Wednesday 19 January 2022

Former Police Chief Harold Breier’s Legacy on Policing in Milwaukee by Willa C. Richards


Much of the action in my novel, The Comfort of Monsters, takes place in the city of Milwaukee during the summer of 1991. For my protagonist, Peg McBride, this was the summer her beloved sister Dee disappeared under unnerving circumstances. But for the rest of the city, this was the summer Milwaukee police discovered serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s heinous crimes. I chose to set my novel against this grim backdrop because I was interested in exploring how cold cases go cold. Dee’s missing persons’ case is quickly subsumed by one of the largest criminal investigations in Milwaukee’s history: the arrest and prosecution of Jeffrey Dahmer. 

The discovery of Dahmer’s crimes cast Milwaukee, a relatively small, humble, working-class city into a harsh national spotlight. Between 1978-1991, the serial killer murdered seventeen men. Sixteen of these murders took place in the Milwaukee area. Dahmer preyed exclusively on young men, the vast majority of whom were men of colour. Questions swirled around the Milwaukee Police Department’s negligence. How could any respectable department have allowed such a violent killer to operate “undetected” in the city for a decade? And while these questions were certainly posed in 1991, the sensationalism of the crimes often prevented the kind of meaningful conversations required to answer them. 

As part of my research for the novel, I sought answers to some of these complicated questions. I began by diving into the history of the Milwaukee Police. It was during this process that one name popped up again and again: Milwaukee’s former police chief Harold Breier. Perhaps more than any other individual Breier’s legacy was a pivotal factor in how Milwaukee became home to the most infamous cannibal in American history. 

Harold Breier became Milwaukee’s Chief of Police in 1964. Milwaukee historian John Gurrda wrote of Breier, “as autocratic as he was incorruptible, [he] ruled...with an iron fist… and did not welcome input from community groups, politicians, or anyone else outside the force.” Longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Eugene Kane said of the former chief, “[he was] a racist administrator, a borderline fascist, and the man who contributed to the segregated reputation of Milwaukee more than any other.

From a 2022 vantage point, it’s clear Breier was a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe and his personal biases directly impacted the composition of the department. Under his direction, women were not allowed to take promotional exams and were not allowed on street patrol until 1975. Breier also routinely passed up black patrolmen for promotion to detective, assigned black officers the most undesirable shifts, and forbade them from riding in all-black squad cars or “gathering in all-black groups”. 

This internal bigotry spilled out into the department’s relationship with the communities the police claimed to serve. In 1978 at the behest of Chief Breier, the MPD launched violent raids on gay bathhouses, which resulted in dozens of arrests and street protests. Reports of patrol officers heckling or harassing bar patrons, particularly in Walker’s Point, were common. 

Brier was adamantly against the civil rights movement and the self-determination of the black community in Milwaukee. He fancied himself a local J. Edgar Hoover, performing constant surveillance of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council’s members, and its advisor, the civil rights activist Father James Groppi. Patrol officers were directed to harass Youth Council members and to jail them for minor offenses like littering and jaywalking. 

Under Chief Breier, Milwaukee police officers, including those on Breier’s prized Tactical Unit, (an all-white squad of officers handpicked by the Chief), murdered black Milwaukeeans and faced zero consequences. According to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, between 1975-79 at least 22 people died in MPD custody. 

Breier always defended his officers, earning him outsized loyalty from within the department and from the powerful police union. This fostered a culture of officer invincibility.

Further, Breier was opposed to community-based policing. After his tenure, he had this to say about efforts to reform the department towards community-based policies: “There’s no substitute for strong law enforcement. First, a police officer doesn’t have the training to take care of all the social ills of the city. And second, he should be so busy maintaining law and order that he doesn’t have time for all that crap. When I was Chief we were relating to the good people, and we were relating to the other people too: we were throwing those people in the can. 

Today, Milwaukee officials might want to write-off this period of Milwaukee’s history as unfortunate, merely cringing at Breier’s policies and his remarks. There is no doubt, though, that we should situate his reign within Milwaukee’s reputation as one of the most segregated cities in America. And it isn’t just a reputation; it’s a fact. 

This is one of the most disturbing reasons Jeffrey Dahmer moved through the criminal justice system with such ease, despite being arrested, tried, and convicted for child molestation. The Milwaukee Police, because of historic, institutionally perpetuated biases, didn’t see him as a convicted sex offender accused of unimaginable crimes. Instead, they saw his victims, the majority of whom were black and brown men, as the criminals. 

Breier’s legacy certainly extends beyond the department’s negligence in the Dahmer case and his policies continue to have real impacts on the city of Milwaukee. Though not all of this research made its way into my book, the material was crucial in shaping my thinking about the history of Milwaukee. 

The impact of the Breier doctrine helps explain not only the specific horrors of the Dahmer crimes, but also the interrelatedness and continuity of these crimes with the city’s other, historic, institutional failures. It is my sincere hope that The Comfort of Monsters showcases these failures and their interconnectedness and demonstrates the urgency of transforming our local institutions.

The Comfort of Monsters by Willa C. Richards is out now from Point Blank, original paperback £8.99.

In the summer of 1991, teen Dee McBride vanished in the city of Milwaukee. It was the summer the Journal Sentinel dubbed 'the deadliest . . . in the history of Milwaukee.' Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's heinous crimes dominated the headlines and the disappearance of one girl was easily overlooked. 2019, nearly thirty years later, Dee's sister, Peg, is still haunted by her disappearance. Desperate to find out what happened to her, the family hire a psychic and Peg is plunged back into the past. But Peg's hazy recollections are far from easy to interpret and digging deep into her memory raises terrifying questions. How much trust can we place in our own recollections? How often are our memories altered by the very act of speaking them aloud? And what does it mean to bear witness in a world where even our own stories about what happened are inherently suspect?

More information about Willa C Richards can be found on her website. You can also find her on Instagram.

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