Amid Challenges, Milwaukee Police Department Searches For New Leader

Fire And Police Commission Will Decide On New Police Chief By December

A flag is reflected in the window of a Milwaukee Police Department vehicle
A flag is reflected in the window of a Milwaukee Police Department vehicle Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Milwaukee. Morry Gash/AP Photo 

The Milwaukee Police Department is in the midst of one its most challenging years.

The pandemic has changed policing and the court system. Homicides and gun violence are on the rise. Milwaukee is seeing death rates reminiscent of the 1990s. Activists are calling for the department to be defunded. A tight city budget means more than 100 officers won’t be replaced next year.

Police departments in other large cities are facing similar challenges, but Milwaukee has done so while attempting to replace its top officer.

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In August, Police Chief Alfonso Morales was demoted following months of turmoil among Black Lives Matter protests and years of community distrust of officers. Assistant Chief Michael Brunson Sr. has served as acting chief, but he doesn’t want the job permanently.

There are now six candidates who the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission are considering to lead the department and mend relationships with the city.

After meeting in closed session Thursday, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission announced plans to interview one internal candidate, Assistant Chief Jeffrey Norman, and five others:

  • Hoyt Mahaley, a supervisory special agent with the FBI.
  • Jason Lando, a commander with the Pittsburgh Police Department.
  • Malik Aziz, a major with the Dallas Police Department.
  • Chris Davis, a deputy chief with the Portland Police Department in Oregon.
  • John Pate, a former police chief in the Chicago suburbs who’s now the city manager of a Miami suburb.

The Commission did not make any further comments.

Norman has been with the Milwaukee Police Department since 1996. He has steadily been promoted. He served as a captain of the inspections division before being named assistant chief by Brunson.

The last police chief who was an external hire was Ed Flynn, who served from 2008 to 2018. Morales grew up in Milwaukee and started with the Milwaukee Police Department in 1993.

Benefits of both

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will likely meet with the candidates, but it’s up to the Fire and Police Commission to hire the next chief. They plan to have a decision in December. Still, Barrett works very closely with the chief, and when crime is on the rise, he is normally the first person people blame.

Barrett praised Brunson for maintaining the morale of the department and meeting with people in the community who have been unhappy with the department.

“I think those actions demonstrate one of the qualities that will be necessary for the next chief — someone who can work with the community and at the same time maintaining the integrity and the professionalism of the Milwaukee Police Department,” Barrett said.

Another important aspect of the job will be working with state government, Barrett said.

“There are certain things embedded in state law that make police officers more expensive than other employees, so there is going to be a need to civilianize more employees,” Barrett said. “There is gong to be a need for additional revenue, not only for the Police Department but for other aspects of city government, which are also part of our safety creating mission as a community.”

Barrett’s 2021 budget proposal removes 911 operators and dispatchers from the Police Department and consolidates them, along with Fire Department dispatchers, into a new division in the Fire and Police Commission.

Billy Grogan has been the chief of police in Dunwoody, Georgia since 2008. He is also an advisor to police officers across the country who want to become police chiefs.

Grogan said there are pros and cons to hiring an internal or external candidate. An internal candidate has the connections a police chief needs with politicians, advocacy groups and community leaders, he said.

They also know the inner workings of the department, Grogan said. But that can also lead to politics that might best be avoided, especially if the department is trying to start fresh.

“External candidates have a fresh set of eyes and a fresh set of ideas coming from somewhere else,” Grogan said. “Coming from the outside, you don’t know the personnel, so there is a learning curve, because you don’t know the go-to people. An organization like Milwaukee, knowing that could take years.”

Grogan said when choosing a police chief, a city should look at the first thing that needs to be accomplished. If it’s lowering the crime rate, find a person who has done that. If it’s building a bridge with the community, then find a chief who has demonstrated that, Grogan said.

“Any of the candidates can do the job from a technical standpoint and maybe be a good police chief,” Grogan said. “But you need a police chief that serves the needs of the department right now and into the foreseeable future.”

Milwaukee Fire Department

Deputy Chief Daniel Lipski has been serving as interim chief after the departure of Chief Mark Rohlfing, who announced he was retiring.

Lipski said the department has “exceptionally low resources” at a time when volumes are climbing. Because of that, there has been a spike in mental heath issues, burnout and stress among first responders, Lipski said.

Lipski said under his leadership, he would also like to hire more people of color and women to better represent the community the department serves.

“My passion lies with the city of Milwaukee. I’m a lifelong city of Milwaukee resident,” Lipski said. “I’m staying in the city of Milwaukee. I think we have a lot of work to do. And I would like to try.”