The Milwaukee Plan:
Reducing Crime to Improve Neighborhoods
By Edward A. Flynn
Metaphors matter. So Dr. George Kelling once told me. The “war” on crime and the “war” on drugs are not actually being waged on any front. We cannot wage war on a symptom. We cannot overcome crime or drugs with force. We cannot, as police professionals, be led into employing strategies that alienate us from the very communities that need us the most. We cannot wage war on our citizens.
The Milwaukee Police Department is not fighting a war against anyone. We are committed to creating neighborhoods capable of sustaining civic life; to creating a base level of public safety. We recognize that crime is causing poverty in our most distressed and crime-ridden areas. Crime and the fear it induces drives jobs, investments and opportunities out of our neighborhoods.
To accomplish our mission to take on crime, fear and disorder head-on, we are embracing a community-based, problem-oriented, data-driven policing strategy that emphasizes beat integrity, geographic accountability, the use of problem-solving techniques and a reliance on data to identify threats, measure the results of our interventions, and to hold ourselves accountable to each other and to our community.
Data is driving the Milwaukee Police Department; not merely by increasing the numbers of arrests, but actually by producing the reduction of crime in the city’s most challenged areas. When I shared the 19.4 percent drop in violent crime the city saw in the first six months of 2008, it was not chest thumping but, rather, was emblematic of real change in our neighborhoods. We are working to alter the mental calculus of criminals. We are disrupting their marketplaces, and we are returning the public spaces back to neighborhoods where civic life can thrive and informal social controls take root.
We are engaged in crime prevention, not just first response. We are not solely taking criminals, along with their guns and their drugs off the streets. Our goal is to prevent the next crime.
Crime prevention in the first half of this year has included the establishment of the Neighborhood Task Force (NTF), the Differential Police Response Unit (DPR), the assignment of 57 new police officers to foot beats across the city and building those prevention efforts around the work of our seven districts.
The NTF has brought focus to the efforts of some of the most productive units in the department by combining officers from the Street Crimes Unit, Fugitive Apprehension, Tactical Enforcement Unit, Motorcycle Unit, Canine Unit, Marine Operations and Mounted Patrol. Those officers fully integrate with district officers who know the city’s crime hotspots. The NTF focuses on the areas with the highest potential for violent crime and disorder. Its officers are a mobile, “virtual” eighth police district. Their work with the seven district commanders has resulted in higher visibility, which reduces fear and results in lower crime.
The DPR was formed to create the time for prevention policing—“wholesale” versus “retail” policing. There is a potentially endless demand for police services and the 9-1-1 system has made it very easy to summon the police. But this ease of use threatens to drive the police off the streets. We can’t provide visible, sustained presence in public spaces—the heart of fear reduction—if all our officers are handling, in person, every single thing brought to our attention.
In the DPR, limited duty officers perform police interventions for those calling us for lower priority assignments like noise complaints and harassing phone calls. In the program’s first four months, DPR officers handled 4,554 calls for low priority calls for police—that’s 4,554 times a police officer did not have to stand in someone’s living room to give advice rather than be on the street preventing crime. The DPR does not lessen law enforcement services provided by the police department but enhances police service by allowing squads to patrol where they are most needed for crime prevention efforts. It is a bold move that uses these limited duty officers to perform actual interventions for those calling for police service.
The police officers assigned to foot patrols are a direct result of the DPR and are vital to our “Seize and Hold” plan. Conducting patrol on foot allows the officers an opportunity to feel the support of the community they serve and to instill confidence in that community with their visible presence in the neighborhoods.
When we conduct a large operation in a neighborhood—such as the takedown in February of the 19th Nash Street Boys with our federal partners—we must fill that vacuum with cops and not allow other criminals to compete to fill it. Only our sustained presence can give neighborhoods the confidence to take back their own streets by insisting on civil, respectful behavior from their neighbors. That is what “informal social control” is all about.
In August, I announced a 20-year low in our homicide numbers. As of August 31, the number of homicides was the lowest it has been in 22 years. Not since 1986 has the city recorded 49 homicides in the first eight months of the year, as it has this year.
In the first eight months of 2008, we reported a 25 percent decrease in the number of homicides compared to the same time period in 2007. Additionally, we announced a 45 percent decrease in total firearm-related homicides in 2008 compared to 2007. We also reported decreases this year in the number of victims between the ages of 17 and 24, the number of robbery-related homicides, drug-related homicides and homicides precipitated by argument.
We have made a commitment in the Milwaukee Police Department to lower the violence. We know good police work is not the only variable in controlling homicide. Some of the factors that contribute to our homicide rate are out of our control. But just as we know for a fact that first-rate emergency room doctors have saved lives, so has first-rate police work.
That first-rate police work started early on in my administration when I issued a challenge to the Milwaukee Police Department’s seven district captains to identify their “hotspot” areas and to roll out Neighborhood Policing Plans tailored to their individual districts. Consistent with community policing, we invited the community to attend those meetings and laid out strategies to combat prostitution, gang and drug activity and the gun violence that accompanies it on the North and South Sides, as well as tackling property crime Downtown.
The impressive attendance at those meetings sent a strong message that Milwaukeeans care deeply about their neighborhoods and want to be involved in preserving the safety of their public spaces, or in some cases, resurrecting their vitality. In addition to the frustration over crime and disorder, I have heard the fear of crime echo most strongly.
The Milwaukee Police Department is developing neighborhoods that can sustain civic life. Neighborhoods are the cornerstones of cities. Neighborhoods are the “villages” needed to raise children.
We are helping neighborhoods reassert the informal social controls that have been lost to crime, fear and disorder. Too many neighborhood “villages” have lost the capacity to safely raise their children. In too many neighborhoods, crime has caused, and is causing, poverty: poverty of spirit, poverty of hope, and poverty of opportunity.
The Milwaukee Police Department is part of the criminal justice system. It is also the social agency of first resort for the poor. It is called upon to perform an extraordinary array of social services and crisis responses to every strata of society. The quality of life enjoyed by residents is determined in no small part by how effective the police are in fulfilling their responsibilities.
We expect every neighborhood to understand that public safety is not a spectator sport. Safe neighborhoods are the result of people and their police working together to create communities capable of sustaining civic life. We have a mutual obligation to do our respective parts. We will use every tool at our disposal to create safe places. But residents must do their part. We can control crime; we cannot control the neighborhood children. We can take down criminals. We cannot raise other people’s children. We can seize drugs, guns and money, but we can’t ask another’s child when he comes home how he could afford those new clothes. Too many inevitable homicides are termed tragedies when, in fact, they were inevitabilities; the inevitable result of immature bad choices and disengaged parenting.
While the most visible sign of change in the Milwaukee Police Department has been the switching over to the traditional black and white cruisers, that outward sign is indicative of an inward change, as well.
Being a data-driven police department means that officers on the street need information to properly conduct their crime prevention activities. We know the district commanders get their information from the daily crime data briefings we conduct together first thing in the morning, and now the officers carrying out our daily mission have it, too.
Officers on patrol now have crime mapping capability in their cruisers—literally a picture of what is happening in their squad areas, as well as the daily reports that inform them as to the major crimes within the previous 24 hours. Cops need data now. Through a collaborative effort with the city’s Information and Management Technology Division, we start the day with crime maps custom created for our use in mapping crime throughout the city. Within my first month in the city of Milwaukee, I met with the Greater Milwaukee Committee and asked our business leaders for their advice on dealing with the technology challenges that have plagued the Milwaukee Police Department for far too long. Two companies stepped up—Metavante and Syslogic—to work with us on improving our information systems so we can use technology to make us more efficient and accountable.
Improved technology also allows officers, whether in a car or on a motorcycle, to fill out and print reports and citations from their vehicles, which gets them back out on the street faster. We have a mobile fingerprinting system that allows officers in the field to readily identify individuals based on their fingerprints. And we now have 72 in-squad video cameras—technology that is good for us and good for the community.
When I was sworn in at the beginning of this year, I noted that in this election year, the candidates all were promising change. I promised it, too. The candidates also all proclaim that they will bring “change” and that they are in favor of “change.” In my experience, being in favor of change is a little like being in favor of gravity. Change will come, whether or not you favor it. The only constant in life is change. The question is how will we respond to inevitable change? The problems of society change in degree and magnitude. The problems of a city change in scope and seriousness. The responsibility for those of us in city government is to anticipate, respond to, and mitigate the negative aspects of change while facilitating and encouraging positive change.
In police work, the more things change the more, in some ways, they remain the same. Although the challenges the police must confront change, our fundamental responsibilities do not.
Our tactics for crime reduction over the first six months were built on tactics created by thoughtful commanders and by creative working cops. I have spent eight months hearing the stories and personally observing their courage, competence, ingenuity, commitment, compassion and respect for this department and for those they serve. They have embraced their responsibility for the safety of their communities and I have seen those communities respond positively.
When I became Chief of Police, I committed myself to empowering the command staff and supervisory officers of the Milwaukee Police Department and to developing their potential as leaders. I believe responsibility must be accompanied by sufficient authority to accomplish the mission. I believe in the principles of delegation and accountability. I foster an environment in which responsible risk-taking on behalf of the public good is encouraged and supported. I believe firmly that the police department does not exist to avoid mistakes; it exists to accomplish something important.
My goal is to create an environment in which excellent policing can occur. I want the Milwaukee Police Department to be worthy of the idealism of its officers. I believe that cops count, that properly motivated, trained, equipped and led, they are capable of great things. They have directly made a difference. But more is possible.
We are creating a leadership model in which we are responsible for and to the community; for and to each other. The integrity and culture of honorable policing must be fostered from the top of this organization on down.
I know that the Milwaukee Police Department has been battered and under a siege mentality because of scandals and past acts. I also know that the job of policing is equal parts strategy and motivation.
I have promised an open, accountable, accessible police department responsive to community concerns. It is my hope that, someday, support for the department will be uniformly strong across every neighborhood and from every sector of society. I hope someday that all of our communities will be willing to suspend judgment when there is a critical incident until all the facts are in. But I recognize that we are not there yet. This police department and all its communities have a history and that history has not always been positive. We will work to learn from that history and not be held hostage to it. We will continue to work to earn community trust. Reducing crime, fear, and disorder in our neighborhoods while treating residents with dignity and respect will be our down payment on earning that trust.
I asserted eight months ago on my first day as Chief of Police that daunting challenges lie before us. I said then that I have confidence in this community and in its cops and that sentiment has only grown stronger. Together, we will achieve great things. I said then that “change is coming. It’s coming fast. And it’s inevitable.”
There is much more to come.
Edward A. Flynn is Chief of Police, City of Milwaukee.