By David Ingram
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Milwaukee, shaken by two nights of violence after a shooting by police, is one of a few U.S. cities to have volunteered for federal government review of its police force and may now be held to higher standards for how it responds.
Beginning in December, the review included a public “listening session” that, according to Milwaukee media, drew 700 people to a library auditorium to air their frustrations to U.S. Department of Justice officials.
Some community leaders said the weekend violence should result in a tougher review and real change.
“I would hope that the cries of the unheard … are now being heard around the country out of Milwaukee,” said Rev. Steve Jerbi, the lead pastor at All Peoples Church in the Wisconsin city of about 595,000 people.
The Obama administration has promoted a $10 million nationwide voluntary review program as a way to improve policing amid nationwide complaints of racial profiling and targeting. Milwaukee has become the latest U.S. city to experience discord after high-profile police killings of black men over the past two years.
The review in Milwaukee will look at issues such as use of force, the disciplinary system and diversity in hiring. The city was 45 percent white in the 2010 Census, while the police department is 68 percent white.
“Expectations of the report itself and of departmental compliance with the report are going to be raised,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police behavior.
There is skepticism of how Milwaukee authorities will respond to federal recommendations, after past responses fell short of demands.
Fred Royal, president of the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch, noted that the recommendations would not be legally binding, unlike those for cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, where police use of deadly force and other practices were being scrutinized under so-called consent decrees – settlements without a final ruling by a judge.
“They don’t have the teeth that a consent decree has,” Royal said.
Businesses were torched and gunfire erupted in Milwaukee after the shooting on Saturday of a black man, Sylville K. Smith, 23. Police said he refused to drop a handgun when he was killed, and on Monday, the city imposed a curfew.
“My experience with the Milwaukee Police Department has been that it is a department in desperate need of fundamental change,” said Flint Taylor, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who has sued Milwaukee over police tactics.
A spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department said officials were not available for an interview. Police Chief Edward Flynn has said previously that his department has made progress and can withstand scrutiny. A Justice Department spokeswoman said officials there declined an interview request.
The Justice Department is expected to release its findings within about two months. Milwaukee could then receive outside assistance and monitoring for up to two years.
Making the challenge tougher are deep problems of poverty and segregation in Milwaukee, the 31st largest city in the United States. Milwaukee was ranked as the most segregated city in America by the Brookings Institution last year, and in the neighborhood where the rioting took place more than 30 percent of people live in poverty.
Residents have protested past police shootings, such as a 2014 killing in which an unarmed, mentally ill black man, Dontre Hamilton, was shot 14 times. An officer was dismissed but no one was charged.
In 2011, another black man, Derek Williams, died in the back of a Milwaukee police car after he told officers he could not breathe and needed help, according to a lawsuit his family filed. The city has not responded to the lawsuit.
And in January this year, Milwaukee officials approved a $5 million settlement with 74 black men who said they had been subjected to illegal strip and cavity searches.
Las Vegas, which volunteered for the same federal program after a series of shootings there in 2011, was handed a list of 75 findings and recommendations by the Justice Department, and 18 months later it had completed 90 percent of the recommendations, the department said. Philadelphia and San Francisco are among other cities under review.
(Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Julia Harte in Washington; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Contini and Grant McCool)