Project Milwaukee
3:34 pm
Fri December 20, 2013

Chief Flynn Says Policing Not the Cause of High Rate of Black Male Incarceration

Credit Photos.com

A policy analyst and Milwaukee's Chief of Police offer sharply differing opinions on how law enforcement figures into why so many of Milwaukee's black men are in prison.

Research by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Employment and Training Institute (ETI) found that Wisconsin has the highest percentage of African-American men in prison of any state in the country, and the Milwaukee County's incarceration rate leads the state.

Michael Holzman, who recently wrote about Milwaukee's issues with poverty and black male incarceration for the website Daily Kos, contends the story begins with the criminal justice system - in particular, the Milwaukee Police Department.

"The Chief of Police makes rules about what counts as a crime, where to concentrate forces, and what to do about it," he argues. "So I'd say that the disproportionality of arrests follows some decisions made by the Chief of Police."

Holzman also pointed to policies set by the District Attorney's office about who gets prosecuted, and by the decisions of judges in convictions and sentencing.  

"If you have 10 times as many black people imprisoned in Milwaukee as white people, we're not talking about little shades of gray here. We're talking about something that is shouting out that there is a real serious problem," he says.

Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn says he agrees that a serious problem exists. But he counters that the areas in which African-Americans are being arrested are the areas in which the most serious crimes are taking place, and that's why the Milwaukee Police Department focuses enforcement there.

"Here's what's disproportionate to me," Flynn says. "With about 40 percent of Milwaukee's population, African-Americans represent 80 percent of our homicide victims. They represent 60 percent of our robbery victims and 80 percent of our aggravated assault victims. "

Flynn says he's frustrated that the scrutiny of the criminal justice system only extends to the enforcement side of the coin.

"It's as though the arresting of African-Americans takes place in a vacuum," he says. "If I draw an ellipse over our poorest neighborhoods and then find an ellipse and draw it where our most 911 calls are, and then draw the ellipse over where most of our crime victims are... it's the same neighborhoods and the same zip codes."

Holzman and Flynn also disagree about the role traffic stops and driver's license suspensions play in the incarceration cycle.  The ETI report noted:  

Driver’s license problems limit the access of ex-offenders to jobs throughout the metro area and raise the possibility of arrests for driving-without-a-valid-license offenses.

Holzman argued that police should use more discretion when it comes to charging people with minor offenses resulting from stops on the street.  

"[Officers shouldn't] try to score points or to get good recommendations on the basis of how many people they arrest."

Chief Flynn points out, though, that the vast majority of traffic stops result in no citation at all.  

"We told our officers that if you can possibly give a warning out, do it," he says. Flynn says police data shows even as traffic stops increased from approximately 50,000 per year to 180,000 per year, the number of citations decreased each year.

Flynn argues that thousands more citations could have been written.  

"We're trying to use intelligent discretion and not inadvertently impose a 'poor people's tax'," he says. "Because poverty and street crime are highly concentrated in the same places."

Still, Holzman - who formerly specialized in racial disparities for the Schott Foundation for Public Education - points to New York City, which ended a program of "stop-and-frisk" that targeted black and Latino youth.

 "When a federal judge ruled this was unconstitutional, the number of these things dropped by ninety percent, and the crime rate remained on the same declining curve it had already been on.  So this kind of activity had no effect, except to criminalize a generation of young black adults."