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Community Asks for Different Policing Strategies, Not More Cops

Public finally allowed to weigh in on public safety plan

Oct. 4, 2016
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Photo Courtest Joe Brusky, Flickr CC

The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) needs to adopt different policing strategies, not hire more officers, members of the public told the city’s Public Safety Committee meeting on Monday.

The committee, chaired by Alderman Bob Donovan, took months of testimony from government officials but allowed no members of the public to speak during its summer meetings. On Monday, the committee heard that the recommendations in the new Public Safety Action Plan would harm city residents. The plan calls for hiring 280 new MPD officers and taking a tough-on-crime approach to violence in the city. The report offers no new recommendations for improving community relations, even in the wake of the mid-August Sherman Park unrest following an MPD officer’s fatal shooting of Sylville Smith after a traffic stop.

Instead of hiring more officers, community representatives who spoke Monday asked city leaders to look at what’s working in other cities. Cincinnati has reformed the way it polices neighborhoods to focus on community relations and re-think its approach to incarceration. As a result, between 1999 and 2014, police use-of-force incidents in Cincinnati dropped 69% at the same time violent crime and misdemeanor arrests decreased. 

Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, called those results “startling” and suggested that Milwaukee study Cincinnati’s example. 

Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board Chair R.L. McNeely said researchers studying decades of data concluded that changing police strategy will have a greater impact on crime than simply adding more cops to the streets. Modest planned reductions in police force sizes are unlikely to have a negative impact on crime, he testified. 

“This is good news for cost-cutting mayors and city councils,” McNeely testified.

MICAH representative Rev. Joseph Ellwanger said the MPD needed to rethink its use of traffic stops if it wants to improve community relations.

“A heavy-handed, stop every vehicle with a burned out taillight approach to policing is counterproductive,” Ellwanger testified. “It deepens mistrust between police and community and adds to the trauma that underlies violence.” 

Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, recommended following Seattle’s lead and allowing the police to become more proactive with low-level drug offenders, some of whom have addiction issues, mental illness or are homeless. In Seattle, officers direct low-level offenders to social workers or community services before they are booked in to jail. 

“Several of the cities that are adopting this model are doing so specifically to address the heroin epidemic because addiction requires treatment, not incarceration,” Geraci.

Those testifying stressed that the city needs to get serious about the root causes of crime: systemic generational poverty, the devastation caused by mass incarceration, lack of hope and few family-supporting job opportunities in neighborhoods.

Tammy Rivera, executive director of the Southside Organizing Committee, said the long-term solutions to crime have to be holistic and not solely focused on policing.

“We have never made the sacrifices or the commitment that it takes now to address those root problems, because we’re constantly being diverted and reactionary to the symptoms and symptom relief,” Rivera said. “At some point, we have to choose that this is the day that we’re really going to dig in, make sacrifices, do the hard things for the long-haul results.” 

Additional Meetings Will Be Held

The Common Council’s Public Safety Action plan isn’t final and the committee will be holding additional meetings in the community before working through the recommendations via the legislative process. 

The next meetings will be held in the community. Alderman Cavalier Johnson will hold a session on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 9:30 a.m. at Marshall High School, 4141 N. 64th St. Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton will host a forum on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 9:30 a.m. at Obama High School, 5075 N. Sherman Blvd. Alderman José Pérez will host a meeting on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 9:30 a.m. at South Division High School, 1515 W. Lapham Blvd. Alderman Terry Witkowski will hold a community meeting on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 9:30 a.m. at Pulaski High School, 2500 W. Oklahoma Ave.

At the same time, council members will be working through Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposed 2017 budget, which calls for hiring 165 more MPD officers to replace officers who are retiring to keep the number of sworn officers at 1,888. The Public Safety Action Plan would get staffing levels to 2,156, the number of officers MPD employed in 2008

The MPD’s budget under Barrett’s plan will be $302 million, $25 million more than last year’s budget, to cover new wage agreements. The MPD budget is bigger than the city’s entire $263 million property tax levy. The Public Safety Action Plan floats a few ideas for paying for the enhanced costs of getting tough on crime, such as raising property taxes and asking the state to create a sales tax for public safety, but attaches no price tag to the recommendations.


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