Milwaukee Police Chief Speaks Harsh Truth About Crime During Press Conference

November 20th 2014

The above video shows an impromptu, impassioned speech from Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn.

What's he talking about?

Flynn is meeting with reporters after a Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission meeting, which focused on the killing of Dontre Hamilton. The meeting was clearly heated, based on Flynn's description.

Hamilton, who police say was mentally disturbed, was shot and killed earlier this year by a Milwaukee police officer after the two became engaged in a struggle when Hamilton resisted the officer's efforts to pat him down. At some point, Hamilton wrested away the officer's baton, and the officer responded by shooting Hamilton 14 times. The shooting was controversial because Hamilton was a black man who was at least initially unarmed. The story has similarities to the shooting of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in August in Ferguson, Mo.

Unlike the Michael Brown story, the police officer in Hamilton's case was fired. But not for using excessive force -- the mistake, Flynn said, was not following proper procedure for dealing with mentally disturbed people.

This firing did not go over well with the local police union, which responded with 99% of its membership voting that they had "no confidence" in Flynn. 

(h/t to reddit user warlizard for helping us sort this all out)

Why are people interested in this video?

Flynn shows us an example of a police officer who is deeply concerned with gun violence in his community. He has passion. He does not mince words. 

Coming off the events in Ferguson, where some people believed the police were inconsiderate of the problems in the community, Flynn is a breath of fresh air. What you're seeing also in this video is a man who is stuck between two opposing sides. On one end, Milwaukee's black community feels like police are against them, and some of the protestors in that meeting showed Flynn their dissatisfaction in emotional ways. On the other hand, he commands a police force whose membership is angry with the firing of one of their fellow officers. 

What are the key underlying issues in this video?

Gun Violence in American cities 

There is an astounding amount of gun violence in American cities. Very often, American cities -- on their own -- have higher rates of murder than whole countries. And not just any country -- seriously violent countries. Last year, urban studies theorist Richard Florida showed that New Orleans -- if were its own country -- had enough gun killings per gun owner to make it the second most deadly country on the planet.

The gun debate

Flynn also reminds us that sheer ubiquity of guns in America is unique. Pew found there are between 270 and 310 million guns in the United States.

Shooting of unnamed black men

Emotions are high in Milwaukee as a result of the Dontre Hamilton shooting, described above. Hamilton unfortunately is another name on a long list of unarmed black men who have been killed by police. What makes this case a bit more complicated is that Hamilton actually gained possession of the police officer's baton. So, whether he was truly unarmed is a matter of debate. The Milwaukee Police Department did not find Hamilton guilty of using excessive force in shooting Hamilton. Instead, as mentioned, he was terminated for how he handled a mentally disturbed person.

Regardless of the precise circumstances of this shooting, the details are hazy enough and the result is sad enough that it is understandable that the black community in Milwaukee is not fully satisfied by the officer's termination.

Police handling of mentally disturbed people

This case brings up another very common issue that does not get much attention: police handling of mentally disturbed people. This came up during the protests in Ferguson when police in St. Louis County killed Kajieme Powell, a mentally disturbed person who was brandishing a knife. These are common occurrences. In 2012, a Portland Press Herald investigation found that of all the Americans killed by police that year, half of them suffered some sort of mental illness.

These killings raise questions about the way police deal with mentally disturbed people.