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Is It Time to Reform the Milwaukee Police?

A roundtable discussion with Community Coalition for Quality Policing members

Nov. 29, 2016
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Even before a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Sylville Smith on Aug. 13 and unrest erupted in the Sherman Park neighborhood, a community coalition was forming to address police-community relations in the city. That group, the Community Coalition for Quality Policing (CC4QP), has grown to more than 20 civic and faith organizations and aims to work with the police and stakeholders to reform the Milwaukee Police Department’s policing strategies and improve police-community relations. Last month, with the help of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, CC4QP brought leaders from Cincinnati who worked to reform their police department after officer-involved shootings and a riot in 2001. As detailed in the Nov. 24 issue of the Shepherd, the new Cincinnati policing strategy focuses on community-oriented problem-solving and is lauded as a national model that can be adapted elsewhere.

Members of CC4QP recently sat down with the Shepherd for a lively roundtable discussion about their concerns about policing in Milwaukee. Participating CC4CP members were Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation; R.L. McNeely, chair of the Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board; Darryl Morin, past national vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, and personal injury and civil rights attorney Jonathan Safran. Here’s an excerpt of our discussion, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Shepherd: What about the Cincinnati model appeals to you?

Royal: The biggest thing is that officers are evaluated and promoted on their ability to solve problems versus their ability to write tickets and arrest people.

McNeely: Also, it improves police-community relations and it improves police morale.

Safran: The other thing too is that there was a buy in from a number of different groups in the community, the head of the police union and the police themselves, as well as the government. Whenever you have a collaboration in which all of those entities agree on something, that’s a good thing.

Morin: We’re really looking at what happened in Cincinnati and elsewhere as moving from a warrior model to a guardian model. We realize that this isn’t just about putting everything on the police. When there is true collaboration there is a huge responsibility on the community leaders and organizations to step forward as well and participate. Truly, the police are part of our community as well.

Kahn: I think the community is ready for this conversation. This conversation has a lot of constituents. A community chooses people to guard and protect and serve it. That’s what we’re talking about. How do we ensure that our community is safe?

Shepherd: But isn’t the MPD already using problem-solving techniques and working with the community to solve crimes? 

Royal: To change the culture within the police department, problem-oriented policing has to be the over-arching police strategy.

Shepherd: Can it be done voluntarily, without a court order?

Royal: Looking at the scope of our Fire and Police Commission, they have the authority to address any standard operating procedure that is currently in place and the authority to oversee the department.

Safran: They are the main policy maker for the police department, along with the chief. They certainly have the power to hire the chief, and fire the chief, too. They are the oldest and I think probably have the most power of any Fire and Police Commission in the nation.

Shepherd: Are they using their power?

McNeely: Unfortunately, I don’t think they even know they have that power.

Safran: My experience has been that they do too many things. If they were able to focus on this as a main focus, as far as policies and procedures and complaints, they would be more successful and it would help this department be more successful. Besides disciplining officers and instituting policies and procedures, they are also involved in hiring and testing of fire and police officers and as a result of that wear many more hats. 

McNeely: They are resource poor. They don’t have the resources they need to do the things they are supposed to be doing. If the one place they have is occupied then they have to interview people outside of the office, in the corridor or in a stairwell. And that’s a problem. What does it say to the person with the legitimate complaint? What is it telling that person? How seriously is the complaint being taken if they are in a stairwell? It’s an insult.

Shepherd: In Cincinnati, the officers made fewer arrests and wrote fewer citations and the amount of crime dropped roughly in half. What do you make of that? 

Royal: If you deal with the cause of criminogenic behavior then you actually deal with the problems that put people into criminogenic behavior. For example, prostitution. Is the prostitution driven by drug addiction? Or homelessness or human trafficking? Let’s deal with the root cause of the individual being left with that option of prostitution or human trafficking, versus just locking that individual up. 

Morin: In Milwaukee we have the highest incarceration rate in the nation [for African American men] yet it hasn’t made our community any safer. Incarceration alone doesn’t result in safer neighborhoods.

Shepherd: What has been the impact of that kind of policing in Milwaukee, where black and brown drivers are routinely pulled over for minor traffic violations?

Royal: We just saw the waiver of the warrants for those types of stops. You saw the thousands of people lined up. Are we driving a debtors’ court in municipal court? And if you look at how many stops are in the African American community, you would say that it drives an over-policing of the community. And what is the outcome of that? 

McNeely: It’s not just how many stops there are, it’s how people are treated after they are stopped. People can be treated respectfully once they are stopped. That’s one thing. If they are stopped endlessly and treated disrespectfully, that’s an entirely different thing. You only have to look as far as the body cavity searches and so many other illustrations of how people have been treated to think of the adverse impact it’s had on police-community relations. 

Royal: If you look at citizens as being law abiding you don’t have to do these pretextual stops. If you are looking at every person as being a potential criminal, then you do those types of stops. When you stop having an us-against-them mentality and have a collective “we” mentality, that changes the culture. That’s what our attempt here is to do. We don’t want to have this continual level of frustration within the community that was precipitated on August 13. August 13 wasn’t because the treatment by police in our community is one of congeniality. It’s because the treatment by police in our community is one that is abusive. 

Shepherd: Cincinnati also worked very hard on increasing transparency. The police department releases the videos of officer-involved shootings within 24 hours, with a few exceptions. That’s not how videos are handled in Milwaukee.

Safran: None of the videos are being released [in Milwaukee]. That is up to the investigative agencies to decide whether they want to release them. None of them so far have agreed to do it although there has been outcry from the community and elected officials that it should be released. I think the fact the Cincinnati has done that shows how important it is. I think transparency is a huge thing that Milwaukee is missing.

Kahn: [The Cincinnati leaders] talked about it in terms of trusting the community. Saying what they know, saying what they don’t know, and trusting the community.

Shepherd: Similarly, what is the impact of not holding police officers accountable for shooting someone in the line of duty? 

Royal: That’s what was exhibited on August 13. Frustration. I don’t know if the action was so much directly related to Sylville Smith as it was the totality of all the years of no accountability for critically involved incidents with the police department.

Safran: Many of us are wondering why it had not happened sooner. Not that we wanted it to happen, but certainly I have been wondering why it hadn’t happened sooner.

Kahn: I think there needs to be a process where people feel like their voice matters and not feel marginalized. When you feel marginalized, then why not have unrest, why not lash out?

Shepherd: How would you like to see police officers be held accountable?

Royal: I want them to be held to the same level of accountability that I am. Actually, they should be held to a higher standard of law because they have the authority to arrest and detain.

McNeely: They have more authority than that—they have a license to kill.

Royal: That too. But I’m hoping that would be one of the things they do not revert to. But if a police officer is engaged in rape, they should be held to the same standard that I am. They should not be out raping individuals and then going back as an investigator on an individual that may have experience being violated by rape. Do you understand the kind of trust issues that come into play when that occurs? We’ve had officers that have had rape charges reduced by the district attorney. Do you think that for one minute the public doesn’t understand that that occurs? Especially in my community.

You know, there were 75 individuals who were illegally cavity searched. That didn’t happen overnight. That didn’t happen in a vacuum. Don’t you think that an individual who was violated didn’t tell somebody that these officers were out there violating them? Hold officers to the same level of the law that I am held. I just got a ticket for overtaking a police officer on a bicycle and he wasn’t even in a designated bike lane. And he gave me a $125 ticket.

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