Twenty-eight community organizations signed on to the following letter to Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, Public Safety Committee Chair Donovan, and the rest of Milwaukee's Common Council, expressing serious problems with the recently released draft “Public Safety Action Plan.”
August 31, 2016
Dear President Hamilton, Chairman Donovan, and council members,
We are writing on behalf of an array of community groups to express our serious misgivings regarding the recently released draft “Public Safety Action Plan.” The Council’s Public Safety Committee held a series of special meetings during June and July before the draft Plan was released on August 22. The Chairman did not invite the public to testify at these special meetings.
The draft Plan includes a variety of recommendations for the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, and the State of Wisconsin. We find most of these recommendations to be misguided, uninformed, and even harmful. We will focus on the underlying theme of the draft Plan and a few of the specific recommendations as examples of good, bad, and incoherent proposals.
The Plan’s theme is support for the controversial “Broken Windows” philosophy of law enforcement. “Broken Windows,” “Quality of Life,” “Community Oriented Policing,” are all catchphrases that are subject to different interpretations and implementation. The anonymous authors of the draft Plan appear to equate “Broken Windows” with the surge in police strength during the 1990s in New York City under the Giuliani administration. The Plan repeats the assertion that “While the number of arrests for misdemeanors increased sharply, serious crime went down”(page 5). This assertion is questionable as an explanation because it does not recognize other socio-economic factors that occurred in the city at this time. Also, nationally crime rates went down at this time in communities that did not engage in “Broken Windows” policing. Academics continue to argue over the causes of any decreases in crime in New York City in the 1990s.
Regardless of the academic debates, there is also the problem of relevance to Milwaukee in the period 2008-2016. During that time, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) has engaged in what might be called Broken Windows on steroids. MPD, under Chief Edward Flynn, has been using a patrol based, supposedly data-driven strategy that conducts large numbers of officer-initiated pretextual stops in poor neighborhoods to establish a police presence. The Plan calls for a significant increase in police officers and sheriff’s deputies to apparently do more of the same strategy that has resulted in “a public safety crisis” according to the draft Plan.
In an August 1, 2016 letter from community groups (already in File # 160155), they suggest that the city reevaluate the current policing strategy. They write, “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that ‘research conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of crime fighting strategies should specifically look at the potential for collateral damage of any given strategy on community trust and legitimacy.’” Before spending more taxpayer dollars on Broken Windows on steroids, let’s look at better alternatives.
In the draft Plan as released on August 22, the number one recommendation for the City of Milwaukee is to improve community-police relations. Unfortunately, the Plan offers little that is new. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to recognize what MPD, to its credit, is already doing. For instance, the Plan recommends that “police officers should receive appropriate training in cultural competence and interacting with the mentally ill and other vulnerable populations.” We agree a little cultural competency might help, but the anonymous authors are apparently unaware that MPD’s training has moved beyond cultural competency and includes training on implicit bias. Cultural competency may have been state of the art twenty years ago, but law enforcement nationally and MPD both recognize a more sophisticated approach is needed. Likewise, the Plan recommends training on interacting with the mentally ill, but doesn’t recognize that MPD is already well into implementing crisis intervention training for all officers and dispatchers thanks to a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Unbelievably, the Plan in its recommendations to Milwaukee County does not raise the issue of community-based assessment and treatment for our neighbors in crisis. The delivery of emergency mental health services following changes to the County’s Behavior Health Division is one of our community’s greatest challenges.
The draft Plan’s other recommendations on improving community-police relations also appear to have been added at the last moment. The draft Plan strongly urges “the restoration of the Police Athletic League,” despite there being many good youth-serving agencies in the community. It also recommends that the Fire and Police Commission (FPC) “conduct annual meetings with the community to get input from residents.” Annual means one a year, and the FPC already has more ambitious outreach plans. We would urge that the FPC continue working to improve the citizen complaint procedure.
We believe that the draft Plan’s nearly exclusive focus on law enforcement solutions to public safety issues is painfully one dimensional. Law enforcement can’t solve all the social issues facing society. The Plan states that, “Until we as a community and a society are willing to address the broader issues that lead to crime, better policing … will help improve public safety.” We believe that Milwaukee is more than willing to address broader issues, by means of a variety of cost-effective, proven measures.
The City of Milwaukee has already recognized that health-based approaches to violence reduction and prevention can make a difference. The Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) in the Milwaukee Health Department is beginning to implement tactics that hold promise. We urge the Common Council to fund the OVP at $25 million, a level sufficient to bring about real change.
We also urge the City to take the trust-building steps relevant to the City recommended in the community letter (8/1/2016). These include the adoption of a resolution by the Council to create a vetting system for MPD surveillance technology purchases that includes public input and consideration of the impact of technology on the privacy rights of innocent residents.
There are other recommendations in the draft Plan that are directed to Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin. Some of these recommendations are truly awful, such as creating an unconstitutional Milwaukee County judicial oversight program. The Plan pretends to care about collaboration, but when it gives bad advice to partners and ignores the collaborative work that is happening, we would suggest that the County and State ask the Council to get serious. The City already participates in the Milwaukee Community Justice Council, which is working on ways to reduce the jail population without reducing public safety.
Milwaukeeans in all neighborhoods deserve police service that is professional, unbiased, and cost-effective. Residents of poorer neighborhoods should not be victimized twice, once by criminals and once by police who put their rights in jeopardy every day.
President Hamilton has stated that there will be two listening sessions with the public on the Plan at as yet undesignated times and places. Please make sure they are at locations easy for people to access and take place in the evening so that the community, including youth, is able to attend. Let us know as soon as possible when these meetings will take place so we can help to inform the public.
There is much that the Council can do, including in its budget process, to enhance public safety. The Plan is worse than unhelpful. Instead, we urge you to give consideration to all the ways to help prevent violence, not just law enforcement methods. We urge you to work with individuals and groups that you have ignored thus far. We look forward to speaking with all council members on these matters in the near future.
Thank you for your consideration.
Astar Herndon, 9 to 5
Chris Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin
Rev. Steve Jerbi, All People’s Church
Sarah Milnar McLaughlin, Beyond the Bell
Dr. Patricia McManus, Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin
Nate Hamilton, The Coalition for Justice
Michele Hilbert, Educators Network for Social Justice
R.L. McNeely, Felmers O. Chaney Advocacy Board
Brenda Bell-White, Justice or Else Local Organizing Committee
George Martin, Martin Luther King Justice Coalition
Catoya Roberts, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope
Kim Schroeder, Milwaukee Teacher's Education Association
Brian & Melissa Verdin, MLK Justice Coalition
Fred Royal, NAACP Milwaukee Branch
Parents for Public Schools of Milwaukee
Jeffery Kroll, Peace Action
Annika Leonard, Priceless Insight
Sarah Dollhausen, True Skool
Ingrid Walker-Henry, Schools and Communities United
Stephanie Roades, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Milwaukee Branch
George Hinton, Social Development Commission
Pastor Afi Dobbins, Solomon Community Temple United Methodist Church
Markasa Tucker, Uplifting Black Liberation and Community
Sharlen Moore, Urban Underground
LaShawndra Vernon, Walnut Way
Martha De La Rosa, Wisconsin Jobs Now
Dana Schultz, Wisconsin Voices
Rev. Willie Brisco, WISDOM
Update: three more organizations signed on after the letter was physically mailed to the Common Council