The public is “understandably horrified.”
Chief Flynn frankly discusses the death of Derek Williams in police custody.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn offered an exclusive interview to Urban Milwaukee to discuss the death of Derek Williams and the calls for the chief’s resignation. The backdrop to this interview is an unfortunate dynamic: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has for more than a year run series after series criticizing Flynn and the police department, and Flynn seems to have gotten to the point where he feels there is nothing to be gained by doing interviews with the paper. As a result, his side and the police department’s side of the story is not getting out to the public. And it’s a story worth hearing.
In situations where a suspect dies in custody, Flynn begins, there is a customary procedure to follow. First, the county medical examiner does its examination; and assistant medical examiner Christopher Poulos declared Williams died of “natural” causes and called it a “clear-cut case.” Next came an investigation by District Attorney John Chisholm, who seconded the medical examiner, finding no grounds of criminal wrongdoing by the police. “I accepted their findings,” Flynn says.
But that still left the question of whether the police violated department protocol, and so an internal investigation was launched at that point. That investigation, which was completed in May, found no grounds for disciplinary action against the officers. Up to this point, Flynn says, he has no recollection of having viewed the squad car video. Nor he says, has it been his policy to view a squad car video in cases where a suspect dies in custody. “I personally don’t. I have investigators to do that,” he says.
Over the months, Robin Shellow, the attorney for the family of Derek Williams, had been pushing both Chisholm and Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Brian Peterson to conduct an inquest of the death. Both declined. Flynn says Shellow never talked to him.
In late September, the Journal Sentinel posted the squad car video, and around the same time Peterson released a new, completely different opinion declaring the Williams death was a homicide. At that point, Flynn says, he viewed the video.
As he did, Flynn says, “I realized that everybody was looking at it through the eyes of a criminal justice professional, looking for evidence that the police did something to Derek Williams. My first viewing was, ‘okay, what did the cops do to him?’ And they didn’t do anything to him. We were not seeing what the public was seeing, that the cops were not doing anything for him.”
“And what the public sees, they’re understandably horrified by what happened to him and how he was allowed to suffer. Certainly, it looks callous and uncaring.”
Flynn notes there were two different officers in the squad car at different points and at times neither was in the car. “It’s not unusual for suspects after a chase to be out of breath and complain of shortness of breath in a police car. But you look at the tape and a strong case can be made for quicker action by the officers. Clearly the police officers didn’t believe him. You can say they should have. But my responsibility is to treat an error in judgment different than willful misconduct.” And Flynn says he has seen no evidence of willful misconduct.
As for the idea that police might have roughed up Williams before he got into the squad car, leading to his death, Flynn notes that both the first and second medical examiner’s report found no evidence of this. “There were abrasions and minor lacerations, none of which are consistent with excessive physical force on the suspect.” As for any cuts on the suspect’s back, Flynn says “they flipped him over and he was shirtless.”
Department procedures call for police to “remain cognizant of any changes in the condition of an arrestee that would require medical treatment” and if so, “immediately request medical assistance.” The manual goes on to say “it cannot be overemphasized that members shall continually monitor and remain cognizant of the condition of the person in custody.”
But if the officers don’t believe the suspect’s protestations? Flynn’s reaction is the department must learn from this error. The new training will include information about sickle cell trait, which the medical examiner believes helped bring on breathing problem (though some critics doubt this). And from now on, Flynn says, police must call for an ambulance “any time a suspect complains they can’t breathe. No discussion. If we have unnecessary ambulance trips, we have unnecessary ambulance trips.”
Flynn has also decided to create a Critical Incident Review Board, “to review incidents like this and say, ‘okay, what did we do wrong and how might we improve our training, procedures and protocols?”
As for the newly launched investigation by former Circuit Court Judge John Franke and the possibility of a federal investigation, Flynn says he welcomes this. “If they find anything we didn’t find, then we need to know, to improve what we do.”
Flynn concedes he erred in his responses to community outrage about Williams’ death. “I think I was in some way speaking clinically at a time when emotions were raw. What I wanted to do was make it clear we would make improvements.”
As for his by now infamous quote that people who want him to resign are “welcome to try” but he’s “not going anywhere,” Flynn says that was the result of his attending a meeting with African American ministers that he thought was going to be a private, problem-solving discussion.
“It didn’t turn out that way,” Flynn recalls ruefully. “Three people stood and gave speeches telling me to resign. And I tend to get hot in reply. And one of those at the meeting decided to surreptitiously film me.”
And so a statement that was an angry and defensive got quoted in a context that made it sound like cool defiance.
The history of police-community relations in Milwaukee weighs heavily, Flynn says. “One of the speakers at the meeting went back to 1958 (and the death of Daniel Bell),” Flynn notes. “Their memories are historic and they relive this every time there is another incident like this. It rips the scab off the wounds from incidents that go back decades.”
“I said to them, ‘this is your department. It’s better trained and less complained about than at any time in its history.’”
Flynn points to the annual reports by the Fire & Police Commission, which show the use of force by department police has declined by 10 percent over the last four years. Use of force is now exercised in just nine-tenths of one percent of all incidents handled by police.
“I think we’ve made great improvements at the grass roots level, in terms how how police work with neighborhoods. You go to a community meeting and all they want to talk about is crime. The fact of the matter is that this city is highly segregated in terms of income. These poor neighborhoods are isolated in so many ways. And the residents have invested their hopes and some of their fears in the police. They need us, they demand us, and they have developed a relationship with many of our officers.”
“This isn’t just a job, it’s a vocation. And I’m still dedicated to it. I’m still committed to this city. I just worry about my officers, that they will lose focus, that they will lose heart. More than anything, that’s what I’m worried about.”
-If you set aside the consistently negative way the Journal Sentinel has covered Flynn, reporter Gina Barton has done a good job covering the Derek Williams case. Her reporting shows how sloppily the county medical examiner’s office handled the Williams case, failing to review the police reports or squad video when it issued its original ruling of a natural death.
Medical Examiner Brian Peterson has instituted changes because of the Williams case, Barton has reported. All high-profile cases, including police custody deaths, will be reviewed by a panel of all pathologists in the office, including Peterson. Also, medical examiners now must obtain police reports and squad videos during their review of deaths in police custody.
It was the medical examiner and District Attorney John Chisholm who resisted calls for an inquest and who both made rulings there was no criminal conduct by police. Yet all the blame has been focused on Flynn and to a lesser extent, on Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council because of their role as overseers of the police department.
I don’t think the community is getting an accurate picture of Flynn, and I don’t see that situation changing because the newspaper and police chief are dug into positions where they don’t trust each other.
-Last week the Fire and Police Commission released its report on how the police handled the fatal shooting of Darius Simmons. The JS story was all negative, with a headline that the report “criticizes police department.” Meanwhile, Fox 6 did a story with a headline saying the report shows police did not violate procedures.
The Fox story, frankly, was a whitewash, but the JS, while more accurate, skipped the report’s occasional positives. Flynn says the police did err in keeping the mother in custody for questioning rather than letting her be with her deceased son, but that they wanted to get all the testimony from witnesses quickly and efficiently.
“Any mother would be beside herself if she thought she was being kept from her child. I accept any criticism that we should have been more concerned.”
Flynn takes the blame for errors, saying he was concerned about an appearance that the police were not treating a white on black crime with due seriousness. “I was insistent that this case be nailed as quickly and emphatically as we could. There’s a certain irony that by doing an investigation that made sure we were tough on a white suspect that we backed ourselves into a situation where we looked like we were insensitive to the victim.”
People: Brian L. Peterson, Christopher Poulos, Derek Williams, Edward A. Flynn, Gina Barton, John Chisholm, John Franke, Robin Shellow, Tom Barrett
Government: Milwaukee Police Department