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Milwaukee Is A Microcosm Of Biden's Challenge On Police Accountability


When he becomes president, Joe Biden will face pressure to do something about police accountability. Some people want him to revive federal oversight of police. The Trump administration ended some programs that did that. But other people say it's not enough. They want more change. NPR's Adrian Florido went to Milwaukee, one city where this dispute is happening.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: In 2014, a Milwaukee police officer shot Dontre Hamilton 14 times. The protests over his killing started months later. Nate Hamilton is Dontre's brother.

NATE HAMILTON: My family was angry. The community was angry that it was taking months and months to come up with a conclusion of what this officer did.

FLORIDO: The protests for justice roiled Milwaukee for months. They led the police chief at the time to fire the officer and to call in the Department of Justice to conduct a review of the police force.

HAMILTON: People thought that the DOJ was going to come in and create a opportunity for change.

FLORIDO: But before the DOJ finished its report, Donald Trump took office, and his DOJ ended many of the federal government's police accountability efforts across the country. The report in Milwaukee was shelved.

HAMILTON: It took a lot of energy out of the movement - right, you know? - 'cause it felt like we wasted time waiting on the DOJ.

FLORIDO: Months later, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got a hold of a draft of the DOJ's report. It found a long list of problems within the police department. But Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP, says that because it was just a leaked draft, the police chief cast doubts upon its findings, telling the newspaper it was full of errors.

FRED ROYAL: It just reaffirmed that MPD was not sincere about true reform because the first opportunity they had to discredit this report, they took that opportunity.

FLORIDO: Royal is among the African American leaders who want to see Joe Biden's Justice Department revive its commitment to policing local police in his city and across the country. Milwaukee Alderwoman Milele Coggs is another.

MILELE COGGS: And over the last four years, the African American community has not been able to depend on that even happening.

FLORIDO: In largely Black cities like Milwaukee, which were critical to Biden's victory, many see a renewed federal commitment to police accountability as one way Biden can keep the promise he made in his victory speech to deliver for Black Americans. Coggs says, trying to reform her city's police without federal support the last few years has been hard.

COGGS: We happen to be a city that is trying to make some of the changes that a DOJ investigation would have helped us to get to.

FLORIDO: In 2018, an ACLU lawsuit compelled the Milwaukee police to end stop and frisk. The city council created a citizen's commission to work with the police department to implement reforms from that linked DOJ report with a focus on community policing. That commission's work is ongoing. And in a statement to NPR, the police department said it is committed to that work. But doubts about that commitment are one reason Markasa Tucker left the citizens commission. She used to be its chair and a leading voice for police reform in Milwaukee. But she came to believe the police had no interest in reforming. She now campaigns to defund the police department and redirect its money to social programs, a tactic she doubts the Biden administration will embrace.

MARKASA TUCKER: People are going to want to pile money into reform. And people are going to be disappointed, you know, years later when they find out that that money they piled into that doesn't work because people are still getting murdered by police.

FLORIDO: The commission Tucker left is now led by Nate Hamilton, whose brother Dontre's killing sparked the whole process. He sees things differently.

HAMILTON: We know we just not about to abolish police officers in the next year or two. They're going to be around for a while. So we want to see something within the next few months that is going to benefit not only the safety of our citizens, but also the safety of our officers.

FLORIDO: This tension between calls for more traditional police reform and more radical change is playing out nationwide, especially after last summer's racial justice movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Vanita Gupta, who ran the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Obama administration, says that's one reason Joe Biden's DOJ won't be able to simply resurrect federal police accountability programs that the Trump administration slashed.

VANITA GUPTA: There's a lot to rebuild, but also in a post-George Floyd world, people feel a little more cynical about some of the Justice Department tools around reform and accountability.

FLORIDO: She says that under Joe Biden...

GUPTA: The Justice Department is going to have to do something deeper to look at, not just using a policing approach, but creating public safety for people in crisis. You know, there are a lot of different programs that I think in a lot of communities around the country, people are calling for.

FLORIDO: The country faces a new political landscape when it comes to policing, she says, and the new president will have to navigate it.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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