Milwaukee Common Council Overrides Veto, Would Have Power to Fire Police Chief

Nov 8, 2017

Update: 

The Milwaukee Common Council voted 10-5 Tuesday to override the mayor's veto of a resolution that would give aldermen the authority to fire the Police Chief.

The move doesn't give the council a green light to remove Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn from office. Rather, they would have to approve his firing, with a two-thirds vote. And, before that could take place, state lawmakers would also need to take action.

Alderman Bob Donovan was in the majority. And, before the vote, he said the city is in need of change.

Donovan gave a passionate testimony about the public safety challenges he believes are facing Milwaukee. He said there’s a lack of vision, a plan, and leadership. “We’ve got significant, significant problems facing the city of Milwaukee. I believe we need to go in a new direction. I believe we need to make significant changes because the status quo is failing this community.”

A new direction, Donovan would hope, without Chief Edward Flynn at the helm of the police department.

Flynn’s foes criticize him over the city's spike in crime. And they say he's out of touch with residents' concerns.

Donovan said it’s not too much to ask that aldermen have a say in how the department is run. “We have a police chief who has lost confidence of our rank and file officers; he has lost the confidence, I believe, of the majority of council members; he has lost the confidence, I believe, of the majority of fire and police commission members and he is losing the confidence of an increasing number of state legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

The reason state lawmakers' opinions could matter is that the resolution aldermen pushed through requires the Legislature to act.

State lawmakers would have to change the law that dictates the circumstances under which a police chief could be fired.

Michael Murphy was one of the five aldermen who voted against overriding the mayor’s veto.

He said he doesn’t believe the resolution will bring about the changes supporters want. “The question you have to ask yourself is will the change that’s been proffered to the state Legislature make the police or fire chief more accountable to 10 of 15 aldermen or the current system with the independent citizen board confirmed by the council but appointed by the mayor.”

That citizen board is the Fire and Police Commission, which has been in place for more than 100 years.

Executive Director MaryNell Regan said unless the state takes action, the Commission's duties remain unchanged. “We do stand firm to the legal obligations of the Fire and Police Commission which is the only the Fire and Police Commission may remove the chief. So while really it is helpful to hear from elected officials and people and stakeholders, we will take that info and move forward under our statutory obligations.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Barrett reacted to the veto override Tuesday, saying aldermen are injecting politics into the police department.

He said the same can be said for the fire department. The resolution aldermen approved also would give the Council authority to remove the fire chief from office. “I think one of the reasons we’ve been an attractive place for leaders is because it’s not a department where there’s a political agenda that drives the police and fire department and I think for us to retain and attract talent, whether it’s now or in the future, I think someone’s going to look twice if they think, “Oh my goodness this is a place where politics runs their police and fire department.”

Barrett said the decision by the Common Council is bad public policy.

It's unclear when state lawmakers might act on whether to give aldermen the power they're seeking.

Original Story, November 6:

The Milwaukee Common Council Tuesday will again attempt to decide the future of Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Last month, the council narrowly voted to give aldermen the ability to fire the chief. Mayor Tom Barrett immediately vetoed the measure.  The council has scheduled a vote to override the veto. The move is one of several recently aimed at overhauling the current system, which gives firing powers to the Fire and Police commission.

Some Milwaukee aldermen are upset with Police Chief Edward Flynn, because of spikes in the violent crime rate. They also accuse him of being out of touch with residents' concerns.

Ald. Tony Zielinski, one of Flynn's critics, says he hears from constituents nearly every day who complain about escalating crime. He says he’s sent several emails to Flynn in the past few months asking him to participate in efforts to improve police-community relations. The alderman says Flynn never wrote back. Then, Zielinski says the chief gave an unsatisfactory response, when the two ran into each other at City Hall.

“I said ‘hey chief’ and he said hi. I said hey, when are you going to get back to me about those emails? He said, I’m not going to get back to you about those emails.”

Zielinski also is critical of Flynn for not speaking out about Mayor Tom Barrett's proposed cuts to the police department budget. The alderman argues that aldermen have no recourse, if they find a police chief's performance is not up to par. So he backs the resolution that would give the Common Council the power to fire a police chief. The measure would require a two-thirds vote, and a change in state law.

Mayor Barrett dismisses Zielinski’s concerns, saying the current system works just fine. The Fire and Police commission determines the chief’s fate. City leaders set up the citizen panel more than a century ago.

“To take a function that’s been governed by citizen oversight since 1885, so over 130 years, and change that system because an alderman is mad that his email wasn’t answered, I think is the height of pettiness,” Barrett says.

Because Barrett believes the process should stay the same, he also opposes a bill that Republicans have introduced in the state legislature, which would change the makeup of the Fire and Police commission.

Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard is the author. His proposal would require one member of the citizen panel to have professional law enforcement experience and another to have a professional firefighting background. Wanggaard says it’s important to have people on the commission who’ve walked in those shoes.

“When that individual comes on with that law enforcement experience or firefighting experience, the commission can rely on that individual to bring that expertise to the table so that the right questions can be asked, so there’s nothing that is left out of the discussion,” he says.

Professor Stan Stojkovic has studied the hiring and firing procedures for police chiefs across the country. He’s dean of UWM’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. Stojkovic says the citizen-based model works best for a city the size of Milwaukee.

“The Fire and Police Commission is appointed by the mayor, so the mayor obviously has a lot of say through that process. But, the current process seems to be good and I think it’s worked well in the community,” Stojkovic says.

The bill that would change the makeup of Milwaukee’s panel is expected to get a public hearing in coming weeks.