By Ashley Luthern
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A leader. A trailblazer. A legend.
As Milwaukee mourns the loss of Lenard “Lenny” Wells, those words have come up over and over. Wells, 69, died Saturday from complications of COVID-19.
He spent 27 years on the Milwaukee Police Department, where he worked tirelessly to bring racial equity to the ranks as president of the League of Martin, an association for African American officers.
During his tenure, the League of Martin sued to make sure promotions and assignments were fair.
“He wanted African American law enforcement officers to have the same rights and opportunities that were afforded to other officers,” Assistant Milwaukee Police Chief Regina Howard said.
After his police retirement, then-Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Wells chairman of the Wisconsin Parole Commission. In recent years, Wells taught criminal justice at the University of Memphis.
“Lenny Wells is a legend,” said Andra Williams, a retired Milwaukee police captain. “He was there as a mentor, as a leader, and his legacy goes on through today.”
Rising through the ranks
Wells’ career began in May 1973 when he was part of the first recruit class under a federally mandated affirmative action program.
Nine other minorities, including a woman, were among the 65 people in his class — breaking racial and gender barriers at Milwaukee Police Department, he told the Journal Sentinel in 2001.
After a year on the job, he was promoted to the Vice Squad, where he made hundreds of busts as an undercover officer, before continuing on to work in Traffic Enforcement Division and later as a district shift commander and as a detective.
In 1989, Wells became president of the League of Martin, a volunteer position.
Throughout the next decade, he mentored countless officers, helping prepare them for promotional exams and encouraging them to pursue higher education — as he did. Wells earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee while working full-time.
One of those officers was Edith Hudson. She and Howard wanted to become detectives, but the sergeant test was offered first. Wells pushed them both to take it even though the two women had not considered becoming supervisors at that time.
“All along Lenny’s advice was, we need more women, more people of color in the supervisory ranks,” Hudson said.
Sgt. Lenard Wells, a member of the League of Martin, explains the entrance exam to candidates for the Police Academy over the weekend at the Lincoln Park Pavilion in this 1991 photo.
The efforts of Wells and his colleagues in the league paid off: During the 1990s, the percentage of women and minorities in sworn positions in the Milwaukee Police Department roughly doubled.
And many of those Wells personally mentored rose through the ranks, including Hudson, who retired from MPD as assistant chief and now is chief of the Marquette University Police Department.
“He loved the people working with him — not for him, with him — and never did I see him act in a way as though he was being an authoritarian or talking down to someone,” Hudson said.
‘He wanted us to be guardians, not warriors’
As a lieutenant, Wells embraced community policing before it was widely adopted.
He and several other officers had a popular radio and TV show called “Talking Cops, Cops Talking” where they answered call-in questions and gave advice about what to do when stopped by police or how to deal with a ticket or any number of other law enforcement topics.
“He was one of those who really accepted the call to be more community-focused,” said James Harpole, who worked for Wells in the old District 6.
“He didn’t want us to be an occupation force,” said Harpole, who retired from MPD as an assistant chief several years ago. “He wanted us to be guardians, not warriors, and though those weren’t the popular terms then, that’s the philosophy he embraced.”
The Milwaukee Police Department released a statement Monday calling Wells “a law enforcement pioneer.”
“He was a mentor to many members in our agency and our community and he will be greatly missed,” the department said. “We send our condolences to his family during this difficult time.”
His wife, Corene Wells, also served as a Milwaukee police officer. His family has requested privacy, said Sgt. Troy Johnson, current president of the League of Martin.
“The Police Department definitely needed a lot more Lenny Wells,” Johnson said. “He meant a lot to us.”
After he retired from the force, Wells was appointed chairman of the Wisconsin State Parole Board in 2003.
“The cop in me says that the correctional facilities were made for some people. They fit,” he told the Journal Sentinel then. “But the idealist in me says that there are a lot of people who are taking up bed space in jail that belongs to someone else. Those people can be helped.”
Three years later, Wells had to preside over a parole hearing for two men convicted of killing a Milwaukee police officer.
Wells said as a former officer, he did not want to see them released, but under the law, they were eligible and had completed other requirements for parole. He decided to free the men and faced intense criticism.
He tried to create a mechanism to recuse himself from future decisions where he had a conflict of interest as a former officer, but ultimately it did not move forward and he resigned.
“Wells felt duty-bound to follow the law even when it went against popular expectations or his preference … (He) demonstrates the sort of integrity the public sphere could sorely use,” a Journal Sentinel editorial said at the time. “That makes his departure from a public office regrettable.”
Wells, who had obtained his doctorate in Leadership, Learning and Service from Cardinal Stritch University, became director of two satellite campuses of Concordia University Wisconsin.
In 2013, he began teaching criminal justice at the University of Memphis where he became a favorite of students for his engaging style. Emily Hart, a senior who will graduate this spring, took all six classes he taught.
She remembered the first presentation she gave in his class. She had nerves, but made it through the end. Afterward, Wells pulled her aside to say how proud he was of her.
“He remembered every student by name. Old students would come back to catch up with him,” Hart said. “He was really loved.”
Hart said she met with Wells last month to discuss her plans to pursue her master’s degree. He wanted her to be a graduate assistant in his class, she said.
She plans to focus on restorative justice and re-entry efforts.
Wells’ legacy will live on, through Hart and other students at the University of Memphis; current and former officers at the Milwaukee Police Department; and the many other lives he touched.
“He was a great man,” said Howard, the current assistant chief. “He did a lot for many of us and didn’t ask for anything in return, other than we pay it forward, and that’s something many of us try to do every single day.”