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Will More Cops Make Milwaukee Safer?

The Common Council’s public safety plan calls for 280 more officers

Aug. 30, 2016
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Photo via Aidan Wakely-Mulroney, Flickr CC


In the midst of a citywide conversation about reducing tension between the police and the community, the Milwaukee Common Council released its “Public Safety Action Plan,” which offers no new programs for actually improving police-community relations. 

Instead, it calls for hiring an additional 280 police officers, adding more detectives and seasonal officers and suggesting that Milwaukee County hire 150 more sheriff’s deputies, establish a local boot camp-style boarding school, and ease up on its reliance on electronic monitoring of youth and adults, among other law enforcement-heavy plans. 

“With the added strength of 280 new police officers, the Milwaukee Police Department will have the resources to be proactive, stabilize neighborhoods in crisis and push back against crime and disorder plaguing Milwaukee,” the report states in bold type. 

Not everyone seems to be on board. The plan was released with a disclaimer in its preface stating that the report “is not final and will be undergoing further review.”

“Other forthcoming proposals will incorporate resident engagement, public education, community relations and job-creation strategies,” it states, along with a promise to hold two listening sessions with the community in the future.

What’s the Cost? 

There’s no price tag attached to the plan, but the report floats ideas for funding it, including raising property taxes, asking the state to create a sales tax for public safety, getting tougher on collecting bad debt, reinstating furlough days for city workers and hiring young police officers to replace retiring ones. 

The Milwaukee Police Department’s 2016 budget is $277 million and takes up 42.4% of the city’s operating budget. According to Barrett’s 2017 budget overview, the MPD’s budget is up $97 million from $179 million in 2004 at the same time state shared revenue has decreased $12 million. MPD’s 2017 budget request is $305 million. 

In July, prior to the report’s release, Ald. Terry Witkowski had suggested putting a referendum question on the November ballot on whether the city should hire 150 new officers on via a property tax hike. The cost for the temporary surge of 150 new officers, along with a loss of state revenue, was estimated to be $87 million over five years. That idea went nowhere in the council and Monday, Aug. 29, was the final deadline for getting a referendum question on the fall ballot. The city’s next opportunity for a referendum question on the matter is in two years and Witkowski announced last week he’d drop the referendum for now.

“We run a frugal city,” Witkowski said in a press release. “We can’t simply ‘cut’ our way to the funding we need.”

Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton and Ald. Bob Donovan, who released the plan last week, didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s multiple calls to discuss how the plan will be implemented. But if the council intends to include facets of the plan in next year’s budget, then it better hurry. Mayor Tom Barrett is slated to release his proposed budget on Sept. 26, after which the council will review and add amendments to it and finalize it no later than Nov. 14. 

Barrett hasn’t exactly signed on to the council’s plan. He released a statement noting that the city’s Office of Violence Prevention will be launching its own comprehensive safety plan next month with the aid of the Prevention Institute of Oakland, Calif.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, law enforcement is an important part of the public safety equation but not the only piece,” Barrett said in a press statement. “If we have learned anything from the events over the past two weeks, it is imperative that we all work together to address the factors that we know drive crime and disorder in communities. This is an issue that the city can’t shoulder alone. We look forward to engaging multiple sectors including business, education, community, youth, health and officials across all levels of government in identifying comprehensive strategies that we can align resources and policy to launch and sustain.”

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn released a statement to the Shepherd, saying, “We are appreciative of the Public Safety Committee’s sincere effort to take a system-wide view of public safety in Milwaukee and look forward to future conversations.” 

Will Police-Community Relations Improve? 

The report comes out of a summer’s worth of testimony in front of Donovan’s Public Safety Committee in a series of meetings “relating to crime, fear and disorder in the City of Milwaukee,” in which Flynn, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and a handful of criminal justice experts explained why the city seems to be in the midst of a crime wave.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, noted that none of the committee hearings allowed public testimony, nor did the committee hear from non-government experts. 

Ahmuty called the plan “uninformed, ideological, out of touch and harmful.”

He said it represented a commitment to the broken windows theory of policing, in which police officers target small offenses with the hopes of disrupting or discouraging larger crimes from occurring. Flynn was brought to Milwaukee in 2008, with the backing of the conservative Bradley Foundation, because of his support for broken windows-style policing.

The leaders of the ACLU, NAACP, the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, WISDOM and other community organizations sent Barrett, Flynn and Hamilton a letter on Aug. 1 asking for a reconsideration of the committee’s focus on heavy law enforcement. The letter requested that the city look into new policing strategies as advocated in the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as well as the Milwaukee Community Justice Council’s efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in our jails and keep those with mental illnesses out of the criminal justice system, which is funded by a $2 million McArthur Foundation grant. The letter also called for research on the effectiveness of crime-fighting strategies and the smart use of technology. Overall, the letter asks law enforcement leaders to “abandon business as usual” and try to foster better relations with city residents. 

“In metro Milwaukee, black men, Latino men and other people of color, regardless of background and professional accomplishment, speak of their anxiety at being stopped by the police,” the letter states. “Women of color, too, often speak of the same fear. Their anxiety is not unfounded considering that, nationwide, police have killed more than 100 black men thus far in 2016.”

The letter was written before an MPD officer killed Sylville Smith on Aug. 13 in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

The council’s plan does give a nod to Dallas Police Chief Dave Brown, whose department shifted its policing strategy, reduced crime and improved its relationship with the community. The plan also requests the city’s Fire and Police Commission hold community meetings at least twice a year to hear from the public about their concerns about local law enforcement. 

It noted that the commission, comprised of mayoral appointees, “is directly responsible for prescribing general policies and standards for the police department,” indicating that although Common Council members have the power of the purse, they don’t have the final say over Milwaukee’s policing strategies.

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