Filmmaker hopes new Dahmer documentary leads to conversations, improvements in community police work

NOW: Filmmaker hopes new Dahmer documentary leads to conversations, improvements in community police work

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- When Joe Berlinger tackles a new project, he's not just trying to share a story, but a message. In the case of his new documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, the message he's hoping to shine a light on is what he calls the need for improvements in police work surrounding marginalized communities.

"I don't want to paint all the police in a bad, broad stroke," Berlinger explained. "It's not like all police are bad or anything like that. There was homophobia and racial prejudice endemic in this, and many communities and it allowed this guy to flourish."

Jeffrey Dahmer tortured and killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. One of his victims, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, was actually returned to Dahmer by two Milwaukee police officers after attempting to escape. While neighbors in the largely Black neighborhood urged officers to investigate and help the boy, Dahmer was able to convince police the child was his 19-year-old boyfriend. The police would leave Dahmer's apartment and Sinthasomphone was killed.

"He was a master manipulator and that includes police," said Anne Schwartz, a former journalist in Milwaukee who also went on to work for the Milwaukee Police Department. She is the author of the book Monster: The True Story of the Jeffrey Dahmer Murders. "They (police) walked into the apartment, same apartment I had seen, where it just looks like a single guy lives there. There are photographs Dahmer shows the officers that he had taken of Konerak in his underwear, very sexualized kind of poses. He says, 'See, this is my boyfriend.' Was Konerak verbal? No, but Dahmer was very, very smooth. Do not underestimate what a master manipulator this killer was."

The two officers who returned the young boy back to Dahmer were fired after his horrific crimes were discovered. However, they later returned to the force after it was determined in court their dismissal was too harsh. Schwartz says while mistakes may have been made, officers in 1991 were working in a different world than those in 2022.

"I've researched this case. I've talked to people about this case for 31 years," Schwartz said. "It was a fairly homophobic society that we lived in at the time. We had a very closeted gay community here in the city of Milwaukee. I don't think it's out of question to say these police officers had only the information they had in 1991. They only had the sensibilities we had in 1991. How we perceive things, that we know things to be now, is not a realistic wish, on our part, for police 31 years ago in the city of Milwaukee."

The Netflix drama, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, spends a lot of time focusing on the failures of the officers in the case. Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman was asked to comment on the recent attention Netflix shows are bringing to the city and the department in regard to the handling of the Dahmer case.

"I was in high school when that whole situation had unfolded," Chief Norman said. "Very dark times, but that was a different police department than what you have today."

The chief went on to highlight new initiatives being taken to help marginalized communities feel more connected to and protected by the police, including the department's LGBTQ contact coordinator on staff. It's this type of action Berlinger hopes his documentary can help inspire in cities all over.

"It's important to shine a light on these issues," Berlinger said. "This should be seen as an example of when those issues go unresolved, things like this can happen. I just hope it promotes dialogue about a more healing interaction between the police and marginalized communities."

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