By Barbara J. Miner
The Student Association of UW Milwaukee took out a half-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Monday that took Police Chief Edward Flynn to task for recent comments describing UWM students as “guests.”
The ad did not mention Derek Williams. But it’s impossible to reflect on the tensions between Flynn and the student association without seeing a link between the two issues.
Thus far, I have been an agnostic on whether Flynn should resign. One reason is that Milwaukee’s ongoing problems in police/community relations — especially in the African American community — go far deeper than the temperament and attitude of one man, even someone as powerful as the police chief.
Perhaps it’s also because, as someone who has a bit of an Irish temper, I understand that comments in the heat of the moment do not always reflect one’s deeper beliefs.
Which is why Flynn’s comments on UWM students as “guests” are so troublesome. They were not made in the heat of the moment, but rather as part of a lengthy letter explaining his view of the role of the police in dealing with rowdy students and responding to neighborhood complaints of being kept awake at night.
What’s more, given that the comments came from the chief, on official letterhead, and must have been proofread and approved by others, Flynn’s statements can be seen as official police department policy.
In his letter, Flynn wrote: “I view your students as ‘guests’, since most do not own property in Milwaukee and they do not directly contribute to the tax base. As guests, they should be exhibiting appropriate conduct. I will stand firm in representing the rights of city residents who deserve quality of life. They should not be expected to endure sleepless nights every weekend.”
The comments are off-base on so many levels, not the least of which is lumping together the university’s 30,000-plus students and those who party hard, get drunk and play loud music. And the idea that only those who own property contribute to the city’s tax base is absurd.
Most disconcerting is Flynn’s seeming belief that in the City of Milwaukee, owning property is essential to full citizenship. Flynn’s comments reveal a shallow understanding both of citizenship and of U.S. history.
Since our nation’s founding, there have been seminal struggles to expand the scope of those granted the rights and responsibilities of citizenship — struggles that have shaped and defined our democracy.
Flynn’s views can be seen as less enlightened than even those who owned slaves; they hark back to the 18th Century when the Constitution granted the right to vote only to white men who owned property. (By the 1850s, most property restrictions for voting had been lifted for white men. It took the Civil War to extend voting rights to African Americans, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate Jim Crow restrictions on voting. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920.)
Flynn’s comments also run the risk of making it seem that police responsibilities to serve and protect extend only to property-owning citizens. That’s a frightening thought, with repercussions that go far beyond police policies toward students on the east side. What, for instance, might it say about protecting and safeguarding undocumented men, women and children on the south side? Or renters in the central city? Or homeless people who sleep under city bridges?
Problems with police/community relations in Milwaukee certainly predate Flynn. But at the same time, a police chief shouldn’t inflame tensions and divisions. And s/he certainly should make clear that all the people of Milwaukee, whether or not they own property and exhibit “appropriate” behavior, are worthy of police respect and protection.
When he was first hired, Flynn seemed to understand the need to improve ties with the community. But his recent conduct makes one wonder. What does Flynn truly believe about the role of the police in Milwaukee?
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.