Milwaukee Chief: Community Policing Improves Safety & Relations with Residents

Aug 21, 2014

Milwaukee’s police chief wonders whether flaring racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri are due, in part, to a disinvestment in community policing.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has made community policing his priority over six years leading the department.
Credit Photo by Megan Dobyns

Unrest continues in Ferguson, over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed, black teenager.

The situation has sparked a national conversation about the militarization of police departments and racial profiling.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn wants people to consider one reason things may have gotten this way. He says in the 80s and 90s, community policing was all the rage because it deterred crime. Officers developed relationships with residents.

But, “much progress was lost, post 9/11,” Flynn says.

Flynn says after 9/11, homeland security became the new law enforcement focus, even on the local level. Federal money that had gone into community policing instead started beefing up local departments with riot gear, more powerful weapons and anti-terrorism tools – a move politicians and the public supported. Flynn says many are realizing now, the new gear and tactics triggered an atmosphere of mistrust.

The chief says when he took over the MPD six years ago, he reintroduced community policing.

“We don’t just have community meetings. Every one of our district commanders is tightly wired into a network of community leaders – real community leaders, not the ones you see on TV – the people that are invested in their neighborhoods, working on the problems of those neighborhoods with them,” Flynn says.

Flynn says Milwaukee officers have also begun working with community groups to develop leaders in the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods. Generally, they’re blocks steeped in poverty with few glimmers of hope.

“We have broken communities who desperately need high-quality policing that treats them with respect and those are standards we need to be held accountable for, but you would never know the extraordinary texture and nuance of the police engagement with these communities when they’re only characterized by conspicuous failure or something that’s conspicuously newsworthy,” Flynn says.

Flynn says the community expects officers to play many roles, including social workers and crime fighters. And he adds, the job can be like walking a tightrope – preventing violence, but not occupying neighborhoods or targeting certain people. He says the balance residents demand is the nitty-gritty of police work.

“What they want is policing that works hard to know who’s who in the neighborhood, that can draw the distinctions between folks that need to be stopped and asked about what their business are and people are connected to that neighborhood, live in that neighborhood and are trying to live an appropriately conventional life in that neighborhood. They want constitutional policing, they want respectful policing,” Flynn says.

Chief Flynn acknowledges that there have been what he calls “critical incidents.”

For instance, in April at Red Arrow Park downtown, a police officer fired multiple shots at Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old, unarmed black man, killing him. The officer said Hamilton was combative and threatening. The man’s family said he was mentally ill. Prosecutors are reviewing the shooting.

The MPD has also been hit with dozens of civil rights lawsuits, mainly by black men, who claim officers performed illegal strip and cavity searches. In one case resolved this month, a jury ordered two officers to pay a victim more than half a million dollars.

The incidents have sparked protests here, but Flynn points out none have reached critical mass, like what’s going on in Missouri. He contends one explanation may be that better relations exist here between minority residents and police.

“Most people in the afflicted neighborhoods had some connection to the department that was positive and they were willing to suspend judgment until the outcome,” Flynn says.

But some community leaders say the situation here is tenuous, and social conditions simmering in many neighborhoods could boil over. On Friday, the president of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP will share his perspective.