Dahmer case changed police relations

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Jesse Jackson, Shirley Holmes

The Rev. Jesse Jackson escorts Shirley Hughes along 25th Street in Milwaukee on Aug. 7, 1991, as he leads hundreds of supporters in a march from the apartment building of Jeffrey Dahmer to St. Luke’s Emmanuel Baptist Church. The march was in support of the families of the victims whose bodies were found in Dahmer’s apartment on July 22. – Photo: AP/Dave Schlabowske

Jeffrey Dahmer mugshots

Jeffrey Dahmer mugshots

On July 22, 1991, a terrified man wearing a handcuff waved down a Milwaukee police car and led two officers to the Oxford Apartments, 924 N. 25th St.

Tracy Edwards said a “weird dude” in Apt. 213 had drugged him and tried to force him with a butcher knife into the bedroom, where pictures of mangled bodies adorned the wall and a pungent stench seeped from a large blue barrel.

Edwards said he had punched the man in the face, kicked him in the stomach and escaped into the street.

What police found inside Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment stunned the world: a human head on a refrigerator shelf, human meat in the freezer, severed hands and a penis in a stockpot. Dahmer was convicted of killing 15 young men and boys from 1978 to 1991. The details that emerged at his trial are among the most heinous ever heard in a court.

The Dahmer case also threw a spotlight on homophobia and racism in the Milwaukee Police Department. The most glaring example was the story of Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old Laotian boy.

Two women called 911 after seeing the child running naked and bleeding down a street, with Dahmer in pursuit. The killer told responding officers that the boy, who was drugged and mumbling incoherently, was his drunken 19-year-old boyfriend. Dahmer apologized and said the two were having a lovers’ quarrel.

The officers escorted Sinthasomphone back to Apt. 213 without checking his ID or running a background check on Dahmer. If they had, they would have discovered that Dahmer was a registered sex offender who’d served time in prison for molesting Sinthasomphone’s brother.

Despite the stench emanating from the apartment’s bedroom, where the remains of 17-year-old Clarence McKee lay decomposing, police left Sinthasomphone in Dahmer’s hands. It was later revealed in police transcripts that while Dahmer was killing the boy, the responding officers were making homophobic jokes and talking about getting “deloused” after coming into contact with gays.

Such revelations and the accompanying outrage from the city’s LGBT and other minority communities – Dahmer was white, most of his victims were not – roiled the MPD and led to changes in departmental policy and training.

But 20 years later, how much have things really changed?

‘Class of Dahmer’

MPD deputy inspector Mary Hoerig was a member of what is known as the “class of Dahmer,” the group of recruits who graduated from the Milwaukee Police Department Academy in July 1991. Today she’s an out lesbian who serves as the official liaison to the LGBT community. Her longtime partner also serves on the force.

But Hoerig began her law-enforcement career in the closet. There were no officers out on the job in those days, she says.

“If you went to the (gay) bars, you always had to know the exit plan in case other officers showed up,” Hoerig says. “I remember going to Fannies and always worrying about how I was going to get out the back way. You were always worried that other people from the department would come in to do a bar check.”

Despite the fear of discovery, Hoerig says she witnessed no overt evidence of anti-gay harassment on the force. She heard anecdotally about male officers being the object of gay gossip, but says she was never ostracized. As a woman and a mother of three, Hoerig says she felt somewhat shielded.

“There’s another standard for gay men,” she says.

As Hoerig was settling into her new career in law enforcement, the details of Dahmer’s killing spree were making worldwide headlines. They were also leading to a growing public awareness that homophobia and racism at MPD had created glaring disparities between the level of service police provided to straight white citizens versus their non-white and LGBT counterparts. Missing person reports filed by the families of young men of color, many of them gay, had been ignored. Bereaved family members agonized over whether their loved ones would have still been alive if police had noticed the pattern of disappearances and investigated them.

In response to these concerns, Milwaukee Mayor Mayor John O. Norquist appointed a nine-member commission to hold hearings on police-community relations. Gary Hollander, an out gay man who’s now the executive director of Diverse and Resilient, served on the commission.

“We had hearings that were largely in communities of color and also hearings that were heavily attended by gay and lesbian people,” Hollander says. “We interviewed the police chief and various members of the staff, and we got reports on training in the academy and did tours of different precincts.”

The commission’s work went on for about a year. In the end, it produced a landmark report condemning Milwaukee police for dismissing citizens’ complaints, mistreating minorities and discriminating by selective enforcement of the law.

In addition to assessing the state of police-community relations, the commission developed recommendations to address the problems that it uncovered. Many of those have since been implemented.

Hollander says it’s ironic that in the years prior to Dahmer, the LGBT community had tried to remain off law-enforcement’s radar in order to avoid the kind of police harassment that had been common in the past. “If you think about the Dahmer case, it was not that we were drawing additional attention, but we weren’t drawing the attention we needed,” Hollander says. “In the decades prior, the chief complaints from gay people were about getting harassed by police. But this showed that we weren’t getting service, we weren’t getting protected.”

Among the recommendations developed by the commission were the implementation of police sensitivity training about LGBT and minority issues and the appointment of liaisons between the police department and various constituencies. In the beginning, Hollander says, the training provided to recruits was “sort of impressionistic as opposed to scientific or evidence-based.” Communities had to provide the training out of their own resources, Hollander says. That was difficult for the gay community, which was smaller, less organized and had fewer resources than other minority groups.

In 2000, Norquist appointed out gay businessman Leonard Sobczak to serve on the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, a citizen committee that oversees operations of the two departments on behalf of the public. (Sobczak is CEO and principal of WiG Publishing, LLC, which owns Wisconsin Gazette.) Sobczak served until 2008 and chaired the commission for several years. He led the job search that resulted in the hiring of former Milwaukee Fire Chief Doug Holton and current Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn.

Not long after joining the commission, Sobczak learned of a police department supervisor who was harassing a gay officer over his sexual orientation. With the support of his fellow commissioners, Sobczak convened hearings to determine the scope of the problem within the department. The resulting report, called “The Sobczak Commission Report,” included protocols for dealing with discriminatory behavior in the department.

After the protocol was implemented, more officers came out on the job.

“When I got there, the word ‘gay’ was whispered under your breath, with squirming by those within earshot,” Sobczak says. “By the time I left the commission, people were talking openly about gay issues. There was a lot more respect for gay people.”

But Sobczak was disappointed when his efforts to create an LGBT police officers association, modeled after one in Chicago, failed to gain traction. “There was never the critical mass of people willing to participate to keep it going,” he says. “I believe that the problem is the closeted culture of this city. This is a lot of people’s hometowns, and that can make them uncomfortable being out here. There’s also a lot of internalized homophobia.”

Hoerig says the difference between being a gay officer with the MPD today is dramatically different from when she joined the force. Today, she’s not only out on the job but warmly supported by her colleagues.

“When my partner was ill, everyone went out of their way to help me have the opportunity to be with her and to be supportive,” she says. “Management is very, very accepting and really non-discriminatory. It’s helped a lot that more law-enforcement people have family members who have come out now. I think it’s still tougher for men on the force, but it’s not like 1991 when you didn’t have any openly gay men at all in the department.”

Fewer disparities

Twenty years after Dahmer, the LGBT community has a good working relationship with both law enforcement and the district attorney’s office, says Milwaukee LGBT Community Center executive director Maggi Cage. She represents the community on a commission that meets “on a fairly regular basis ... to talk about hate crimes or other issues of discrimination regarding some of the different populations within the city,” she says.

“I really think there is a lot of responsiveness among elected officials and the city and county employees on hate crimes and acts of discrimination,” Cage says.

Today the department specifically recruits gay men and lesbians. Sensitivity training about LGBT issues, which was once offered only to recruits and couched in general terms, is now ongoing and specific.

“It’s not just getting up and talking about being tolerant,” Hoerig says. “It’s specific now about what we do on the job as law enforcement. Now we talk about diversity in situational ways involving juveniles, domestic violence and homicide.”

Hoerig says officers today are careful not to inadvertently out juveniles to their parents or guardians. They’re also familiar with the dynamics of same-sex domestic violence. Twenty years ago, police would have considered a physical conflict between two male partners to be nothing more than a couple of guys duking it out. But now “they understand there can be an unequal aggressor and it’s a mandatory arrest situation,” Hoerig says.

That was not the situation 20 years ago when police officers returned Konarak Sinthasomphone to the hands of Dahmer.

But although the relationship between the LGBT community and law enforcement is vastly improved, it’s less than ideal. “The disparities of our treatment and those that other populations get have been reduced,” Hollander says. “We’ve sort of achieved the same level as other people who are unsatisfied with the level of treatment they’re getting.”

One lingering disparity is that the police and fire departments are the only branches of city government that do not extend employment benefits to the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian workers. Although other unions have been at the forefront in obtaining such benefits, the Milwaukee Police Association has never requested them for its members.

A more subtle difference in treatment came last year when Hoerig was named the official LGBT liaison to the police department. There was no accompanying fanfare – or even a simple announcement to the press – about her appointment.

Hate crimes

The continuing strain in relations between law enforcement and the LGBT community is most visible when it comes to hate crimes. There has never been a prosecution of an anti-LGBT hate crime in Milwaukee, a situation that activists find troubling in the immediate wake of crimes against victims who are members of the community.

Experts say the sticking point is Wisconsin’s hate crime law, which is written in a way that makes prosecution very difficult.

The law provides prosecutors with a tool to increase criminal penalties for crimes such as assault and vandalism that are motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or other specified characteristics, including race, religion, gender and national origin. But in order to prove prejudice is the motive underlying a given crime, there must be irrefutable evidence – such as credible witnesses who overhear an attacker hurling anti-gay slurs while committing a battery.

Milwaukee Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne say such cases are rare. Even when they do occur, victims can be reluctant to seek hate crime charges, because they fear being targeted again by perpetrators who share the same bias as their attackers, Lovern says.

Both district attorneys say there are occasionally cases in which hate appears to be a motive, but trying to prove it in court would jeopardize their likelihood of obtaining any conviction at all. So instead they go for a conviction of the underlying crime – the assault, for instance.

On March 10, the U.S. Department of Justice held a hate crime summit in Milwaukee that brought local law enforcement and prosecutorial offices together to increase awareness about hate crimes in general and how to handle them. Major speakers at the event focused on issues related to anti-LGBT hate crimes, including Sheriff David O’Malley, who was the lead investigator in the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father.

Hoerig says two months ago she distributed 500 booklets throughout the Milwaukee Police Department “about what is a hate crime and how to investigate it.”

Hoerig says the department plans to devote more attention to the problem in the future.

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