Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Chief Jones Won’t Go Away

By - Sep 9th, 2001 07:44 am
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Tom Everson has seen everything in the many years he’s compiled crime statistics for the state’s Office of Justice Assistance, but he is struck by the data he’s getting from the City of Milwaukee. The number of adults arrested in the city has plummeted in recent years, dropping from 81,123 in 1998 to 53,684 last year.

“The bottom dropped out,” he says. “The decline is pretty much across the board, for all offenses. That big a drop, you wonder what it means. Whatever is happening there is happening throughout the department.”

What’s happening is that Milwaukee’s police “are afraid to do their job,” argues Robert “Woody” Welch, the head of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.

Since Arthur Jones took over as police chief, the number of internal investigations has risen astronomically, from 268 in 1996 to 550 in 1997 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 in 2000.

When nearly every officer in the department is either being investigated or being questioned regarding an investigation of a colleague, police may think twice about what they do. “Because the more you do, the bigger the chance you’ll be investigated,” police union attorney Laurie Eggert has argued.

For confirmation of that theory, consider the clearance rate, the percentage of crimes cleared by police. That rate has declined by an astounding 25 percent since Jones took over, dropping from 16.8 percent in 1996 to 12.4 percent in 2000. National rates for last year are not available, but between 1996 and 1999, the clearance rate for the 60 biggest cities in America actually increased slightly, from 19 percent to 19.4%. (Click at left for complete run-down of clearance rates.) Milwaukee is clearly bucking the trend nationally.

“There’s been a precipitous drop in homicides nationally,” Welch notes. “And that’s not happening here. There has to be a reason.”

In fact, as a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story showed, Milwaukee had the lowest decline in homicides in 20 of 21 cities studied. Just how much a department can do about murders is a matter that can leave experts disagreeing. But the number of arrests made by police, or the number of crimes they clear, says something about the sheer level of activity, about how hard they are trying to police the city. The issue of “morale,” says Welch, can be an “amorphous thing,” but “you look at the numbers and it would suggest there is really a problem.”

Given all the negative stories about problems in the police department, you might imagine that Chief Jones would consider stepping down, but this is a man with the tenacity of a pit bull. For some 20 years, from 1967 to the mid 1980s, Jones endured the worst sort of prejudice and intimidation as a police officer under the autocratic Chief Harold Breier. Because Jones formed the League of Martin to fight racism in the department, the department subjected him to numerous internal investigations. While in the field, Jones was left without back up, which endangered his life.

“He’s a guy who’s put up with a lot,” says Welch. “Yes, he’s gone through hell.”

Jones, in short, is used to weathering tough situations, and clearly is not going to step down from his position just because Welch and Mayor John Norquist have suggested it. “He’s not going to go away,” Welch concedes.

Indeed, it would not be surprising if Jones campaigns in the community for another term as chief, when his current one expires in 2003. As the recent citizens rally at St. Anthony Church proved, he has become a divisive figure. The meeting pitted some of Jones’ supporters, many of whom were African American, against his mostly white critics.

In the midst of this contentiousness, the attitude of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board is a curious one. It is the newspaper’s reporters who have been leading the negative stories about Jones. Columnists Spivak and Bice did the story documenting the astonishing increase in internal investigations. The editorial board responded with an editorial supporting Jones. Huh?

Since then, the newspaper has done a story documenting that resignations by officers have risen 55 percent in the Jones era, while Spivak and Bice did a story showing that disciplinary actions against police have risen fourfold under Jones. The editorial board responded with an equivocal article that conceded some problems but spent more time criticizing Welch and Norquist for their bad manners. The two are engaging in “histrionics” and instead “should make the case for Jones’ dismissal plainly and dispassionately.”

Doesn’t the editorial board read its own newspaper? If a case needed to be made for dumping Jones, its reporters have done this, in several installments. As for “histrionics,” Norquist attempted to meet privately with Jones to suggest he resign, only to have Jones leak the discussion to the MJS and condemn the mayor for this. As for trying to dismiss Jones, the newpaper’s reporters have already explained that any attempt to do this would get tied up in the courts and is unlikely to succeed.

The editorial board might have chastised Jones for tactics that its reporters have demonstrated are wreaking havoc within the department. If it wanted to criticize Norquist, it might have noted that he’s failed, twice now, to appoint a truly effective police chief. Both Jones and his predecessor Phil Arreola turned out to be a disappointing, even to Norquist himself.

I suppose we can all agree that Welch went overboard in comparing Jones’ leadership to Stalinist Russia (though it made awful good copy for the MJS), but the issue of how the police department should be run is one that will not go away and that needs discussion, even if it gets a little impassioned. One wonders how effectively the MJS would function if the majority of its reporters were under internal investigation by the editor.

Welch is now proposing initiating an extended community discussion before the next police chief is chosen, “to find those issues that are of concern to the community.” Normally, he notes, the Fire and Police Commission takes an eight-month period to search for a new chief. “I think we need to advance that process,” he says, meaning it would start earlier and last longer.

“What is it going to take to galvanize our community?” he asks. “Our children are being shot in the street. What transformed Boston is the community said stop. We need to do something like that here.”

But that discussion will not get very far when the police chief brooks no criticism of his operations, and the city’s major opinion leader wears blinders that are nearly as thick.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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