Just the Facts, Ma'am

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Guest Post: MPD Chief Edward Flynn: Share my confidence in your police

Police respond to a fatal traffic accident in which a toddler was killed and then the driver subsequently shot to death by a bystander in early April. photo by Mike DiSisti

Police respond to a fatal traffic accident in which a toddler was killed and then the driver subsequently shot to death by a bystander in early April.  photo by Mike DiSisti

This article was re-posted by Craig Schwartz, Santa Rosa PD.

By Edward Flynn, Police Chief of the Milwaukee Police Department

 

As we enter the summer of 2015, on the heels of an unusually violent first half of the year in both Milwaukee and many of our peer cities, I write to provide some context that acknowledges the challenges we face, outlines your police department’s ongoing strategies to reduce crime and make our neighborhoods safer, and remind us all of the accomplishments of the men and women of the Milwaukee Police Department.

In a recent conversation covering the evolution of policing in the past 40 years, which covers the arc of my career, there was frustration that the same criticisms being leveled at the police today were being leveled at the police 40 years ago.

This is despite the fact that over the last 40 years, police have advanced and improved more than any other component of local government. We have become more technologically sound, have higher levels of integrity, are more restrained in the use of force, are more integrated, are more educated, are more carefully trained and are more selectively chosen than ever before. Yet we are hearing many of the same criticisms.

Did the police as a national institution fail? My answer is no. The police evolved. Fast enough, far enough, perfectly enough? No. More than the national narrative wants you to believe? Yes.

So why is there so much frustration and confusion? Because it became easy to delegate the social problems of America to the police. Over the past 40 years, there have been massive disinvestments in mental health care, social services for the homeless, for the disadvantaged, for those who are substance abusers. Our police have become the social agency of first resort for the poor, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Indeed, if one did not know better, one would think society had decided that no social problem is so complicated that it cannot be cured with more training for the police. That is neither accurate nor sustainable. We throw the young, idealistic, service-minded men and women of policing into a social meat grinder and we expect them to perform perfectly at all times. When they err, we do not treat them like soldiers in Afghanistan making a mistake under pressure; we treat them like criminals. This is wrong.

The code of conduct we adhere to in Milwaukee specifically calls on us to distinguish between mistakes in judgment and acts of malfeasance. We hold ourselves accountable under this code because it is the right way to behave and because if we choose not to hold ourselves accountable when we make mistakes or violate the law, no one will believe us when a bad thing happens despite the lawful and within-policy behavior of our officers.

We are data-driven, which sometimes means our efforts to produce and provide information about crime, safety and police activity in Milwaukee is used against us. We accept that reality, frustrating as it might be. While there is no declaration of victory in policing, those who deny progress and decry reforms do a disservice to the communities they purportedly support and the men and women who have chosen to serve their neighbors as police officers.

What are some of our measurements of accountability?

In 2007, there were nearly 500 citizen complaints filed against department members. Between 2007 and 2014, your officers engaged in nearly 1.5 million citizen contacts as part of their proactive policing work. The professionalism of our officers resulted in a 66% reduction in complaints from 2007 to 2014, from 488 to 168. During the same time frame, we reduced the frequency of our use of force by one quarter.

Since 2007, we have experienced a 24% reduction in Part I crime, which is defined by the FBI and includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. From 2008 through 2014, we averaged 87 homicides per year, compared to an average of 108 homicides per year between 2001 and 2007.

A scientific survey was conducted last year to measure citizen satisfaction with police services, and I have asked for the survey to be repeated annually. What did we learn? Nearly three-quarters of the respondents were satisfied with their police department and 73% were satisfied with our visibility in their own neighborhood. There is room for improvement, and we are dedicated to making that improvement. We will continue to engage residents, neighborhood groups, churches, nonprofits, schools and every level of government agency in our community-based efforts.

While we have seen aggregate improvement in crime over the past seven years, there is a spike in crime. This brings pressure to revert to the failed conventional policies of the past. Why? Because there is nothing safer in government than failing conventionally. We know that if you stick with something innovative and you have a temporary setback, the pressure to go back to the failed, stale policies of the past is overwhelming. I will not do that. We have had measurable success, and we will continue to have success without sacrificing the support of the disadvantaged neighborhoods that rely on their police.

We cannot deny there is a national narrative of negativity regarding race and police, and that negativity — as righteous or exaggerated as it might be — has a detrimental effect on both the morale of our officers and on the perspectives of the public alike.

But the greatest danger to the healthy growth and development of young African-American men in our central cities is being murdered, wounded or maimed by someone who looks just like them. We are committed to dealing with that. We are committed to dealing with it justly. We are committed to doing it in a manner that holds us accountable to our professional standards. At the same time, we are not going to be intimidated into not doing our job.

No agency of government is more accountable for its role in accelerating positive social trends, retarding negative social trends and making a difference in the neighborhoods of a city. We are continuing to engage with neighborhoods to build their ability to advocate for themselves.

All of our officers, upon finishing field training, are strategically assigned to neighborhoods with high rates of violence in order to provide a strong and accessible police presence. We are continuing to use data to guide our deployments and we have launched a visible, enforcement-oriented presence in our high-crash areas to reduce the sharp increase in injuries and deaths we have experienced this year.

I am proud of this department and I am proud of the progress it has made. I have seen the work your officers perform. I have seen the pressures under which they operate. I have been at the scenes of terrible incidents where they are exposed to the worst human conduct imaginable, and I have watched them maintain their dignity, calmness and professionalism. I have proudly presented them with hundreds of medals for heroism, valor, lifesaving and restraint. And while I sometimes fear my pride in them comes across as arrogance, I am confident our continued work with the people we swore to protect is worthy of their support and esteem.

I am proud to serve this agency and this city, and I invite you to share my confidence in your police.

Edward Flynn is chief of the Milwaukee Police Department.

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