The Milwaukee Police Department Knows It Needs Help

Months before the violent protests this weekend, the city’s mayor and police chief sought out a voluntary review from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Police officers protected by clear shields move in single formation on a crowd during a protest Milwaukee on Sunday, August 14, 2016.
Police officers move in formation during a protest Milwaukee on Sunday, August 14 . (Jeffrey Phelps / AP)

Before this weekend’s unrest following the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith, Milwaukee’s police department reached out to the Department of Justice for help. “The Milwaukee mayor and police chief asked the Department of Justice for technical assistance,” said Ronald Davis, the director of the DOJ’s office of community-oriented policing services. “They [said] there were community concerns about the police department, and they wanted … to open the department up for an evaluation and assessment.”

After a 200 percent increase in police shootings between 2014 and 2015, MPD may have recognized that it could not achieve necessary changes on its own. In particular, the 2014 shooting death of Dontre Hamilton and the outrage sparked by the lack of charges against the officer involved may have forced MPD to consider reforms.

“We don’t need you to go around and do anything else, just look at the patterns and practices,” a Milwaukee resident, Debra Jenkins, said at a DOJ-sponsored forum in January. “Anything that goes on [in] the streets is within our police department. We need you to take a hard look.” Another resident at the forum was skeptical of the entire review process, as reported by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service:

Many attendees expressed a lack of confidence in the DOJ and suspicion of the collaborative reform process. William Muhammad … said historical context, especially in regard to the deaths of Dontre Hamilton, Corey Stingley and Derek Williams, is necessary. Hamilton was shot to death by a police officer; Williams died in police custody; and Stingley’s death at the hands of white civilians prompted calls for a federal civil rights investigation.

Muhammad also criticized DOJ for failing to secure convictions or indictments for the deaths of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. He called the collaborative reform process a “dog and pony show.”

Based on its 2015 annual report, the MPD faces considerable challenges. According to FBI data presented in the report, there was a 70 percent jump in homicides in Milwaukee between 2014 and 2015, from 86 to 146 per year; a 10 percent increase in rapes; and a 7 percent increase in violent crimes. There were 150,000 traffic stops in that calendar year in a city of 600,000 residents. MPD also reported 706 use-of-force incidents involving residents and nine officer-involved shootings, up from three in 2014.

In addition to multiple community-outreach efforts, MPD started a system-wide roll out of body cameras in 2015, with an estimated 200 officers equipped with the technology that year. The department expects that “almost all officers” will be wearing them. “The cameras will help tell the story from the perspective of officers and provide agency transparency,” the annual report states. The DOJ has a team working on the MPD review via site visits, document reviews, training-class and field observations, and police and resident interviews.

Milwaukee’s agreed-upon goals fall into five major categories: recruitment and personnel; community orientation; use of force; stop-and-frisk policies; and organizational effectiveness. The DOJ released an outline of initial goals for MPD, with a particularly interesting section on use of force, which aims to “assess use-of-force and deadly-force practices.” The department will be evaluating the police force on multiple fronts, including crisis intervention, de-escalation, investigative training, protocols, documentation, and internal and external oversight.

MPD was not under a DOJ civil-rights investigation when it approached the agency last year. Davis said such an investigation “would have precedence over this one” and his team would not have undertaken the collaboration if that were the case. Initial steps included meeting with the MPD police chief and officers and holding a town hall, which Davis says over 700 people attended. We listened to their feedback. We sent experts out there, our own observers, to meet with community groups, civil-rights leaders, [and] advocates,” he said. Typically, assessors meet with those responsible for policing and those impacted by their work. “What happens is the chiefs may want an assessment of two or three areas, and we make it clear that we’ll agree to those areas and [add] any other areas that we deem necessary, because if the department doesn’t see the deficiencies they’re not going to identify them,” Davis said.

Davis told me that this weekend’s shootings won’t change the course the department is on. Here’s more:

I would say that the reform is about organizational transformation and organizational reform. So we’re looking at larger systemic issues, policies, and practices. We’re staying the course because, for example, we’re looking at assessing use-of-force and deadly-force practices; We’re looking at officers’ training and tactics and how they investigate use of force, the oversight of use of force, also how they’re held accountable, and whether there’s de-escalation training. We’re looking at the comprehensive review; we’re looking at cases to see how they unfold, but we’re not doing individual case reviews like a district attorney or a civil rights violation would.

We’re looking at how the department can build better systems so they train officers in de-escalation, reduce the need to use force, make it safer for the community and the officers, and engage in the best practices of 21st century policing. In that case, as cases occur, in many cases it doesn’t change the focus because we’re already looking at use of force from a very comprehensive view. We’re looking at it from the severity of use of force, whether there are racial disparities. We’re looking at systemic issues to change organizational practices and culture.

This is an open individual case that needs to take its course, that needs to be investigated by the people that announced it. We would not interfere or intervene in that investigation because that would not be appropriate for us.

Davis said the DOJ would not focus on addressing community factors like economic and educational disparities and lack of housing in its reform efforts with MPD. Although he agreed with their importance, he was clear about the intent and focus of his division’s work in this instance:

The systemic issues we’re talking about here are the operational systems and systemic issues within a police department and how it polices. But one of the topics we’re talking about is community-oriented policing. Why this is important—and we talk about it when we look at stop data and traffic stops and community policing—is many of the things that contribute to why a community feels disengaged and disenfranchised, the solutions to those require partnerships with city government, the police, and the community. In that sense, as we advocate for and identify what’s working and not working in community policing, you have the kind of relationships in which the police can engage with their community to address a lot of problems in the community from a holistic point of view, which also addresses some of the socioeconomic things that you’re talking about.

In that sense, we won’t evaluate the jobs situation but we will advocate for, and evaluate, under the 21st-century-policing-task-force lens: Are you engaged in the best practice of community policing, where you have the established relationships so that you can problem solve? What’s causing the high crime rate? Why does the community feel disconnected or disengaged? Do you have the kind of trust and legitimacy that you’re supposed to have?  Or are your crime strategies impacting that positively or negatively? I would say we won’t address the socioeconomic issues or challenges in Milwaukee directly, but, indirectly, the stronger the policing system, the greater the relationship between the police and the community, the more they are armed and well partnered to address that collectively and jointly.

MPD seems to already know that some of the communities it polices need tailored services. In District 7, which includes the Sherman Park neighborhood, where the Smith shooting occurred, the department began a partnership with the city’s Mobile Urgent Treatment Team, a 24/7 service comprised of mental-health professionals and social-services staff that offers counseling for children 5 to 17 years old to “lessen the effects of trauma after witnessing violent crimes,” as described in the annual report. It’s telling that such an effort would already be deployed in the same area where the incident and protests took place.

Sergeant Timothy Gauerke, the public-information officer at MPD, said “the Collaborative Reform process between the Department of Justice and the Milwaukee Police Department is ongoing. I don’t have a timeframe of when the process will be complete.” In the department’s last annual report, the police chief, Edward Flynn, said he looked forward to the agreement with DOJ and to “building more community support” as a result.

The DOJ’s final report on Milwaukee is due later this year, to be followed by 18 to 24 months of work with MPD, the city, and its communities to implement the recommendations. The police department’s response and its commitment to the work ahead could be catalysts for meaningful change in the city. Other cities are voluntarily undergoing this type of evaluation, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. But in Brew City, the challenge is magnified by what one native daughter calls “one of the worst places in the country for African Americans to reside.” No DOJ collaboration with a police department can ameliorate an environment that has resulted from decades of discriminatory economic, educational, and housing policies that disenfranchise generations of residents, as is the case in Milwaukee.