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Can Milwaukee Learn from Cincinnati’s Police Reform?

Advocates call for a shift to problem-solving policing

Nov. 22, 2016
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Fifteen years ago, Cincinnati looked a bit like Milwaukee today: Some neighborhoods were plagued with high crime, police-community relations were tense, and a riot erupted after a police officer shot and killed yet another African American man. 

But Cincinnati’s approach to policing changed after the 2011 riot. Officers learned how to solve problems with the help of residents instead of taking a zero-tolerance approach to crime.

Now, Cincinnati’s police reform is seen as a national model that can be adopted, or adapted, by cities such as Milwaukee. 

Three Cincinnati leaders—former police officer and ex-police union president Kathy Harrell, civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein and community activist Iris Roley of Cincinnati Black United Front—came to Milwaukee to offer their insights at a recent forum sponsored by the Rotary Club of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Press Club.

“When you’re somewhere and you’re feeling as though your voice is not being heard, lives are not being respected, resources don’t come your way into your community, you get what we got in Cincinnati in 2001,” Roley told the Milwaukee audience. “It was a culmination of all of those things, not just bad policing or bad community-police relationships. It’s all of those things. So don’t just look to fix your police department, look to fix multiple things.” 

The Cincinnati experts were brought to Milwaukee by the Community Coalition for Quality Policing, a local group of more than 20 advocacy, faith and service organizations, with the help of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

Community Collaboration

Cincinnati didn’t just decide voluntarily to reform its policing strategy. The U.S. Department of Justice forced them to do so to settle some outstanding lawsuits brought by community members. In response, the city embarked on a long, detailed information-gathering process that tried to capture what needed to change, and then find a way to implement the reforms. 

The result was the federal collaborative agreement struck in August 2002 between the Cincinnati Black United Front and the ACLU of Ohio with the City of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police, Cincinnati’s police union.

Central to the changes is the focus on community-oriented problem-solving policing, which “is one form of police work that seeks resolution of troublesome circumstances in the community. These troublesome circumstances are framed as problems to solve,” the agreement states.

“Problem solving is a technique where you don’t commit to using arrests as your primary mode for addressing crime and disorder,” Gerhardstein explained in Milwaukee. “Rather, you look at your repeat perpetrators, repeat victims and repeat locations, if you’ve got a location, a hotspot. Rather than jump out and arrest everyone in sight, you might want to change the lighting. You might want to bring together all of the people who have a stake in that location—tenants, property owners and others who have a stake in it—and say, ‘What do you think we ought to do with it?’”

He said the aim was to reduce arrests as well, even if that wasn’t an explicit goal in the final agreement.

“You cannot talk to black people who come from a history of oppression by police in our country and the use of police for oppressive purposes and say that we’re going to police just the way we’ve always done it,” Gerhardstein said.

The agreement also established an independent Citizen Complaint Authority to investigate “serious interventions by police officers,” including shots fired, deaths in custody and major uses of force.

The agreement wasn’t fully embraced in the early years, but the reforms took hold after city leaders—and the plan’s monitor—demanded it. Eventually, the city saw dramatic declines in violent crime, police use of force incidents, misdemeanor arrests, citizen complaints and citizen injuries during police encounters, according to statistics cited by The Atlantic. The city closed down an 800-bed jail as well, Gerhardstein told the Milwaukee crowd, not only because it was uninhabitable but because it wasn’t needed.

The Cincinnati Police Department has become more transparent. Gerhardstein noted that the city usually releases video from officer-involved shootings within 24 hours, even when the footage is ambiguous or unclear. In contrast, in Wisconsin videos are usually not released until an investigation is complete and charges are brought or the officer is cleared. This process can drag out for months. For example, the footage from the Sylville Smith shooting in August has not been released; the video of Dontre Hamilton’s shooting was released eight months after his death. [Correction: There was no video of Hamilton's death, so no video evidence was released in December 2014 with the materials gathered during the investigation into his death.]

Former Cincinnati police union chief Harrell said the police were initially resistant but grew to adopt the reforms. Training and job descriptions changed to focus on problem-solving efforts. She said many officers wanted to change but didn’t know how to advocate for it. 

“A lot of the changes that occurred in the police department were needed and they made our jobs easier,” Harrell said. 

Activist Roley said the collaboration allowed community groups to learn more about the officers’ viewpoints and, in addition, not to rely solely on law enforcement to transform communities.

“What we figured out in Cincinnati in 15 years is that it is more than just policing,” Roley said. “There are other systems that play into this.”

Will Milwaukee Make Changes? 

The Cincinnati leaders said in the forum that they had not met with Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, but they had made a special presentation for the city’s Fire and Police Commission (FPC). The all-appointee FPC—not the elected Milwaukee Common Council—sets policy for and has oversight of the Milwaukee police and fire departments.

FPC Chair Steven DeVougas told the Shepherd he thought the Cincinnati presentation was “very interesting and intriguing.” 

“I think that as things change we should always be leaders and choose change instead of having change forced upon us,” DeVougas said. “I’m looking forward to learning more about it, and different approaches, and seeing how we can start to heal police-community relations and hopefully make Milwaukee a safer and greater place.” 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the MPD is using problem-oriented policing techniques but said improved communications with the community were welcome.

He noted the MPD is working through a collaborative review of the department with the U.S. Department of Justice, the results of which should be released by the end of the year. The review includes an assessment of MPD’s community oriented policing practices, as well as its use of force, stop and search practices and transparency.

“I took it as a compliment that they felt we had in place an administration that was willing to reform from within,” Barrett said.  

As for the MPD, spokesman Sgt. Timothy Gauerke emailed the Shepherd, “MPD has been using problem-oriented policing concepts for several decades and will continue to do so. Additionally, the Milwaukee Police Department has won national awards for problem-oriented policing efforts.”

Milwaukee Police Association President Mike Crivello said he is open to working with the community to address their concerns, although any local reforms haven’t been defined.

“It’s very important to me that the community understands that the membership that I am so blessed to have an opportunity to lead—the police officers, the forensic investigators and the detectives—that the community truly understands that these professionals want to come to work and to affect life for the positive,” Crivello said. “They want to do good things. And the way we get to do good things is I think when we have that great community relationship.”

But R.L. McNeely, a member of the Community Coalition for Quality Policing, said the department’s entire culture needs to change from the traditional policing model to problem-oriented policing. 

“Traditional policing, despite efforts to have here and there contact between beat cops and residents, it’s still the warrior mentality most of the time,” McNeely told the Shepherd. “It’s one that looks upon people as suspects first and people second.” 

He said his organization would like to see Milwaukee use the lessons of Cincinnati to adopt new policing strategies that “meet the needs of Milwaukee.” The key is to involve the leadership of the mayor and the Common Council as well as the authority of the Fire and Police Commission, McNeely said.

He stressed that the Cincinnati experience shows that reforms can benefit police officers as well as the community. 

“We are not looking upon the police as the enemy,” McNeely said. “We are looking upon the police as folks who risk their persons on behalf of public safety. One of the great things about what happens with community policing or problem solving is that it improves their job satisfaction, it improves their morale. It’s a win-win for everybody.” 

Next week, look for a roundtable discussion of police reform with members of the Community Coalition for Quality Policing.

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