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Get to know the man behind the table. (PHOTO: Royal Brevväxling)

Milwaukee Talks: Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn

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.

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