By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Apr 02, 2017 at 11:01 AM Photography: Royal Brevvaxling

There are lots of people in Milwaukee who lead very public lives. We see them on television and hear them on the radio and read about them online. Behind each of these public faces is a private person, much like the rest of us. OnMilwaukee is beginning a series that will take a look at just what makes these people tick.

Today we talk to Milwaukee Police Department Chief Edward Flynn, who has been chief of police in Milwaukee for just over eight years. He has presided over a department founded in 1855, and one that is functioning in one of the most turbulent times in its history.

OnMilwaukee: Do you like your job?

Chief Flynn: Some days more than others, but I feel it's a privilege to have it. And it's privilege to have it now. In many ways, this is where I came in 45 years ago. Police were under fire. We just weathered a series of civil disturbances and riots, crime was increasing, people were fleeing their cities. And the police were in the middle of it. I wanted to do something important and this job appealed to me.

Obviously things have changed from when you became a cop 45 years ago. What are the biggest changes?

The speed of social media and 24-hour news cycles and instant opinions and analysis have altered the intensity and degree of the scrutiny under which we operate and the tensions we have to negotiate. We've got an obligation to get it right. Do it right and I feel, some days I'm bloody well depressed but I feel privileged that I should get an opportunity to be a part of both defending the integrity of the business while at the same time, continuing to move forward the reforms that we've been embracing for generations.

Your job probably requires a certain amount of dispassion sometimes, but does the passion of events sometimes overwhelm you?

It's always there. I mean, our officers, me, we're human beings. We're mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Developing professional detachment is essential for functioning, but developing that detachment is not the same as not caring or not feeling. Much of this stress in police work arises out of the tension between suppressing your human emotions of anger or rage or frustration or grief or outrage or shock so you can perform. Arriving on the scene of an incident alters the environment for everyone there. Many years ago, I developed a very un-American empathy for umpires.

You know, I had done the job a couple of years, I'm dating myself. I was watching a ballgame on TV, the Yankees were playing and Billy Martin ran out to protest a call at first place and he's screaming at the umpire in front of 50,000 people. Flecks of spittle coming out of his mouth and landing on the umpire's face and then he starts kicking dirt at the umpire's shoes, throwing his hat on the ground, and at that one minute, I though, I totally get it. Because no matter what the umpire decides, 50% of the people observing it are gonna be infuriated by it. And without the umpire, the game can't function. And their decision in days before replay was like our decisions. Under pressure, in front of an audience, with insufficient information, but you got to decide now.

You have more stress than umpires. How do you deal with the stress?

It's a challenge, (it) really is. Because everybody says "don't take things personally," and the art of public life is pretending not to. But you do. It eats you. I can literally go to City Hall and Thursday morning, go in front of a subcommittee committee of the board of alderman and get ripped up because we're soft on crime, aren't aggressive enough and aren't working hard enough to reduce crime. Crime is our fault.  That night, I can be in front of the fire and police commission with a parade of people telling us what racist brutes we are and that we're spending too much time being aggressive on crime fighting and to leave people alone. That's the same day. Not making it up. The stress is constant and it's very tough.

So what do you do? Do you run? Do you work out?

There are bromides that I try to engage in. I do work out a lot. That helps take some of the edge off of it. I try to read in my spare time, things that don't directly relate to my work but often do.

What do you read?

Well, I might read about history. I just have this wonderful experience of going to France next month with my wife and my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and they live in England. But we're gonna go.  Some years ago, I went to Normandy to visit the battlefields with my father. It's almost 100 years since he was there. He was a doctor in the 78th division. A field surgeon. So they were right in the front lines and one of his colleagues was killed. Another doctor. By shellfire. I've been reading up on it and what I was able to do was create one volume of my father's letters home from World War I and one volume of my grandfather's and copied them so they look like the originals but then transcribed them. Cause I wanted my children and my grandchildren to have some idea of who these men were. They were a part of history.

My father died when I was only 12. My grandfather died when I was 10 but they were powerful influences on me. And my children never knew either one of them, let alone my grandchildren. But I'm gonna get a chance this year to go to the villages about which they wrote, particularly my grandpa, this year, and it is a form of, I could disassociate from my world and immerse myself in theirs.

Is there a cathartic effect to that?

Well, yeah because I'm older than either one of them were when they died. I mean I'm my dad's dad. He died when he was 41. My son is going to be 40 this year. I’m my dad's father and so reading this young man writing home is extremely touching. He fell in love with a French girl who came from a very wealthy family. He wasn't good enough for her. He got wounded three times.

There's a movie in here.

There's a super movie in there, you know? And I'm reading my grandpa's letters home and in one of them he acknowledges the birth of his son, my dad. Born in 1918 and 20 years later, he's gonna be in France fighting the Germans, so it's emotional for me but it helps me put that place.

You have grandkids?

I do. I've got four. My son and his wife have two, and my daughter and her husband have two.

Do you see them?

I see them when I get back to Virginia. See, my family is all back there.

Is that hard?

It's not ideal, sure, but we're middle class people. I mean, my wife’s got a job and she's a year short of her pension, you know. And my daughter's a teacher back there. And my son's a copper in D.C., you know. His wife's a police officer in D.C. so getting back there is also, I'm nobody there, you know. I'm just absolutely nobody.

You're just Ed Flynn?

Working on the street here, I'm the police chief. There, they've got other police chiefs and I get to just be grandpa. So that helps, as well.

Do you watch television?


What do you watch?

I am really big on old movies. I think the best gift to American television has been Turner Classic Movies.  You know, I love that stuff. They were the genuine American art form. And who of us didn't grow up triangulating some form of manhood, from among various characters they've seen. For example, my father's favorite play, and I've memorized parts of it because years later when I was in high school, I won some state awards in public speaking. I memorized Cyrano De Bergerac's nose speech.

What about the attention you get as a chief, from the media?

People (in the media) are competing. When The New York Times is competing with a tweet, you know we're going down a long, long road. That's where we are.

Do you go out in Milwaukee? Tell me about your social life without your wife here. Do you go out to eat?

I really don't. Monday through Thursday I don't do anything. I work here 'til 7:30 or so at night. I go home. I have really gotten into cooking for myself. I used to spend a lot of time just stopping at the stores and eating something. I got bored with that so now a part of my night is making a meal.

Well, let’s hear it.

I've got about four specialties. Anything that can be cooked on top of the stove.  So for a long time what I was cooking was eggs. Eggs in this, eggs in that, eggs in the other thing. And then I gradually got bolder, so I can do pork chops, I can do steak, I can do, I like the Sicilian pork chops or the Sicilian chicken that you can, it's battered and whatnot and takes no time at all to cook. I always have a green vegetable and it gives me an excuse to drink wine while I'm cooking, 'cause then I feel terribly sophisticated.

You feel like a French chef?

And I put some classical music on. Look at me I'm a movie. I'm in a movie, I'm cooking, I'm drinking wine and I'm listening to classical music. So that gets me through and then like I said, I read for a while or I watch some TCM and then it's time for bed. Get up in the morning, work out, come to work, do it again. Off to the races. On weekends, if my wife comes out here, we'll go out. We'll go to a movie, we'll go out to dinner, you know, we'll putz around. Go out to lunch and then all of a sudden she's back on the plane and back. I have my wife on weekends or I go out there and see the grandkids.

There's a lot of people for whom that's a reality.

Most of them make a lot more money than I do. They're doing that because dad's making $500,000 a year. That's not happening. Thank goodness I've got a Massachusetts pension because that pays for the travel.

What do you think about Milwaukee – and let's not talk about crime and safety and all that. But what do you think about the "typical Milwaukee." Regardless of race, of income equality or inequality, there's a kind of a mindset about the city that most of the people have. What do you think about those people?

It's very interesting to me because I've worked in a series of places that have cultural similarities and differences. Then I come to Milwaukee and there's this, I don't know if I can choose the right word for it. There's almost this, there's a certain sense of what's the right word?


Yeah. I don't mean that as an insult. It's like in the DNA, if it happens here, it can't be that good. If it happens here, it can't be that important. I almost feel like I was tolerated the first few years as an east coast asshole. You know, cause I'm from the East Coast. If I'd been a Milwaukee saying these things, it'd be "Who does he think he is?"

So, part of the challenge here is what do I know about Milwaukee having worked in these other cities, is that it's problems are the problems of urban America in bold relief and Milwaukee is not uniquely bad cause it has them.

We don't have an original sin here that makes Milwaukee suffer for the sins of the socio-political development of American of the last 200 years. All right. There's always been a delay here. Things happen to happen on the East or West Coast and they work to the middle. The crack epidemic got here late. Dramatic increases of violence got here late. The urban migration got here late. The urban outflux got here late. But everything that happened here has been a core essential component of the stories of American cities. And so the dichotomy now between neighborhoods of great need and high rates of violence and neighborhoods of relative affluence isn't some uniquely terrible thing about Milwaukee. It is the death and life, death and rebirth of American cities and it's happening here now.

My daughter chose to be an high school English teacher. Her mother is a school counselor. My son chose to be a police officer. Those two are the most important roles young people can play in society and they're both being treated like they're the villains. That everything is the problem of  teachers. Teachers don't have great enough expectations and police officers are biased. Horse shit! They're devoting their lives to serving the needs of the disadvantaged poor, whose only avenues of escape are education and safe streets. OK? That's what they do. And we don't blame anybody else for being heavily engaged with those disadvantaged neighborhoods. We don't blame the fire department 'cause most of their calls for service are in those neighborhoods.

There's an intellectual side about you. You love data. You love information. But you marry that love of information that with a depth of feeling that most people don't see. Do you purposely not want or let people see that side of you?

Yeah, I do. I do that very often but I'll do that sometimes with loyal people, I'll do it in the staff meeting, sometimes do it in public but you've got to ration that aspect of it or you become the cranky angry guy.  I try to put out the same message more dispassionately cause that's what people expect. Cause I also recognize, and I mean this in the positive sense of the word, I'm playing the role. OK. I'm the police chief, all right. And there are times I feel myself pushing into other areas because everything is connected.

But I've got to be a little thoughtful about how that's perceived, you know. I'm not running for anything. All our games are away games. We're not in offices with people wearing ties. All of these social forces weigh upon us every single day and the challenge is there's no ideological solution to anything we deal with. And the dismay and frustration from which I operate on is built up over decades.

There's no goddamn sense of urgency in most of the other systems and processes about the problems that we're confronting. There isn't any pressure on anybody else. So it's frustrating because our message is whether it's the left wing or the right wing, neither one of them's got the answer. The answer isn't nobody should go to jail. And the answer isn't everybody should have a gun.

There is no answer?

No, there isn't. That's exactly it! So the frustration I have is that you know I've got state legislature that seems all too often married to its prejudices about urban areas. This isn't unique to this state legislature. There are times I feel like the left and the right don't really care about the problems of urban violence. The right wing doesn't seem to care how many young dead black men I have, as long as they have unfettered access to quality firearms. And the far left doesn't care how many of them are killed as long as the police haven't been a source of undue annoyance to them. And so between them, we're trying to reduce the violence and so again, that's the most significant change from my early police years to now is the politics about ideology.

Don't get me wrong. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson had very different attitudes about certain things, but what I do know is the improvements to the criminal justice system that Johnson implemented, Nixon continued. I mean, in retrospect, Nixon's a liberal.

And John Kennedy's a conservative.

Yeah. Exactly. And between the two of them, they were kind of centered which is where most of America was. Center right, center left. Most of us aren't AM radio junkies. We're this way anyway going forward.

We were talking about the idea of the cop leaving every night and saying goodbye to his wife or his kids or her husband or whatever it might be, and this little part in the back of the mind saying, "I wonder if they're coming back tonight?" Let me ask you about your men and your women. Your officers. And forget union difficulties, contract negotiations, all the rest of it. Let's just talk about them in their cars, on the bikes, on the streets ... day in day out. How do you feel about these people?

Know what's funny? You get older. I been a chief for almost 30 years now. I've been chief as long as some people have their whole careers. And you know at one point in time, I was a 4-year-old chief with big biceps, and they were my brothers. Some of them were my older brothers. Couple of them could have been my father. So my relationship to them probably felt different to everybody.

Now I'm old enough to be everybody's dad and at the risk of sounding paternalistic, I guess I do feel it. But I feel it in a positive way. They're my sons and daughters. They don't know how much I care about them. They won't ever know. And I also get, and this is just the reality of my work, they expect me to love them no matter what, but they get to be really mean, nasty, and mean to me just like my kids were when they were adolescents. And so, you know, if I'm getting a no confidence vote from the union, OK, I get it. You just stamped up the stairs and slammed the door and yelled how much you hate me. And tomorrow, we're all going to work again and you're going to be putting your life on the line catching bad guys and I'm going to be trying to create a protective bubble in which you can function free of political bullshit.

Finally, what about humor? Are you a joke teller?

I appreciate jokes. Just usually don't remember them. So I don’t tell them.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.