UWM police officers give back to troubled neighborhood of their youth

A police officer uses a wheel cart to transport boxes of school supplies.

For UWM Police Officer Craig Rafferty, the African American Faculty and Staff Council’s school supplies donation drive hit close to home.

The supplies gathered at UWM were donated to LaFollette School, located in one of the state’s most troubled neighborhoods, one made notorious as the most incarcerated ZIP code in America by the documentary “Milwaukee 53206.”

Rafferty and a few other UWM police officers grew up in the neighborhood, where many of their friends and neighbors were in gangs.

“We got an investigator, we got a sergeant, you got myself,” UWM Police Officer Craig Rafferty said. “We all come from the area. We could have been easily one of those people that have been incarcerated or deceased since we all lived through it when we were growing up.”

A police officer stands outside a school talking with students.
UWM Police Officer Craig Rafferty chats with some students at LaFollette School. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

When the opportunity came to help with the drive, Rafferty and the other officers jumped at the chance. Rafferty, and a few other police officers volunteered to deliver the school supplies to the school.

The 53206 ZIP code is on the north side of Milwaukee, about two miles west of UWM.

This is the second year the African American Faculty and Staff Council has organized the school supplies drive. The council intends to make this an annual event as a way to give back to the Milwaukee community.

“The 53206 is the most impoverished ZIP code in the state, probably in the nation. So I thought, why not assist a school there?” said Brenda Cullin, the head organizer of the school supplies drive and co-chair of the council.

Some needed help

So, one pleasant day in late September, the UWM police rolled up into the driveway of LaFollette School to deliver the supplies, with help from board members of the council.

“This helps our classroom tremendously. There are no words that can express how much this is needed at our school,” Marny Donalson-Gamble, principal of LaFollette School, said as she watched her students bring in box after box filled with binders and writing utensils and art supplies.

Last year, in the first year of the drive, Rafferty offered to deliver the school supplies with some of his police department colleagues.

“Let’s get a couple squad cars, we’ll stuff the squads full of all these school supplies and take them over to the school and donate them to the kids,” Rafferty said.

A student and police investigator shake hands outside a school.
UWM Police Investigator Lamar Griffin learns a handshake from a student at LaFollette School. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

This year’s drive was bigger and better, with donations collected from UWM faculty and businesses including Walmart and Office Max. Many of the supplies were purchased with financial donations from the UWM Police Department staff.

UWM Police Chief Joseph LeMire joined the other officers this year to see firsthand the students’ reactions.

“We just wanted to make sure they had everything they needed,” LeMire said.

Many people who were involved with the school drive, from UWM faculty to police officers, can trace back roots to the LaFollette School neighborhood.

Cullin moved to the neighborhood with her family in 1973, two years after moving up from Tennessee.

“I lived down the street from LaFollette, I had a nephew who went there, a good friend from grade school who was the principal at LaFollette School,” Cullin said.

Rafferty and a few other officers have a deep connection to the neighborhood.

“Growing up in the area, I can understand the need to give a big push to get additional supplies to the students,” UWM Police Investigator Lamar Griffin said.

‘I could easily have been a statistic’

In 53206, about one-third of working-age residents are unemployed. Crime and gangs are a fact of life. And one study found that 62 percent of the men ages 30-34 in the neighborhood have been incarcerated at least once in their life.

“A lot of my friends that I grew up with are part of that incarceration rate,” Rafferty said. “I could easily have been a statistic. I could have easily been on the opposite side of the fence.”

Rafferty had friends and neighbors who were gang members. Most people in the neighborhood assumed that he was in the gang, he said.

“I was an associate gang member,” Rafferty said. “Meaning, I didn’t do any of the illegal stuff, but because of bonding, our relationship, and I was friends with a lot of them, I knew I was guilty by association.”

For Rafferty and Griffin, discipline and structure helped keep them on the right side of the law. Rafferty went straight to the military after graduating Wauwatosa West High School. Griffin thanked his parents, who were strict disciplinarians, for keeping him on the right track.

“It’s sad, but it’s important to show there are positive outcomes from the neighborhood,” Rafferty said.

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