Milwaukee police chief controversy began back in Breier era

Controversy surrounding the police chief of the City of Milwaukee is really nothing new. Although the names and the issues have changed over time, the city's history is filled with conflict regarding the proper balance between the chief's right to exercise independent authority and the public's right to hold him accountable. The issue has yet to be resolved and lies at the heart of the current debate.

Among the many Milwaukeeans who played a role in that debate over the years, few were as significant as Harold A. Breier, the city's police chief from 1964 to 1984. A life-long Milwaukee resident and a 44-year veteran of the MPD, Breier's authority was unique among urban police chiefs.

Breier enjoyed statutory lifetime tenure and had exclusive power to make and enforce departmental rules. His supporters credited him with making Milwaukee "the most crime-free city" of its size in the country. They argued that he effectively contained the city's civil disorder in July 1967 and protected its citizens from the horrendous violence sweeping the nation during that "long, hot summer."

His backers also held testimonial dinners in his honor, showered him with countless civic club awards, published a newsletter lauding his accomplishments and inundated the press and public officials with letters and petitions on his behalf.

However, others perceived Breier as an autocratic opponent of cultural and political change. They accused him of tolerating excessive police force, especially when minority citizens or counterculture youth were involved, of refusing to engage in meaningful police-community relations dialogue and of maintaining a racially segregated department.

Through an accident of history, Breier became chief precisely at a time of cultural upheaval in Milwaukee, marked by the turmoil of the civil rights revolution, the peace movement and the youth rebellion against traditional societal values and norms.

Breier vowed "never to adopt a policy of appeasement at any time toward those who violate laws," and referred to his critics as "malcontents" and "ultra-liberals." The result was a series of polarizing incidents which divided Milwaukeeans into pro and anti-Breier camps. Many local politicians chose to distance themselves from the swirling controversies for fear of retribution from the voters.

Since state law shielded the Milwaukee chief from political or electoral supervision, Breier's opponents began an 11-year campaign to repeal that law. They successfully sought abolition of the life-time tenure provision, which was passed by the legislature in 1977 but, ironically, exempted Breier.

They then proposed that the rule-making authority of the chief be transferred to the local Fire and Police Commission and that certain oversight powers be given to Milwaukee's mayor and common council. Their efforts were aided by a series of unfortunate and painful incidents involving the MPD in 1981, which generated a significant amount of negative national publicity.

Those events included a remark by the chief concerning black youth and crime, a savage police beating of an intoxicated white man who allegedly exposed himself in public and the puzzling death of an African-American man in police custody. Surveys began to show that, while the chief's support remained strong among registered voters, a majority of respondents thought that the 72-year-old Breier should retire.

In March 1984, the state legislature stripped the chief's office of much of its unilateral authority, and on May 1, Breier announced his retirement. He explained that "there are going to be some changes which I will have no part of."

Although Breier's opponents achieved short-term success, their plan for the redistribution of police power forms the basis for today's struggle over control and authority in local law enforcement.

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