Fictionalizing a Dark Chapter in the History of Milwaukee Policing

Willa C. Richards on Harold Breier, Jeffrey Dahmer, and a Long Legacy of Neglect and Racism

One of the most common questions I’ve received about my novel The Comfort of Monsters concerns my decision to set the story in Milwaukee during the summer of 1991. Some people have called this the “Dahmer summer,” because Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended by Milwaukee Police in July of that year. It’s worth pointing out though that the serial killer was murdering people for over a decade before he was arrested in July of 1991. The sheer duration of this murdering spree speaks, in part, to disturbing levels of police ineptitude.

In my novel, the narrator, Peg McBride also faces police ineptitude and apathy when her sister Dee disappears during this infamous summer. I chose to use this summer as the backdrop to Dee’s disappearance, in part because I was interested in the outsized role that media coverage can play in missing persons’ cases. Juxtaposing a very real case which consumed local law enforcement and media, with a made-up case that received almost no attention from either the police or the media, felt like a natural way to explore this issue.

Once I dug into my research for the book, I saw how the fallout of the Dahmer crimes perfectly encapsulated what I had originally been interested in exploring in Peg’s plotline: the messy relationships between communities and police, police and media, media and communities.

One particularly critical question emerged during these explorations: How could this man, who had previously been convicted of child molestation and who was a registered sex offender, have murdered so many people, so violently, for so long without being detected by the Milwaukee PD?

The complicated answers to this question led me back into Milwaukee’s policing history, where one name popped up again and again: Milwaukee’s former police chief Harold Breier. It was important to me to tie Breier into my novel, as a way of situating his reign within Milwaukee’s fraught history as one of the most segregated cities in America. Breier’s legacy was a pivotal factor in how Milwaukee became home to the most infamous cannibal in American history.

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Milwaukee Police Chief Phillip Arreola was in office only two years before Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in July 1991 and the city became embroiled in an unprecedented media maelstrom. Arreola was the first chief in modern times to be appointed from outside Milwaukee. As a proponent of community-oriented policing, Arreola and his supporters had high hopes that a change in leadership would begin to address some of Milwaukee’s most intractable, stagnant problems.

Arreola’s promises were tested early on in his term when the police chief was tasked with the undesirable job of addressing widespread community outrage and fear, intense media scrutiny regarding police misconduct, and the police union’s demands for the Chief’s unconditional support in the face of this scrutiny.

The Dahmer case forced Chief Arreola to respond to two major issues facing the city. There was the growing need to openly address the Black community, the LGBTQ+ communities, and other minority communities’ historic protests over police misconduct, harassment, and brutality and their repeated, unheeded calls for reforms.

There was also the question of what should happen to the officers who had returned a badly beaten and disoriented 14-year-old named Konerak Sinthasomphone to the serial killer, despite community members’ vocal concerns that Konerak was not the serial killer’s boyfriend. Leaked transcripts revealed that following the incident, the officers also made racist, classist, and homophobic comments over their car radios. These bigoted comments laid bare what Black Milwaukeeans had long known: the majority white Milwaukee police did not care about or for the city’s minority communities.

Harold Breier’s legacy was a pivotal factor in how Milwaukee became home to the most infamous cannibal in American history.

Chief Arreola’s decisions included firing the involved officers, and releasing a statement that admitted race played a role in the officers’ treatment of Konerak. According to then Milwaukee Journal reporter Anne E. Schwartz, these actions were met with extreme ire by both the police union and rank and file officers, who felt Arreola was more concerned with public perceptions than with supporting his own officers.

The police union and police officer response, which included wearing DUMP ARREOLA badges under their uniforms, likely had a lot to do with the enduring legacy of Chief Harold Breier, who had a lifetime tenure as the head of the Milwaukee Police, and reigned from 1964-84. (The law banning lifetime tenures was enacted during his twenty year term.) Although Breier’s supporters have applauded his “law and order,” “tough-on-crime” policies, it’s worth reflecting on the troubling repercussions of his ethos. Brier’s policies, which propagated notions of racialized policing and officer invincibility, likely contributed to Jeffrey Dahmer’s alleged undetectability.

Conversely, the directives Arreola was hoping to implement, including training officers to be more responsive to the specific neighborhoods they patrolled, might have saved Konerak Sinthasomphone’s life. But these policies were in stark contrast to the Brier ethos. When asked about community policing Chief Brier had this to say: “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.”

This was the prevailing mindset within the Milwaukee Police Department for decades. Even after Breier finally resigned, many officers remained firmly rooted in his doctrine. Consider the night of May 27 1991, when two police officers responded to a 911 report of a naked and distressed child running in the street. These officers, who later joked over their car radio that they had handled the “domestic dispute,” were not a few “bad apples.” They were symptomatic of long-standing, long-celebrated bigotry within the Milwaukee Police.

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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 Breier, “[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 2021 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. Though admitted into the police force beginning in 1922, women were strictly relegated to handling sexual assault and child abuse cases “I think it’s a tough job for a woman,” Breier said in 1984. “I don’t know that I’d like a woman as backup if I were going to a bank robbery in progress.” 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 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. Scott Gunkel, the president of the Lambda Rights Network in Milwaukee in 1991, said of police intervention, “I’ve had a number of reports of incidents where both parties, if they’re male, go downtown [to jail], even though one of them is obviously being victimized, and not retaliating at all or they’re simply just left alone, and police say, ‘Well, they’re two guys, they’ll punch it out.’”

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.

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. He also ordered all officers that had been assigned to protect the Youth Council not to wear their police badges so that they could not be identified if they committed acts of police brutality.

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. In 1972, 19-year-old Jacqueline Ford was shot and killed by a white detective, who claimed it was an accident. In 1974 Jerry Brookshire was killed by a Milwaukee cop who said he fired his gun accidentally. In that same year, in a raid by the Tactical Unit, an officer shot and killed Johnnie Starks, and killed Mary Pendleton in a fire started by cops’ tear gas. According to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, between 1975-79 at least 22 people died in MPD custody.

In 1981, the police murder of Ernest Lacy, a Black man wrongfully accused of rape, sparked protests and continued calls for change. Although one officer was eventually fired, and others were suspended, none were convicted of any crimes. Gerald Boyle, who would later defend Jeffrey Dahmer, defended the two cops accused of Lacy’s murder.

Breier adamantly defended his officers, earning him outsized loyalty from within the department and from the powerful police union. He remained steadfast in his positions, well into the 1980s, when he publicly opposed the city’s busing efforts, saying to the New York Times editorial writers, “We have bused crime all over the city…” He went on to say that the South Side, a largely white residential neighborhood… “now has black crime.” When the then principal of Bay View High School was asked about the police chief’s assertions, he responded, “It just isn’t happening.”

The New York Times reported that Brier had sent high ranking officers into at least 40 Milwaukeeans’ homes in an effort to intimidate those who opposed his “operations.” When asked about these incidents, Breier confirmed, saying he had sent the officers “to straighten out the thinking” of those people who were “misinformed.”

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 that we should situate his reign within Milwaukee’s place as one of the most segregated cities in America. Milwaukee has one of the highest rates of incarceration for Black men in the country, disturbingly high rates of infant mortality within its Black communities, and one of the largest achievement gaps between white Milwaukee students and their Black counterparts. These legacies are very much tied to Breier’s policies which aimed to terrify and dismantle Black power movements, to control and isolate Black Milwaukeeans, and to instill in his officers the belief that Blackness and criminality were inextricably linked.

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.

The steadfastness of the Breier doctrine explains why substantive changes to racialized policing, including those Chief Arreola and his predecessors, have sought to implement, remain elusive, despite leadership changes and repeated calls to action.

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. Breier’s supporters praised his tactics and believed he was keeping Milwaukee “safe”. But the Chief of Police merely provided white Milwaukeeans with the feeling of safety, a feeling and a privilege, which came at the expense of Black Milwaukeeans’ real safety.

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Though not all of this research made its way into the 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—so that all communities are served and all communities are safe.

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Willa C. Richards’ The Comfort of Monsters is available now via Harper. 

Willa C. Richards
Willa C. Richards
Willa C. Richards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review and she is a recipient of a PEN/Robert J Dau prize for Emerging Writers. The Comfort of Monsters is her first novel.





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