On September 21, Netflix released its latest docudrama, Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. In 10 episodes, the series tells the story of one of the 20th century’s most notorious and depraved serial murderers, with a particular focus on his victims. The Netflix synopsis wonders, “Across more than a decade, 17 teen boys and young men were murdered by convicted killer Jeffrey Dahmer. How did he evade arrest for so long?” The show points a portion of the blame at the police themselves.
The show opens on Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash), a single mother who lived next door to Dahmer (Evan Peters) in Milwaukee. She grimaces as she overhears unsettling noises from her neighbor’s apartment and smells putrid odors through the shared vent. Dahmer goes out to a bar and brings a man, Tracy, home with him. Almost immediately, the vibe turns threatening, but Tracy manages to escape and flags down a patrol car. While initially skeptical, the officers investigate the apartment and find the remains of numerous victims. Dahmer is hauled away to prison, and all is right.
Except as the rest of the series demonstrates, all is not quite right: As Dahmer is escorted out in handcuffs, Cleveland shouts, “I called y’all, and I told you over and over a million times that something was going on, and you know what you did? Y’all did nothing!”
Indeed, the real-life Cleveland alerted authorities to the suspicious activities of her neighbor at least two months before Dahmer’s arrest. As depicted in episode 2 of the Netflix series, Tracy was not Dahmer’s first victim to escape: In May 1991, Cleveland’s daughter and niece found Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old Laotian boy, in an alley, naked and in distress. Nicole Childress, Cleveland’s niece, called 911, who sent officers and an ambulance.
But Dahmer arrived on the scene as well, advising officers that Sinthasomphone was 19 and that the two were romantically involved. Dahmer explained that Sinthasomphone, who did not speak during the interaction, was drunk and that they had had a fight. Paramedics thought Sinthasomphone needed treatment, but the officers disagreed and sent the ambulance away. Rather than probe further, the officers returned Sinthasomphone to Dahmer’s apartment and left. Afterward, they radioed back to the precinct, amid laughter, “The intoxicated Asian male was returned to his sober boyfriend.” One quipped, “My partner is going to get deloused at the station.”
As it would turn out, Sinthasomphone was nonverbal because, before his escape, Dahmer had drilled a hole into the boy’s skull and poured acid into his brain. After police returned him to the apartment, Dahmer killed him.
As soon as police left, Cleveland began calling repeatedly to ask for more details. She offered her daughter and niece as witnesses, but the responding officers indicated, “It was an intoxicated boyfriend of another boyfriend…It wasn’t a child. It was an adult.” Finally, when Cleveland persisted, the officer replied “Ma’am. Ma’am. I can’t make it any more clear. It’s all taken care of. He is with his boyfriend, in his boyfriend’s apartment… I can’t do anything about somebody’s sexual preference in life.” In the incident report, the officers reportedly deemed the situation a “domestic squabble between homosexuals.”
Four more victims were killed between Sinthasomphone’s death and Dahmer’s eventual capture. Dahmer would later tell police that when the boy was returned to the apartment, photos of previous victims were strewn around the floor and a body was in the bedroom “smelling like hell.” And if police had run a background check on Dahmer, they would have seen that at the time, he was on probation for sexually assaulting Sinthasomphone’s brother three years earlier, when he was 13.
The show depicts Dahmer behaving with a certain carelessness, as if he doesn’t need to try particularly hard to cover his tracks. When Cleveland brings up the awful smell coming from his apartment, he shrugs her off: His tropical fish just died, so that’s probably what it is. When the officers question him about Tracy, he tries the same tactic: “We’re homosexuals,” this is just “gay stuff.” In each case, it seems clear that similar explanations have worked in the past.
Dahmer escaped suspicion by drawing most of his victims from the fringes, mostly gay racial minorities. As such, the show lays some of the blame on police for seemingly not caring enough about marginalized populations to sufficiently investigate. In fact, the real story is almost too unbelievable for dramatization: After Dahmer’s arrest, the city fired the two officers who returned Sinthasomphone and joked about them afterward. But they were later reinstated on appeal, each receiving around $55,000 in back pay. A decade later, one of the officers, John Balcerzak, was even elected president of Milwaukee’s police union, a position he held for four years.
Unfortunately, as Dahmer demonstrates, police failure to intervene when explicitly necessary is not new. All too often, police cannot be relied upon to protect the public and, in fact, are not even required to. As the Supreme Court ruled in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989): “Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.”
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