.

That summarizes a two-hour conference on policing and accountability hosted by the Marquette Law School and the Marquette Forum, a university-wide set of efforts to address major issues. Participants included major figures involved in controversies over the subject and in the aftermath of several police shootings of black men. The conference was posted on the Law School’s web site on March 10, 2021.

“Ideologically, we want to live in a city where we all feel safe, where we feel heard, where we feel protected,” said Amanda Avalos, a new member of Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission. “And people’s ideas of how we get there are different.”

Jeffrey Norman, L’02, Milwaukee’s interim police chief, said, “We have a lot of work to do.” One of the main tenets of his approach to his job is accountability. Norman said police have to be accountable to have legitimacy in the community. He said, “Our acts and deeds have to line up. We can’t just use it as a word of the day.”

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas said that there are disparities in the results of law enforcement practices by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. “We know we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I’m committed.” He also said, “It begins with each one of us, the chief and myself, being active listeners to what it is that the people of this community are desiring.”

And Nate Hamilton, chair of the Community Collaborative Commission, said, “I’m completed committed” to sitting at the table and working with law enforcement leaders to create community-oriented policing policies. Hamilton’s brother, Dontre Hamilton, was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.

Hamilton said discussions so far have just scratched the surface of the issues, but both sides are open to trying things and evaluating what works and what doesn’t. “I think it’s time for the city to open the box of respect, the box of love and compassion and determination,” Hamilton said.

Avalos, Norman, Lucas and Hamilton took part in the first hour of the conference in a conversation moderated by Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy.

In the second hour, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, and Attorney Kimberly Motley, who has represented several families of men killed by police, discussed how such shootings were investigated. The conversation was moderated by Steve Biskupic, former US Attorney for eastern Wisconsin and an adjunct professor at Marquette Law School.

Kaul, Chisholm, and Motley agreed that state law sets a high bar for charging police officers in connection with shooting someone, especially if a weapon was in the possession of the person who was killed. But Motley said some investigations have been mishandled.

Kaul said, “The laws that we have are a good starting point, but I also think we can improve on them” to assure full and fair investigation.

Chisholm said, “I’m certainly not content” with how many police shootings there have been and how post-shooting investigations have been handled. There have been significant improvements in the law covering such incidents, such as a 2014 state law that calls for outside authorities to handle investigations, but that more changes should be considered, he said.

Motley said the concerns many people have go beyond the fatal shootings. While officer-involved shootings are rare, “there are so many other micro-aggressive tactics that law enforcement officers impose upon different communities in Milwaukee that are really a problem. That needs to stop.” She said, “Race definitely does play a factor in police assessing threats.” Officers generally think Black people are more threatening than white people, she said.

She called for hiring more diverse law enforcement officers and including diverse people in investigation teams. “It’s not as though the public wants to distrust the police,“ she said. “I think the public definitely wants to trust the police, but unfortunately there are so many examples of late where that trust has been really challenging.”

Kaul and Chisholm agreed that achieving more diversity in the ranks of law enforcement was an important goal.

Avalos summarized much of the discussion when she said, “Let’s be courageous and make those moves” to improve police-community relations. So far, progress has been small, but she said, “I take baby steps as real progress because that’s better than going backwards.”

Video of the conference may be viewed by clicking here.

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