When the Police Don't Protect People


August 06, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

MILWAUKEE. — For most of us living elsewhere, the story of Milwaukee's troubles begins with the revelations about Jeffrey Dahmer. But that story did not occur in a vacuum. Milwaukee was a tinderbox long before this spark was provided.

The city has a black core, like other metropolitan areas. Its inner area is almost entirely black. But, ironically, a socialist mayor in the progressive era expanded the city lines to take in a large tax-support base. This means that the voting population has a white majority that has made black self-government impossible.

At a time when other major cities have had black mayors and police chiefs and black majorities on city councils, the African Americans in this city have largely been frozen out of office.

That is not necessarily unjust in itself. But African Americans have long claimed that the overwhelmingly white civic administration does not care about the black community and, more especially, that the white-led police force dismisses crimes committed against blacks. A black alderman was calling for the African Americans to arm themselves and protect their neighborhoods even before the Dahmer incident.

Imagine, then, the impact of the police treatment of Dahmer in a city so conditioned to fear and resent the police. Two black women see a crime being committed and call for help. A third black woman telephones the police and offers to help them get the witnesses' names and telephone numbers.

Modern police forces try to encourage citizens to report crime and help in their investigation or confirmation. But these helpful citizens were told to go away and forget it. Their testimony was unsought and untaken.

Their concern was treated with undisguised impatience. After all, they were black, and women, and the victim they were trying to help was also not white but Laotian.

A beaten and drugged boy is returned to his tormentor. No check is run on the one person present, a white man, whose story the police took seriously. After all, the boy was dismissed as a ''boyfriend.'' Battery of putative homosexuals is not something to be given medical or other attention. The laughing cops left the house, left the boy in his tormentor's custody to be murdered.

The women had no trouble seeing that the boy was underage and had been beaten. They correctly diagnosed the situation and their words are on record. The woman on the telephone said the witnesses saw ''a male child being raped and molested by an adult.''

These women had taken no course in investigative technique, as the police had. They just retained their open eyes, and common sense, and caring hearts equipment apparently not issued to the Milwaukee police along with their guns and badges.

No wonder Milwaukee is a seething place of racial tensions. Would you want your child left to the mercies of this police force?

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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