Milwaukee Police Department

Click the image to learn more. Officers of the Milwaukee Police Department's motorcycle squad pose for a photograph around 1921.

As of 2013, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) is the fifteenth largest in the United States, with nearly 2,000 sworn personnel and over eight hundred civilian employees.[1] Operationally, the MPD is currently organized geographically into three bureaus (South, Central, and North) subdivided into seven patrol districts. Criminal investigations are conducted out of these bureaus, supported by a Specialized Investigations Bureau that handles exceptional crimes (e.g., narcotics or sensitive crimes). By state law, a civilian Fire and Police Commission appoints Milwaukee’s police chiefs for terms not to exceed ten years, although a serving chief may be reappointed. Currently the term of office is four years.

Milwaukee’s Common Council authorized the MPD in 1855. In common with police other American cities, the MPD was modeled after London’s Scotland Yard, created in 1829. Police were to be conspicuous, patrol beats, and by their presence prevent crime. Also in common with other American cities, the MPD suffered from political manipulation, corruption, and inefficiency. Its first chief, William Beck, was in and out of office three times: 1855 to 1861, 1863 to 1878, and 1880 to 1882. By 1885, six different individuals had served eight terms as chief. According to tradition, Milwaukee was such an open town during this era that trainloads of Chicagoans would regularly come to Milwaukee for gambling and other vices.

The response of Milwaukee’s Mayor Emil Wallber (1884-1888) and Wisconsin’s legislature to conditions in Milwaukee thrust the MPD and the city into the spotlight as a model for policing cities in the United States. In 1885, state legislation created a four-person, non-partisan Fire and Police Commission that would approve all appointments to the MPD and gave Milwaukee’s future chiefs lifetime tenure. No longer would police, whether patrol officers or chiefs, be appointed or terminated based on political affiliation or “godfathers.” This legislation was expanded in 1911 to make future Milwaukee chiefs fully responsible for all policies, practices, rules, and regulations.

Under these conditions only four chiefs led the MPD from 1888 to 1957: John Janssen (1888-1921), Jacob Laubenheimer (1921-1936), Joseph Kluchesky (1936-1945), and John Polcyn (1945-1957). Milwaukee’s police department was considered as exemplary and recognized both nationally and locally. The 1931 Wickersham Commission—the first national commission that studied American police—singled out the MPD: “Milwaukee is often cited as a city free from crime or where a criminal is speedily detected, arrested, and promptly tried and sent on his way to serve time. No other city has such a record.”[2] Locally, in 1938 the Citizen’s Bureau of Milwaukee, reporting on its own research, took “pride and pleasure in submitting this survey of the excellence of Milwaukee’s Police Department.”[3] The MPD further cemented its leadership after the 1943 race riots in Detroit and New York City and the Zoot Suit riot in Los Angeles. Under Chief Kluchesky, the MPD led nationally in the development of community relations programs designed to ease the tensions between police and minorities, especially African Americans.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic/tragic events during this era was the 1917 bombing in which nine police officers and one female civilian were killed—the greatest death toll in American policing until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As the story goes, a young woman found the bomb adjacent a nearby church. A youngster then carried it to the Central Police District station whereupon the bomb exploded as officers examined it. The crime was never solved, but it was generally believed that anarchists planted the bomb.

The MPD’s eminence declined during the second half of the twentieth century. The 1960s and 1970s were tough times for all police departments: crime increased dramatically; police tactics like preventive patrol by automobile and rapid response to calls for service did little to prevent crime; police were ill-prepared to deal with the demonstrations stemming from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement; riots hit almost every major city; police unions grew and challenged traditional police rules, regulations, and administrative procedures; and a cultural revolution challenged traditional authority.

The dominant MPD figure during this period was Chief Harold Breier (1964-1984), Milwaukee’s second longest serving chief of police. Breier was generally perceived of as an authoritarian leader who used the unfettered authority that his lifetime tenure and total control over policy and procedures gave him. As such, he became a polarizing figure both inside and outside of the MPD, seen by many as maintaining values and protecting citizens, and by others as an intolerant tyrant both in his internal administration and his policing tactics. Nonetheless, he generated enough political resistance that ultimately Wisconsin’s legislature amended the law and gave the Fire and Police Commission control over policy and established limited terms for chiefs (although it excluded Breier from the tenure provision).[4]

The years immediately following Chief Breier were tumultuous, with all of the chiefs between 1984 and 2008 either resigning prematurely or not being reappointed. Robert Ziarnik (1984-1989) resigned after a dispute with the Common Council; Phillip Arreola (1989-1996), the MPD’s first outside and Hispanic chief, wanted to be reappointed but was not; Arthur Jones (1996-2003), the MPD’s first African American Chief, also wanted to be reappointed but was not; and Nannette Hegerty (2003-2007) MPD’s first woman chief, announced almost a year before the end of her term that she would not seek reappointment.

Throughout most of the later two decades of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century the MPD, like many other major police departments, has struggled to implement community policing. At the time of this writing the current chief, Edward Flynn, is serving his third four-year term, suggesting that the MPD has stabilized organizationally and is moving into the community policing era.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Brian A. Reaves, “Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices,” US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2015, p. 14.
  2. ^ “Wickersham Report on Police,” National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement Report No. 14, The American Journal of Police Science 2, no. 4 (Jul.-Aug. 1931): 337-348.
  3. ^ Forward, “Report on Policing” (unpublished report), Citizen’s Bureau of Milwaukee, September, 1938.
  4. ^ For Chief Breier’s tenure, see Ronald H. Snyder, “Chief for Life: Harold Breier and His Era,” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2002).

For Further Reading

Kelling, George L. Policing in Milwaukee: A Strategic History. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2015.

Snyder, Ronald H. “Chief for Life: Harold Breier and His Era.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2002.


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