Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The War Against Chief Flynn

Why is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel trashing the city’s best police chief in decades?

By - Jun 18th, 2012 11:12 am
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Police Chief Ed Flynn

Police Chief Ed Flynn

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is at war against Police Chief Ed Flynn.

Flynn has called it a “witch hunt,” which is a bit exaggerated, but there’s no doubt the newspaper has lost all perspective on Flynn, and is engaged in gotcha journalism that’s intended to undermine him.

Consider its most recent watchdog series on the police department, which found the department misreported hundreds of cases as simple assaults rather than as aggravated assaults, which is a felony and one of the major violent crimes.

This could have been a snoozer story about bureaucratic errors in computer coding, which resulted in a minor, three percent difference in how violent crime was recorded. But the JS instead went front page, top-of-the fold, suggesting Flynn had exaggerated the decline in crime on his watch and running quotes from experts calling the mistakes “suspicious” and proof of a “failure of leadership,” a likely sign of deliberate misreporting and “cheating the public.”

These are heinous charges, not ones to make lightly. Yet the Journal Sentinel did this in a story that is filled with logical and evidentiary holes.

If the idea is that Flynn is trying to cook the books, then you would want to go back to 2007, and compare how assaults were coded under his predecessor, chief Nan Haggerty. The newspaper made no attempt to do this.

In their interview with Flynn, which the police department taped, the chief noted that if there were coding errors in 2011, he would guess the error rate would be the same “in years past going all the way back to 2006.” But the newspaper didn’t feel it was important to include this quotation.

The newspaper cited 214 errors in coding of assaults for 2011 and concluded this meant violent crime increased by 2 percent that year rather than declining 1 percent. Of course if there were just as many assaults miscoded in 2010, this would mean the relative decline in crime reported for 2011 was still the same. I emailed reporter Ben Poston and asked what was the number of assaults misclassified in 2010. He declined to answer.

This seems to be a pattern. My old colleague Erik Gunn did a column for Milwaukee Magazine noting another evidentiary hole: since the newspaper never disclosed the total number of cases it looked at, we have no idea what percent of the codings were erroneous. Was it one or 10 or 15 percent? That makes a huge difference in evaluating both the seriousness of the problem and whether this might be an attempt to cook the books. Poston declined to answer this question from both Gunn and me.

If Flynn has something to hide, you might wonder why he asked the FBI do do an audit of Milwaukee Police data last year (the audit is due this fall). Poston’s story notes that the FBI audits “typically cover a few hundred reports” whereas “the Journal Sentinel’s investigation included some 60,000 cases.”

That sounds impressive. But did the newspaper actually review all 60,000 cases? And if not, what was the number Poston actually reviewed? And of that number of cases what percent were misclassified? Poston declined to answer all three questions.

Flynn has offered other challenges to the newspaper: “Have you compared the error rate to other cities? And to other cities using the Tiburon computer system?” The answer again is no. Flynn notes that Kansas City has run into coding problems using the Tiburon system.

This might be asking a lot of the newspaper, but only if it is doing a story with the flagrant claim that violent crime has been underreported, rather than the story it actually proved, that some computer errors have occurred. You could argue the Journal Sentinel is more guilty of misinterpreting data than Chief Flynn.

And this was simply the latest installment of gotcha articles on Flynn. A series on transgressions by police officers made it sound like the chief went easy on rogue cops. In fact, the story’s data went back 31 years and 86 percent of the cases occurred before he became chief. And the median discipline had increased significantly under Flynn. But you’d never know any of this reading this story.

Another story purporting to prove response time to crimes had badly declined under Flynn buried a graph showing that eight of the nine minutes increase in response time had actually occurred under Flynn’s predecessor.  Meanwhile citizen complaints about the department and about response time had actually declined under Flynn — but the story left out this information.

The newspaper told readers Poston started working on the crime data story back in 2010, whereas Poston told Gunn he’d worked on the story for three months. Whichever is the case, they waited to interview him until the very last minute. “Their modus operandi is to come up with a premise, do all the reporting and then interview us the day before the story runs,” Flynn complains.

“The Journal Sentinel took an ounce of truth and used it to spread a pound of lies,” charges Ald. Nik Kovac. “They’ve strongly implied in every article that there weren’t mistakes but deliberate actions to cook the books. Their goal is to attack the chief.”

Not surprisingly, the newspaper hasn’t sought such quotes from Kovac (though they are all over his Facebook page) or from other supporters of Flynn. But they’ve quoted the only two alderman to offer criticism of Flynn.

If Flynn is cooking the data, this would mean his subordinates have been ordered to do so. Why then haven’t any police gone to their union to complain, Flynn asks. The union has been a frequent critic of Flynn (and every other chief). “If they had a formal complaint to make you would bet their ass they would do it,” Flynn declares.

Flynn continues to anger the paper by criticizing its reporting and demanding $10,000 from the JS for data it has requested. I doubt Flynn can prove it will cost $10,000 in staff time to process the data: I suspect the courts will support the newspaper. But considering the run of distorted stories done on him, you can understand why the chief has taken this tack.

In response, the entire Journal Sentinel company has gone after Flynn. The chief called a press conference which was attended by JS reporter Bill Glauber, who accused Flynn of using the $10,000 charge to hide out from the truth, which of course generated an equally sharp response from Flynn. (I’m guessing the JS sent Glauber because he would do the best job of provoking Flynn.) Channel 12, an objective observer, described the scene accurately as a “shouting match” between the two.

By contrast, WTMJ radio and TMJ Channel 4 and the Journal Sentinel all did stories using the same phrase, portraying Flynn as “storming out” of a news conference. Or as the Journal Sentinel’s columnist Jim Stingl put it: “It’s just a chair’s throw away from a Jerry Springer moment.”

Meanwhile, the paper’s writers have hammered the idea that Flynn could be distorting crime data. James Causey did an entire column based on one Riverwest resident’s contention that violent crime hasn’t gone down. Or as Stingl put it in his column on Flynn, “Crime is down, or at least he says it is.”

Extraordinary. Five years of police department data on hundreds of thousands of crimes are now reduced to mere opinion.  Quite a slap at someone who is considered one of the nation’s top police chiefs. I think most long-time observers of the Milwaukee department would say Flynn is the best top cop in many decades. But he has dared to challenge the newspaper, and when that happens it circles the wagons and returns fire from all directions. You can bet the run of negative stories on the chief will continue.

Meanwhile, most Common Council members have resisted rushing to judgement, and are waiting for Flynn’s testimony Thursday before the council’s Public Safety Committee. “We’ve only heard from one side at this point,” says Common Council President Willie Hines.

Sources at the police department tell me the chief will present data at this meeting going back six years showing a similar pattern of errors in how aggravated assaults have been coded. If he does, it will be interesting indeed to see how the Journal Sentinel reports it.

Categories: Murphy's Law

24 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The War Against Chief Flynn”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Outstanding article. Bruce, you are a champion and I hope readers of this site do what they can to take this article viral.

    I would also think that this weird vendetta helped Scott Walker win the recall by making the city look bad.

  2. Justin Bielinski says:

    Thanks for the good reporting, Mr Murphy. I’ve enjoyed several of your pieces, and I wish the Journal-Sentinel were as thoughtful as you.

  3. Chuck Peirce says:

    According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the errors of 1,500 Police recording and coding thousands and thousands of incidents is about 3%. Is that significant? How many times have your errors filling out a simple form on the web got it kicked back to you?

    If anything, the error rate is suspiciously low considering the nature of police work (they are not accountants), and add all the stress of the job. Humans work within tolerances that account for natural variation and dispersion of any process.

    As noted in this post, the only relevant statistic would be a comparison of the margin of error of Flynn’s administration over time or to that of his predecessor. Now, that would be a big job. What would you expect the Milwaukee Journal’s error rate for reviewing hundreds of thousands of reports?

  4. CJ says:

    Thanks again for a cool head on the issues. I can only talk about my neighborhood unfortunately, but the response, presence and commitment of the police under Flynn has been excellent. He has a true commitment to his job.

  5. Juli Kaufmann says:

    I have lived in the City of Milwaukee for nearly 20 years as an adult. For about half that time, I lived on the near north side and I now reside on the near south side. In all of my situations, crime and quality of life issues have been concerns- sometimes in small ways and other times in very large and personal ways.

    Crime is caused by criminals. We all have roles to play in deterring crime and that certainly includes the police department. Since the time Chief Flynn took over, my family has noticed a significant improvement in how the police respond to our concerns. We have proactive community police liaisons and we regularly see patrols (by car, by bike and even on horseback) working to prevent issues in hotspot areas. We have noted a marked improvement in how we are treated with respect by police on the beat. In every way, we have personally experienced a police department that meets or exceeds our expectations. As my husband often likes to say – “Chief Flynn is MY chief, and as far as I am concerned, he walks on water.” While I stop short of deifying the chief, I honor his leadership because in my personal experience it matters and it is working.

    Thanks for the perspective in this post. I have read the JS articles with some level of fear, concerned that we will force out somebody who is making a real difference in Milwaukee. No man or woman is perfect, but I know a leader when I experience one.

  6. KF says:

    Great article Bruce! Have any of these issues been raised to other individuals at the newspaper to see if there is any response from the paper? I view this as a reporting issue affecting the credibility of the paper.

  7. Lydia Barrett says:

    Thank you Bruce for this excellent article. I appreciate your forthrightness and courage to speak out on this. I’ve been following the news coverage on this, and have been appalled by the continued blatant attacks on Chief Flynn and MPD by the local media and in particular, the Journal Sentinel media.

    I work with law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and have had the privilege of working with Chief Flynn and his team for several years. He and his staff have always impressed me with their performance, and dedication and commitment to keeping safety, peace and order in Milwaukee. Chief Flynn is indeed one of the top cops in the country and well respected by his peers and supporters for his leadership, integrity and innovation in advancing policing. I’m honored to work with him and MPD.

  8. Rob says:

    Via Twitter, I twice asked Ben Poston for clarification on the number of cases they reviewed that were actual simple/aggravated assaults, but he never responded. He did quickly denounce Bruce for noting the “war” between JS and Flynn, though, so take that as you will.

    I’m also troubled by the lack of statistical perspective the JS story provided — an error rate that low does not suggest a concerted effort to miscode crimes, but the JS has done nothing to explain their methodology. If they have no smoking gun revealing intentional concealment of the real crime stats, they’re going to come out of this looking even worse than they currently do.

  9. Tom Francisco says:

    Flynn’s behavior falls into a pattern or morally questionable, if rarely outright illegal, deceit. Look into his departure from the Springfield, MA police department, which he carefully timed to maximize his own retirement payout while leaving a city he had promised to clean up in the lurch. His personal peccadilloes are another issue, and he has had girlfriends in every city not just Milwaukee, but they don’t make him a sympathetic character. All of these minor things add up to a guy who is going to be scrutinized and occasionally crucified. Hard to blame the JS for their stance.

  10. Barbara says:

    I like the war between the chief and the JS. Someone has to hold the chief’s feet to the fire bcuz he has no integrity. Bruce u should come out in our neighborhoods and just watch how many Black folks rights are violated. Feels like South Africa during Apartheid. Ad the recent killing of the 13 year old boy, where they held his mom in the car for almost 2 hours while, her son lay there dead. They never would have done that to any white mother and that is unacceptable. How whites view the chief here is very different than most Black people view him. U count the numbers, if u wake up every morning for 3-4 months to shootings, stabbings etc. would u say crime was down smh.

  11. Dave Tatarowicz says:

    This is just part of an ongoing pattern of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel trying to kiss up to the Out-Burb Conservatives, in an effort to increase their circulation base into more lucrative demographics.

    The best example of their pandering to the Tea Folks was their endorsement of Scott Walker for governor — and the re-endorsement in the recall.

    The Journal’s re-endorsement was almost comical, as they first went through a whole list of Walker gaffes — and then said he should not be recalled !!

  12. Dave F says:

    Well done as you provide a fair perspective. I think you have asked many of the right questions concerning the short comings of the MJS analysis of the data. My opinion on this issue will not be created until the analysis is complete. At that point, I hope we will have the data comparisons that allows us to have an educated point of view.

  13. Chuck Peirce says:

    Tom Francisco post talks about the Chiefs morals and concludes….”he has had girlfriends in every city not just Milwaukee, but they don’t make him a sympathetic character. All of these minor things add up to a guy who is going to be scrutinized and occasionally crucified. Hard to blame the JS for their stance.”

    I am very confused. The issue at moment is about facts, numbers, and what we can learn from them regarding two issues of great pubic importance…. credibility of the police reporting of crime and the credibility of our only newspaper’s reporting on Flynn. Would anyone, including Mr Francisco, want stories about the Chief’s private life to muddy these waters?

    You may think the Chief is getting what he deserves according to your moral compass, but victims of this egregiously bad press coverage is the public that deserves better reporting on issues of civic significance.

  14. xoff says:

    This smells like a Journal Sentinel quest for a prize.

  15. George Mitchell says:

    Once George Stanley is invested in a story, the die is cast.

    With the advent of alternative media Flynn has an opportunity. He should use it. He also should support an independent review.

  16. Mark McLaughlin says:

    Good work, Bruce. Keep it up.

  17. Chuck on the northside says:

    Keep up the good reporting, Bruce.
    I support the progress Chief Flynn has made with crime. Going back to the Art Jones era is not an option.

  18. GPM says:

    It’s too bad the Journal Sentinel lacks the integrity of a media outlet that paid a reporter to profile Flynn while they were also engaging in an affair with him. One could say that other media outlets have rose-colored glasses when it comes to Flynn.

  19. Erik Gunn says:

    I rarely comment on blog posts other than my own, and my friend and former editor Bruce Murphy doesn’t need me to defend him, but please, @GPM, No. 18, at least get your facts straight.

    No one has denied that the affair you refer to did not reflect well on the parties involved. But it is a falsehood to state that an affair took place while the reporter was profiling the chief. And it is a further falsehood to insinuate, as you do, that Milwaukee Magazine assigned or ran the story with any knowledge of that relationship — which, again, had not even taken place yet.

  20. George Mitchell says:

    The Journal Sentinel coverage of the affair was irresponsible.

  21. Bill Sweeney says:

    The Journal Sentinel would display courage and responsibility to their readership by printing this article on their Perspectives page.

  22. Concerned Citizen says:

    The excuse that “Everyone is doing it” or “everyone has done it this way” does not make it “right” or any less severe. We can’t turn back time and change what other Police Chiefs did in the past, nor should any comparison to other city’s errors be relavant.

    This article states 2 things that I disagree have any relevance:
    1.”If the idea is that Flynn is trying to cook the books, then you would want to go back to 2007, and compare how assaults were coded under his predecessor, chief Nan Haggerty. The newspaper made no attempt to do this.”
    2. “Have you compared the error rate to other cities?”

    Analogy: Just because just about everyone has driven above the speed limit since cars were invented, or just because every other driver in every other city currently speeds – is NO EXCUSE for me to do it today. It does not make it any more right (or wrong).

    It is how things are done TODAY that matter, and Chief Flynn should worry soley on what he needs to resolve the CURRENT situation in his OWN department and not worry about how previous Police Chiefs did things, and how current Police Chiefs do things in an attempt to some way justify that his department’s errors are “o.k.” I don’t care if other cities use the same Tiburon computer system – WHO CARES – it is humans that need to be held accountable for the accuracy of the data whether it is hand-written wrong, typed in wrong, or coded wrong.

    That said, Chief Flynn needs to be held accountable as the leader, but there are other obvious failures as it appears to me that whoever is in charge of auditing these things fell asleep a LONG time ago.

  23. cmb53703 says:

    I left Milwaukee several years ago for Madison partly due to the crime. When Chief Flynn came on the scene, I had my doubts at first and thus far I have to say it looks like he’s doing a pretty good job. His affair with Jessica McBride was disconcerting, but it takes two to tango: she’s just as responsible as he is.

    When one reads the J/S articles, it appears that this practice was widespread. But 3% does strike me as a reasonable error rate. And crime is coming down, as are complaints against officers. And his response to folks “occupying” the North Avenue bridge was downright classy, especially since the response by the Oakland, New York, and Seattle was to beat and pepper spray them.

    There seems to be a desire on the part of Milwaukee media and leadership to take down anyone who’s doing their job well: Bo Black was practically run out of town and now they have Flynn in their sights

  24. Alex says:

    The above commentor’s quote is one to consider carefully: “There seems to be a desire on the part of Milwaukee media and leadership to take down anyone who’s doing their job well.”

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