By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Mar 09, 2004 at 5:39 AM Photography: Eron Laber

{image1}Since joining the police force in 1976, Police Chief Nan Hegerty has trailblazed a path for women through the field of law enforcement.

Twelve years ago, she became the police department's first female captain, and in 1994, President Clinton appointed her to run the state's eastern district office of the U.S. Marshall Service. All of this led up to Nov. 18, 2003, when Hegerty was sworn in as Milwaukee's 17th chief of police and the city's first female chief.

But according to Hegerty, gender is superfluous. "I think that someone in this position is not unlike the CEO of a large corporation, so I don't really think that gender has anything to do with it," she says. "But I'll tell you this: I'm very passionate about this job. I'm very passionate about the Milwaukee Police Department and I'm passionate about the city of Milwaukee."

OMC: As the chief of police, what is your greatest responsibility?

Nan Hegerty: I am responsible for the safety and security of the citizens of the City of Milwaukee. Not only that, but I'm responsible for the safety and security of the police department's most important assets and that's the men and women on the force.

OMC: Originally, you said you could implement most of your changes within the first year. What have you implemented so far and what's ahead?

NH: Actually, now that I'm here and doing some of these things, I think that that was a little ambitious. There are some things that can be implemented very quickly and I've done a number of those things, like some policies and procedures that made the work of the officers easier.

Some of the long-term things are an early intervention system, which is a disciplinary system whereby, when certain behaviors crop up with an officer time and time again, it's going to red flag that officer and give us the opportunity to look at that officer as far as what's going on in his or her life or his or her assignment that they're getting these red flags coming up periodically. In that way, we cold move in with early intervention: counseling, training, perhaps employee assistance if it's a family problem that's affecting their work, rather than waiting until it gets to such a point down the line that we have to remove the officer from duty or suspend the officer. Something like that takes a long time. Number one, it takes a great deal of money to purchase the software. Number two, we have to work through the fire and police commissions and the unions in order to implement it and it's going to take quite a bit of work. Like I said, some of the things are easier and can be done much more quickly than others.

OMC: You've often said that crime is not a police problem, rather crime is a community problem. Could you elaborate on this?

NH: The police don't commit the crimes; the people that live in the community commit the crimes. Therefore, it is a community problem, not police problem. The police don't work in a vacuum. We have to work with the community in order to solve these crimes. We need cooperation from the community, we need information from the community and along with that, the community depends on us to look at crimes and create a safe environment. So we really need to respect each other. The police need to respect the community and the community needs to respect the police.

This goes along with my whole attitude of 'we are a professional police department' and I'm certainly getting the word out and getting it to the officers that are interacting with the community to let them know that that's what I expected: a very professional performance on their part.

{image2}OMC: What is the police's role in crime? Is it more about prevention or apprehension?

NH: I think crime prevention is extremely important. In order to address some of the concerns what we're doing is bringing the communities into the various district stations so that they can actually look at the crimes that are occurring in their immediate district where they're living. There are a lot of misconceptions about crime. A lot of people think crime is much higher than it actually is. So I want them to understand what exactly we're all dealing with by providing accurate information and timely information. And as we bring people into the police department, we can work with them and develop lines of communication whereby they can tell us who they think might be committing the crimes or give us information that might lead us to suspects. And we can tell them what crimes we have actually made arrests for so the level of fear in the community goes down. It's definitely a two-way street.

OMC: How strong of a relationship should the police department have with MPS?

NH: I think it's very important that we have a strong relationship. I would like to see more proactive interaction between the officers on the street and the young people that are out there. As a matter of fact, right now we are considering bringing back some type of a baseball card program or perhaps cards that talk about historical Milwaukee and officers can hand these cards out to youngsters on the street. That way, they can have a very positive interaction with them rather than children seeing us making arrests or taking kids out of school who have gone the wrong way. I think it's very important and as matter of fact, I've had several conversations with Mr. (William) Andrekopoulos, the superintendent of Milwaukee Public schools, and am working with him on ways we can work together.

OMC: You want more officers on the street, but how can you make this happen within budget restraints?

NH: I want to have more officers that are working in enforcement positions. What's happened throughout the years is there are some officers who have ended up in positions that are actually non law enforcement related so we've done an audit of the department and within the next couple of weeks we're going to be moving a number of officers back into patrol from those non-enforcement related activities. Obviously its important we have enough officers on the street to answer our calls for service and right now we have a difficult time doing that so we're looking at trying to work better and work smarter so that we can provide a better service to the citizens of the City of Milwaukee.

OMC: Where did you start in the department?

NH: I started out as patrol officer in the Third District, working both the midnight and the 4 p.m. shift and then I was assigned to the vice squad as a sexual assault investigator. They would use me periodically as a prostitution decoy.

OMC: So what's your best hooker story?

NH: My best hooker story was probably a gentleman I arrested that had solicited me who actually was a minister. When we got into court he told the judge that I was mistaken and that he wasn't soliciting me, he was trying to save me from the ills of my ways. Needless to say, the judge didn't let him off.

OMC: Did you dream of being chief back then? Was it one of your goals?

NH: It was not. When I came to the police department I wanted to be the best police officer I could be. Every rank that I attained I just wanted to do that job to the best of my ability. To be honest with you, somehow my life just brought me to this office. I was in the right pace at the right time, and I had so many wonderful opportunities, I just seemed to be lead to this position.

OMC: Why did you go into law enforcement in the first place?

NH: When I went to college I was educated to become a teacher. When I did my student teaching I realized that -- although that was a wonderful profession -- it really didn't fit me very well. So I went out and worked for a congressman for a short period of time, then I got a job with Delta Airlines and moved around the country quite a bit and finally worked my way back to Milwaukee. But I ended up in a desk-type job that was very boring and not challenging so I started looking around for something else that would fit my life better. One night, I was at home watching TV -- and here's where my destiny comes in again -- there was an ad that said 'Be a Milwaukee police officer, women and minorities are encouraged to apply.' So I did, and just by my sure willpower made it through the physical agility because I wasn't in very good shape at the time and moved on from there. To be honest with you, it was one of the best decisions of my life.

OMC: You started the Milwaukee Commission on Community and Police Relations. What are the main issues you're addressing?

NH: We're looking at a number of things. We've formed some sub-committees and are looking at the use of force, community relations, cultural diversity and I'm also trying to get all of the commission members to go through our citizens' academy so they understand how we're trained, what governs our behavior and what policies and procedures our officers are required to follow. And that's just the beginning. Just about everything's on the table.

OMC: You're probably sick of this question, but I have to ask: As a woman, do you think you bring anything special to the table?

NH: I don't think it makes a difference in this position if you're a woman or a man. I think experience is very important and personality is important. I also think that someone in this position is not unlike the CEO of a large corporation so I don't really think that gender has anything to do with it.

I'll tell you this: I'm very passionate about this job. I'm very passionate about the Milwaukee police department and I'm passionate about the city of Milwaukee. If you talk to people that I've talked to I think they would probably all say that and that I'm very much committed to doing the right thing.

OMC: What are the criteria for judging the success of a police chief? How do Milwaukeeans know if we have a good one?

NH: I think people get a sense of the chief from how the police department is performing. Our best salespeople are the officers that are out on the street. They work day in, day out, whether it's 20 below or 99 degrees, they're out there 24/7 ... And I think they're our best sales people.

OMC: To what do you attribute your personal success?

NH: Dedication and hard work.

OMC: Former chief Jones disbanded the gang unit, but you're reinstating one. Can you tell me a little about it?

NH: I am forming a gang unit that's going to be intelligence-driven. It's going to look at gangs as criminal enterprises and try to prosecute the hierarchy of the gangs through using federal statutes so that we can dismantle the gangs themselves. The second part of that strategy is to provide the district captains enough officers so they can have district gang squads because the district captain know where the crime is in their particular districts and are the ones who can direct the squads to what's going on in the streets. It's a two-pronged strategy that we're using against gangs.

OMC: Are gangs as serious of problem in Milwaukee as they are in other similar-sized cities?

NH: I don't know if I'd say its serious compared to other cities its size, but we definitely have a gang problem. I think to deny that would be pretty hard to do.

OMC: Do you believe crimes of a sensitive nature -- like rape -- should have their own units, or should all crimes be handled in the same way?

NH: I think sensitive crimes take very special officers and not every officer can work in that environment because you do see a lot of children that are abused, sexually abused, and there are some officers that just don't fit real well into that type of scenario. They also have very special training because of the nature of the crimes they investigate, and so yes, I think that it's important that there's a separate unit.

OMC: Why does the police department continue to issue parking tickets downtown when the parking checkers are also doing it?

NH: Because the public expects us to. We are law enforcement officers and that, of course, is a city ordinance violation and often times people will call the police department or make a complaint about parking and they expect the police department to handle it. So, that's certainly something that we have to do.

OMC: How many women were on the force when you started and how many are there today?

NH: When I started, there were two working on the street. In my class there were six of us. So that was eight total. And now there are 350 out of a force of about 2,000.

OMC: Do you make a conscious effort to assign black officers and white officers to all districts?

NH: We don't assign officers to districts based on race. I am trying to get more Spanish-speaking officers on the south side, now that doesn't necessarily mean they will be Hispanic officers, we have a number of white and African American officers that also speak Spanish.

OMC: Will there ever going to be an end to drug crime? And if not, why?

NH: I don't think you'll see an end to it. Not until we can stop the manufacture of it and stop it from coming into the city. To be honest, in a country like ours, I think it would be very, very difficult to do that. That's the goal but I think the chances of accomplishing a goal like that are very unlikely. It's a lucrative trade, there's a lot of poverty in they city, people try to make money anyway they can and unfortunately instead of staying in school and getting an education and going that route, sometimes people take the illegal route because it's somewhat easier. But there are consequences to that behavior, and that's where the police department comes in.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.