Date of Award

December 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Amanda I Seligman

Committee Members

Joe A Austin, Joseph A Rodriguez, Robert S Smith


Accountability, African American, Law Enforcement, Milwaukee, Police, Reform


This dissertation uncovers the roots of discriminatory police power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and traces Black-led efforts to make the city’s police bureaucracy more accountable to all citizens. It analyzes the politics of police reform in the century spanning the passage of two state laws that reconfigured Milwaukee’s law enforcement arrangements. The first (1885) removed City Hall’s managerial control over the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD). Corporate elites and social reformers fearful of rising working-class power and moral degeneration in the immigrant-industrial city lobbied for the statute’s enactment. The second (1984) reversed course, re-empowering non-police officials after decades of Black-led campaigns for diverse input, representation, and oversight within Milwaukee’s white-controlled police bureaucracy. While the 1885 law created a civil service commission to regulate public safety hiring free of political machine influence, it also gave exclusive accountability to property-holders and shielded department heads from external supervision—provisions later targeted by activists. A revision (1911) clarified the power of the city’s public safety chiefs, granting them indefinite tenure, policymaking authority, and institutional autonomy. In turn, the MPD fostered an outwardly exceptional status at the height of policing’s “reform era” (1920s-1950s). This apparent exceptionalism, marked by a value-neutral self-image, was established around administrative innovations and crime control efficiencies heralded by national policing experts. It was a dynamic that broadly served white middle-class and corporate interests, as the MPD’s perceived legitimacy was contingent on biased discretionary practices and surveillance of labor militants, political-left radicals, the poor, and, increasingly after World War II, Black migrants seeking jobs and freedom. The department’s exalted status was tied to economic growth and acculturation programs that criminalized blackness and excused government actions that worsened segregation and inequality. Aggressive policing in Black Milwaukee compounded related injustices in public and private sectors, reinforcing racist narratives and uneven policy outcomes. With their number rising, African Americans confronted mounting instances of unchecked state violence using tactics like street-level resistance, civic negotiation, direct action protest, litigation, and federal intervention. Black and allied groups challenged a police power whose racist double-standards remained a threat irrespective of whether police chiefs employed liberal or reactionary law-and-order approaches. “‘Accountable to No One’” argues that the MPD sustained its authority by relying on an impervious blend of legal protections, social customs, and repressive policies that narrowed the scope of reform proposals intended to limit coercive police power. Racist discretionary practices in criminalized Black spaces exacerbated deteriorating economic conditions, unduly harming African Americans and justifying fresh cycles of police abuse. The MPD’s state-sanctioned legitimacy—backed by the city’s white ethnic majority and a compliant criminal-legal system—maintained Black Milwaukee’s subordination based on common ideas about policing as a perfectible institution vital to democratic societies. This view blinded even the most progressive accountability advocates. Still, the movement garnered procedural reforms, despite struggling to improve the outlook of overpoliced and underprotected Black citizens, who faced declining public investments in housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. Meanwhile, police spending, institutional diversity, and police union protections grew, setting up new barriers to accountability. An overall disregard among liberal advocates for the economic dimensions of Milwaukee’s policing crisis meant that a recalibrated MPD continued to uphold a racial-capitalist system that marginalized Black working-class power.