Former detective Pat Kennedy on The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
More than twenty years after the story broke, America's fascination with cannibal sex killer Jeffrey Dahmer lingers on. In The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a new documentary on the case playing tonight and tomorrow at the Sie FilmCenter for the Denver Film Society's Watching Hour, three of the people closest to the case help shed light on the enigmatic killer. His unsuspecting next-door neighbor and the medical examiner who dissected the crime scene offer two diverse looks at the case, but the most compelling narrative in the film comes from Pat Kennedy, the former homicide detective who worked for weeks with Dahmer to get a full confession.
We recently caught up with Kennedy to talk about the film, what it was like to get into Dahmer's head and how the case changed his life and his views on police procedure.
NSFW Warning: This interview is both explicit and disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
- Best of: Denver's best film program: The Watching Hour
- Vincent Groves may have slain 24 women: Colorado's most prolific serial killer?
- Boulder writer Matt Samet chronicles his benzo hell in Death Grip
Westword: How did you come to be involved in the film?
Pat Kennedy: I won this award for my dissertation [and] I got a big write-up in the UW Milwaukee magazine. My picture was in it and it talked all about Jeffrey Dahmer. [Writer-director] Chris Thompson saw that, because he went to the same college, and he wrote me a letter --- a handwritten letter. He said he was thinking about making a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer. I had been asked by other people to be involved in [projects] about Jeffrey Dahmer. I've turned them all down because it seemed like they were going to be like slasher, exploitative type films or books. I didn't want to be a part of that because I still see relatives of the victims, I still see people who were with Jeffrey Dahmer that he didn't kill, plus I'm a Catholic. I didn't want to make money off the death of seventeen people. As a matter of fact, my contract with the movie, all that money goes to a charitable organization I still work with for the police athletic league for inner city Milwaukee. That was another reason I decided to do it, to try to help stop something like this from happening again.
I talked to my wife and said, "I think I'm going to work with this kid," then I called him and met with him and after I saw him, he's just a very bright, decent good guy. I talked to him for about four hours before I decided I would work with him.
The dissertation was about Dahmer?
The dissertation came about from, basically, the Jeffrey Dahmer incident, the part where the coppers took the Asian kid back [to Dahmer]. It made me think about, what was the problem there? How did the cops make this horrible mistake? Basically it came down to, in my opinion, training. The police train in a very Anglo-Saxon Protestant way, regardless of the cops being white, black, yellow, red, brown, men or women. When they train this way, they begin to get something I call the "Police Complex," which is a tendency toward stereotype thinking, basically. But moreover, it's the equating with the certain type of individual you deal with on a daily basis with the entire group or ethnicity or nation or religion.
For those unfamiliar with the case, can you explain the incident you're referring to?
These two police officers, who were in their late twenties, early thirties, came upon this naked Asian male who was obviously intoxicated and speaking in Laotian. [They were] surrounded by people of color from that neighborhood; when they had to make a decision as to which way to go, they did not know anyone from that neighborhood, even though that was their squad area. They did not have a personal relationship with anyone there. So when Jeffrey Dahmer saw the commotion and walked into that crowd of 20 to 25 people, and made his plausible explanation that this was his lover who gets drunk all the time and runs out of the house, and invited those coppers back and showed them the Polaroids he took of this young man posing naked and smiling, showed them his clothing on the end of the couch and gave them a fake name, the cops did not go any further, like they should have. Back in the day, we would have arrested that kid just on general principles for drunk and disorderly -- running around naked out and being drunk.
What happened, in the end, when they had to make the decision on who to believe, who to listen to, whose story seemed more culpable to them, who did they believe? They believed the other white guy, who looked just like them, a guy who could speak the language of white, Anglo-Saxon males. A guy who knew how to talk to authority. A guy who was educated, from the white, upper-middle class. And because of that, they obviously made a hell of a mistake, because after they left that kid was killed.
That kind of set me on a whole new path to try to figure out how did this happen with police? That's what sent me back to graduate school to go on and get my graduate degrees. My dissertation was all about that. I got to study the Milwaukee Police Recruit Academy and their training. I actually developed my own pedagogy for training police, which I'm still -- one of the reasons I went back to get my Ph.D. was to affect policy, because no one gives a shit or listens to you if you don't have some credentials behind you. I'm still actively involved in this type of training throughout Milwaukee, with police. I'm doing another one at a technical college in a couple of weeks with future police recruit officers. This case, not only did I end up getting divorced and leaving the police department, but it just changed the whole direction of my life. It was kind of a life-changing experience for me.
Have you kept up with other coverage of the story at all over the years? If you're flipping through the channels and see a special on Dahmer, will you stop and watch it?
No. I don't watch them, but I'm aware because I live in America. I keep up with media. But how many damn TV shows are about serial killers? There are more movies about serial killers and TV shows about serial killers than there are actual serial killers, it seems like.
I think there's this fascination about it. The thing that most people are fascinated about regarding Jeffrey Dahmer is that he was unlike other serial killers in that, to my knowledge, he's still the only serial killer that not only has admitted to what he did, but told me why he did it and how he did it. This is fascinating, because you can see not only the true sickness of the guy but also the weird psychology.