On September 21, Netflix released its latest docudrama, Dahmer – Monsters: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer. In 10 episodes, the series tells the story of one of the most notorious and depraved serial killers of the 20th century, with a special focus on his victims. The Netflix synopsis asks: “Over a period of more than a decade, 17 teenagers and young men were murdered by convicted murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. How did he evade arrest for so long?” The show places some of the blame on the police themselves.
The show begins with Glenda Cleveland (Niecy Nash), a single mother who lived next door to Dahmer (Evan Peters) in Milwaukee. She grimaces as she hears disturbing noises coming from her neighbor’s apartment and smells foul odors through the shared vent. Dahmer goes to a bar and brings home a man, Tracy. Almost immediately, the mood turns menacing, but Tracy manages to escape and stops a squad car. Initially skeptical, the officers examine the apartment and find the remains of numerous victims. Dahmer is taken to prison and everything is fine.
Except, as the rest of the series shows, all is not well: as Dahmer is led out in handcuffs, Cleveland yells, “I’ve called you all and told you over and over a million times something’s up, and you know what you have done? You haven’t done anything!”
In fact, the real Cleveland alerted authorities to her neighbor’s suspicious activities at least two months before Dahmer’s arrest. As portrayed in Episode 2 of the Netflix series, Tracy wasn’t Dahmer’s first escape victim: In May 1991, Cleveland’s daughter and niece Konerak found Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old Laotian boy, naked and in distress in an alleyway. Nicole Childress, Cleveland’s niece, called 911, which dispatched officers and an ambulance.
But Dahmer also appeared at the scene and told officers 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 an argument. Paramedics thought Sinthasomphone needed treatment, but officers disagreed and sent the ambulance away. Rather than investigate further, officers returned Sinthasomphone to Dahmer’s apartment and left. Afterward, they laughed and radioed back to the precinct: “Drunk Asian man was taken back to his sober friend.” One quipped, “My partner is being deloused at the train station.”
Sinthasomphone turned out to be nonverbal because Dahmer drilled a hole in the boy’s skull and poured acid into his brain before escaping. After the police brought him back to the apartment, Dahmer killed him.
Once the police left, Cleveland called repeatedly to ask for more details. She offered her daughter and niece as witnesses, but responding officers stated, “It was a drunk friend of another friend… It wasn’t a child. It was an adult.” When Cleveland finally insisted, the officer replied, “Ma’am. Ma’am. I can’t say it any clearer. Everything is done. He’s with his friend, at his friend’s house… I can’t do anything about anyone’s sexual preferences in life.” In the incident report, officers reportedly described the situation as a “domestic homosexual dispute.”
Four other victims were killed between Sinthasomphone’s death and Dahmer’s eventual capture. Dahmer later told police that when the boy was brought back to the apartment, photos of previous victims were strewn on the floor and there was a dead body in the bedroom that “smelt like hell.” And if police had conducted a background check on Dahmer, they would have seen that he was on probation at the time for sexually assaulting Sinthasomphone’s brother three years earlier, when he was 13.
The show features Dahmer acting with a certain carelessness, as if he doesn’t have to work very hard to cover his tracks. When Cleveland mentions the awful smell coming from his apartment, he shrugs: His tropical fish just died, so that’s probably what it is. When officers question him about Tracy, he tries the same tactic: “We’re homosexuals,” that’s just “gay stuff.” In any case, it seems clear that similar explanations have worked in the past.
Dahmer avoided suspicion by drawing most of his victims from marginalized groups, mostly gay racial minorities. As such, the show blames the police for not seeming to care enough about marginalized populations to adequately investigate. In fact, the true story is almost too incredible to dramatize: After Dahmer’s arrest, the city fired the two officers who returned Sinthasomphone and joked about them afterwards. However, they were later reinstated on appeal and each received around $55,000 in back pay. A decade later, one of the officers, John Balcerzak, was even elected President of the Milwaukee Police Union, a position he held for four years.
Unfortunately as dahmer shows, the failure of the police to intervene when expressly required to do so is not new. All too often, the police cannot be trusted to protect the public, and are under no obligation to do so. As the Supreme Court ruled 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 from intrusion by private actors.”