Hines Would Reduce Fire & Police Commission Power
Council appears to back radical change, Barrett seems lukewarm.
Since 1885, the Fire & Police Commission has hired and fired Milwaukee’s police and fire chiefs, but a proposal backed by Common Council President Willie Hines and other aldermen would end that practice.
“I think the mayor should be able to appoint the chiefs directly and be approved by the council,” Hines says. “That’s what the people want. Residents call us and they want a response to issues (involving the police department) and unfortunately we can’t do anything.”
Under the current system, the mayor appoints citizen members of the Fire & Police Commission, which hires and fires the two chiefs. While FPC members are unlikely to appoint someone the mayor doesn’t want, the council has no power over the process.
“The system basically institutionalizes a lack of accountability,” Ald. Bob Bauman complains. “The police chief is totally inaccessible to common council members.” Direct appointment, Bauman adds, “would very quickly change the relationship between those departments (police and fire) and the city.”
“I believe the elective representatives must play a greater role than just writing checks for these departments,” Hines says. “And that’s all we do. The fire and police budgets make up the entire tax levy. Those are large budgets we’re approving and we have no oversight over them.”
Mayor Tom Barrett didn’t close the door to the idea, but didn’t leap to embrace it. “We would be open to the conversation,” his spokesperson Jodie Tabak says. “But there would still have to be a citizen role for the commission.”
The proposal would ultimately require action by the state legislature to change a state law that’s been on the books for more than 125 years. How likely is that? Tabak, saying she was speaking only for itself, says, “I would guess it would be difficult.”
Controversy erupted over the Fire & Police Commission after it overturned Police Chief Ed Flynn’s decision to fire officer Richard Schoen for excessive use of force. The commission later reversed itself and upheld the firing. Adding more controversy was the case of Derek Williams, who died in police custody, and charges against four officers for involvement in illegal strip-searches, all of which focused attention on the police department and whether stricter oversight of Chief Ed Flynn’s leadership was needed.
Some citizen critics have demanded the commission be restructured so it’s more accountable to the public. Ald. Milele Coggs and others have called for appointments to the commission to be “vetted” by the public, though how that would differ from the current system, where the Common Council approves mayoral appointees to the commission, has never been specified. (Coggs did not respond to my interview requests.)
“We’ve talked to Milele,” Barrett says. “She wants a community consensus on an individual appointment.” Barrett says he welcomes suggestions from the community on people to appoint and that the approval process by the common council “is the point where community input can come in.”
But that’s clearly not enough for some critics. Barrett’s recent choice of Ann Wilson to fill a vacancy on the commission got a thumb’s down from a group of community leaders, including Rev. Willie Brisco, president of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope, and James Hall, president of the NAACP- Milwaukee Branch. They seemed to see Wilson, the manager of the Milwaukee Housing Authority’s Hillside Family Resource Center, as a Barrett loyalist who would not operate independently enough.
“While we are not taking a position on the character of Ms. Wilson,” their press release said, “it appears that Mayor Barrett’s choice is driven by political expediency. His consultation in this selection was with known political allies rather than community leaders that have been critical of his leadership, the leadership of Chief Flynn and the failures of the commission itself.”
Barrett has been careful to appoint a racially balanced group to the FPC. Wilson is African American and Barrett promises to appoint a Hispanic to fill the spot vacated by Carolina Stark after she was elected judge. Once this last appointment is made, “a majority would be people of color,” Barrett notes, and would include three whites, two blacks, one Hmong-American and one Hispanic.
Barrett also says he is considering expanding the commission from seven members to nine, in order to provide “more members from the community.”
“I think even some of my detractors think that the Fire & Police Commission is working,” Barrett adds.
But as Barrett has tinkered around the edges of the commission, there is a growing sense that aldermen want major change. They want more “collaboration and communication” with the FPC, as Ald. Joe Davis puts it: “When was the last time the chair of the Fire & Police Commission came before the Common Council? That’s the kind of transparency the public wants.”
Hines says “a better balance needs to be struck,” meaning less power for the FPC and more for the Common Council. To that end, Ald. Terry Witkowski,, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, asked Milwaukee’s Legislative Reference Bureau to study how other cities handle this. But as the bureau’s research analyst Jeff Osterman notes, the bureau was given just a week to do this, and therefore could only review past research. “This is thin gruel,” he says, “and its ten years old.”
The brief study looked at the cities of Austin, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Detroit and found that none allowed its citizen oversight committee to do “all four major activities: hire/fire chief, rulemaking directives to chief, disciplinary appeals and citizen complaints.”
But that was enough for Bauman, who says it shows the FPC has too much power.
However thin the bureau’s research, its central point may be true. As Mark Doremus has previously reported for Urban Milwaukee, the FPC was studied by a national consultant back in 2006, which resulted in a number of recommendations that were incorporated, which helped make the commission a “uniquely powerful” citizen board, as FPC executive director Mike Tobin noted.
Now the goal is to take some of that power away. Hines says the Common Council already approved, toward the end of last year, a legislative file that included all the items it wants the city lobbyists to push for with the state legislature, and that included a proposal to have direct mayoral appointment and council approval of the police and fire chiefs. “I believe all 15 council members supported it,” Hines says. Now, they just need to find a state legislator to champion the proposal, he adds.
Will Barrett support such a law? That remains to be seen. When the council passed this file, Hines says, “there was no indication that this what the mayor wanted.”
-Bauman argues that Barrett’s appointments to the FPC could be stronger. “I think the mayor can do a much better job of finding applicants who have a legal background, or a background in police science or human resources. The commission members operate as a court, with rules of evidence. It’s extremely legalistic. Retired judges like Louis Butler and Russell Stamper [father of current county Sup. Russell Stamper II] would be perfect candidates.”
-As my last column noted, the Journal Sentinel’s county reporter Steve Schultze has ignored the evidence that the county board has beefed up its staff and budget since the 1970s even as the size of county government has declined. But JS reporter David Umhoefer did a recent “Politifact” column which found that the county has dropped from 11,340 to 4,397 employees while its staff has grown from eight employees to 38 employees.