An in-depth look into Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s tenure

MILWAUKEE — A grassroots effort kicks off Friday, October 12th — aimed at removing Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. This, amidst growing controversy surrounding the Milwaukee Police Department relating to the department’s handling of a number of high-profile cases.Beginning Friday, community activists will hit the streets asking folks to sign a petition calling for Chief Flynn’s removal.

The Milwaukee Police Department has been under fire in recent weeks — particularly as it relates to the death of 22-year-old Derek Williams. Williams died while in police custody in July 2011. He was picked up by Milwaukee police officers following a foot chase — suspected of an attempted robbery.

Williams’ death was captured on a squad camera as he struggled to breathe for nearly 15 minutes without help. MPD and the Milwaukee County District Attorney concluded the officers involved did not break any rules. However, the two did call for an inquest into the Williams’ case, and a special prosecutor was appointed for such inquest. 

Once the dashcam video was released to the public, and the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office amended Williams’ cause of death from Sickle cell trait (natural causes) to homicide (death at the hands of another) — some community leaders and residents called for the firing of Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and a federal investigation. That request was granted this week.

The federal investigation will work to determine whether anyone is criminally responsible for Williams’ death.

The controversy surrounding MPD was compounded this week when it was announced four officers have been charged for criminal misconduct related to illegal strip searches of individuals in the community. Victims have filed notices claiming they were illegally searched.

34-year-old Officer Michael Vagnini faces 25 counts of violating the strip search law, misconduct in public office and second-degree sexual assault. If convicted of these crimes, Vagnini faces up to 40 years in prison and $100,000 in fines.

41-year-old Officer Jeffrey Dollhopf faces two counts of violating the strip search law and two counts of misconduct in public office.

Officers Brian Kozelek, 33 and Jacob Knight, 31 each face one count of violating the strip search law and one count of misconduct in public office.

The criminal complaint in the case details incidents spanning from February of 2010 to February of 2012.

MPD has also faced criticism as it relates to the department’s handling of the shooting death of 13-year-old Darius Simmons – allegedly by his neighbor (75-year-old John Spooner). Simmons’ mother claimed police mistreated her immediately after her son was shot — holding her in a squad car as opposed to letting her be with her dying son. A Fire and Police Commission report recently ruled the officers in this case did not break any rules in this investigation.

On the heels of all that’s come to light in recent weeks, community activists say it’s time for action. Organizers say once collected, the goal is for the petition signatures to be delivered to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (FPC).

Meanwhile, supporters of Chief Flynn are also speaking out in his defense. Late this week, two Milwaukee aldermen — Bob Donovan and Robert Puente issued statements defending Milwaukee police in general.

In a statement, Alderman Puente said: “As a retired MPD Captain who spent nearly 28 years as a proud member of the Police Department, I can tell you that anyone who attempts to paint the entire force with a singular, negative brush is absolutely off-base and not in touch with reality. The reality is that the vast majority of police officers are hard working, honest, ethical, and fair in carrying out their sworn duties.”

Puente continued, saying: “The recent news of four officers (four out of the approximately 2,000 sworn MPD personnel) being charged in connection with alleged illegal strip searches is very troubling, but it is not indicative of the vast majority of our men and women who wear the MPD shield. The officers who properly serve and put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis deserve our support and our respect.”

Puente served as an MPD officer under five different police chiefs.

“By bar, I think he’s one of the better chiefs we’ve had. There’s been so many in-roads since Flynn came here in the community, and I think these kinds of incidents are chipping away at that,” Puente said.

Alderman Donovan said in a statement: I am standing squarely behind the dedicated and hard working men and women of the MPD and Chief Flynn with regard to the Derek Williams case. While we all agree that the squad car video is disturbing, one officer said to me recently: ‘Alderman Donovan, almost everything we see while on duty is disturbing.’  Our officers risk their lives each and every day, and yet everything they do is second-guessed and scrutinized. Additionally, federal investigators have indicated they want to hear about any additional alleged civil rights violations within the Milwaukee Police Department — and say they will compile evidence to determine whether there is a need for a broader investigation into MPD as a whole.”

Donovan continued, saying: “Our officers do not wake up each day, put on their uniform, and ask themselves ‘How can I violate someone’s rights today?’  In fact, our officers proudly put on their uniforms each day and attempt to restore order from the chaos that occurs in some of the garbage dumps we call certain neighborhoods in this city. I say ‘THANK YOU’ to our officers, and suggest that our city thank them as well.”

As for those demanding Chief Flynn’s resignation, Chief Flynn said this week there is a reason police chiefs are appointed to four-year terms. Chief Flynn just began his second term.

“If we’re going to sacrifice police chiefs every time something goes wrong, then we’re going to have six or seven police chiefs in four years. You cannot govern like that with that kind of instability at the top. Every major police jurisdiction has critical incidents that go wrong, and the test of the organization is what we put in place to prevent recurrence and what we do with the incidents that occur,” Chief Flynn said.

Chief Flynn began his career in Milwaukee in 2008. He was sworn in for a second term in 2012. During his tenure, he’s earned both praise and criticism.

Flynn re-drew district lines for neighborhoods and prioritized calls to enable more bike and foot patrols. At the same time, MPD struggled with Open Sky 2 — the communication system Chief Flynn inherited, which some say led to increased police response times.

Flynn also dealt with criticism following the alleged misreporting of aggravated assault crime numbers — something Chief Flynn blamed on human error.

“I’m trying to manage a complex organization charged with extraordinarily pressure-filled responsibilities to the community,” Chief Flynn said.

A Fire and Police Commission meeting is planned for next week, where commissioners will accept public comment — including written comments such as petitions.

During their announcement of the federal investigation into the Williams’ case, federal officials said this week they are gathering information to determine whether a much larger and broader investigation (called a Patterns and Practices Investigation) should be launched against MPD.

This type of broad investigation into the department as a whole is the ultimate goal of this grassroots petition drive.

Monitor FOX6News and FOX6Now.com for updates in this developing story.

CLICK HERE for additional coverage on the Derek Williams’ death investigation via FOX6Now.com.

CLICK HERE for more stories on the alleged illegal strip searches conducted by MPD officers.

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