Lacy’s death lit a spark. “There comes a point where you don’t take any more,” the president of the Milwaukee NAACP explained to the Chicago Tribune. “The Lacy case was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He is the 23rd victim in the last 10 years who has lost his life at the hands of our police.”
Thousands of people marched throughout the summer, demanding justice. “Fire Breier,” they would chant, referring to the police chief. Breier, in turn, would show up at the demonstrations, all but taunting the crowd.
Jurors at the inquest that fall recommended that three of the police officers be charged with reckless homicide, the first time an inquest into the death of a black recommended criminal sanctions against the police. Charges were eventually dropped, with the district attorney citing difficulties in getting a conviction. The Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy continued organizing, however, and forced the Fire and Police Commission to take disciplinary action. One officer was fired and four others suspended. More satisfying, the Lacy family received a $500,000 settlement the day before its civil suit was to go to trial in federal court.
The most lasting effect involved changes in state law. One bill, dubbed the “Lacy Bill,” made it a crime to abuse or neglect a suspect in police custody. The other bill, a 1984 measure known as the “Breier Bill,” ended the life term for Milwaukee police chiefs and transferred authority over the police to the city’s Police and Fire Commission, the mayor, and the Common Council. Breier retired shortly afterward, citing age and declining health. The day he announced his retirement, a reporter asked Breier if he would have done anything differently. “I wouldn’t change a damn thing,” Breier replied. “I say to hell with my detractors.”
The Lacy case earned a place of honor in Milwaukee history as the most- sustained, best-organized community campaign ever against police misconduct. But it was not the last example of outrage.
A decade after Lacy’s killing, in 1991, Milwaukee suffered through its most heart-wrenching murders ever. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen men and boys, with Dahmer’s gruesome crimes including torture, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism. A number of the victims were young African Americans and Asians. Concerns were soon raised that police racism and homophobia helped Dahmer remain beyond scrutiny as he killed so many for so long. By the time he was caught, Dahmer was killing one person a week. One incident was particularly disturbing. Two months before Dahmer was arrested, an African American woman called 911 and reported a naked Asian boy bleeding and staggering on the street. Police arrived to find Dahmer running after the boy. Dahmer, a seemingly well-mannered white man, convinced the police the boy was a friend who had had too much to drink. The officer reported the resolution of the incident to the 911 dispatcher, saying that “an intoxicated Asian, naked male, was returned to his sober boyfriend.” That report is followed by laughter.
Throughout Milwaukee, people of all ages, races, and sexual orientations were deeply disturbed when tapes of the dispatch reports were made public. “If that boy had been white, he’d be alive today,” community advocate Reverend LeHavre Buck said, reflecting a common view.
In 1994, an African American inmate at a state prison attacked and killed Dahmer and white inmate Jesse Anderson. Anderson had gained notoriety for blaming two black youths for viciously stabbing his wife to death in the parking lot of a mall frequented by blacks. Police later detailed how Anderson had meticulously planned the attack, thinking his story of a robbery- by- black- youth- gone- wrong would not be seriously questioned.
“The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short. Police officers in Milwaukee proved this the morning of October 24, 2004.”
So begins a federal appeals court decision involving the police beating of Frank Jude Jr., who describes himself as biracial. The incident—almost half a century after Bell, thirty- six years after McKissick, twenty-three years after Lacy, and thirteen years after Dahmer’s arrest—was noteworthy for its raw racism, prolonged brutality, and widespread police involvement.
Jude, along with a black male friend and two white women, showed up at a party on the city’s South Side. Most of the guests were off-duty police officers. Jude and his friends immediately felt uncomfortable and left . Cops stormed out of the house after them, with one of the cops alleging the group had taken his police badge. As the cops threatened the group, Jude’s friend tried to wake up the neighbors. “Nigger, shut up, it’s our world,” the cops warned. They then proceeded to beat the two men. The women called 911, but when two policemen arrived, one of them joined the assault. At one point, Jude was kicked so hard in the crotch that “his body left the ground,” according to the federal appeals court ruling. Pens were stuck into Jude’s ear canals, and his fingers were broken “by bending them back until they snapped.” One of the police thrust a gun to Jude’s head and said, “I’m the fucking police. I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.”
In 2006, an all-white jury acquitted the three police officers charged in the beating, the prosecution hampered by perjury and the police department’s “code of silence.” Thousands marched through the streets in indignation, demanding a federal investigation. They were led by Michael McGee Jr., an alderman who was the son of the co-leader of the Lacy coalition.
For reasons that have never been adequately analyzed, the protests were muted. One factor is that the most disturbing details took years to emerge, coming out only during a subsequent federal trial. Second, Jude himself was not the most upstanding of citizens. On the night of his beating, he was on parole for felony convictions for selling marijuana and bribing a police officer, and he had earlier performed as a stripper at a bachelorette party. Third, there was no well-respected leader or coalition to organize the public’s disgust. Howard Fuller had moved on to an exclusive focus on school vouchers. The elder McGee had used his recognition from the Lacy campaign to become an alderman, but he then increasingly developed a penchant for hotheaded, inflammatory rhetoric. Although designed to scare whites into action, the rhetoric instead scared everyone. After two terms he was defeated by a black police sergeant. The younger McGee was also fond of off-the-cuff , bombastic statements, some of them homophobic and misogynistic. This hamstrung his ability to organize. (The younger McGee ended his aldermanic term in a prison cell, convicted of nine felony counts including bribery and extortion.)
After the police were acquitted in state court of the Jude beating, even the district attorney called the outcome “a cover-up.” Federal officials then investigated. Ultimately, four officers pled guilty to lesser charges including perjury, one officer was acquitted, and three were convicted of assaulting Jude and violating his civil rights.
On January 6, 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a front-page story about a group of rogue police officers known as “the Punishers.” Members of the group, named after a vigilante comic-book character, reportedly wore black gloves and caps with skull emblems while on duty. Some had skull tattoos. Jude himself had referred to one of the police officers who beat him as “Mr. Punisher,” referring to the policeman’s skull tattoo, which looked exactly like the logo of the comic-book vigilante.
The Punishers first came to the attention of a police commander after the Jude beating. “This is a group of rogue officers within our agency who I would characterize as brutal and abusive,” the commander wrote in a 2007 report. “At least some of the officers involved in the Jude case were associated with this group, although there is reason to believe the membership extended beyond those who were convicted in the case.” The department briefly investigated the group, but little was done. Police chief Edward Flynn declined to be interviewed for the 2011 Journal Sentinel story. Instead, he issued a statement calling the existence of the Punishers a “rumor.” There was no follow-up story, no public statement of concern from any official, no editorial calling for further investigation. The story died after one day.
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Excerpted from the book by Barbara J. Miner, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York: New Press, 2013.)