Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Council’s Battle Over Police

Donovan and several aldermen demand more, Hamilton slaps them down. Who’s right?

By - Nov 22nd, 2016 12:20 pm
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Ashanti Hamilton and Bob Donovan.

Ashanti Hamilton and Bob Donovan.

Ald. Terry Witkowski is a veteran Milwaukee Common Council member, but can’t recall anything quite like the recent public battle between aldermen. “In my 11 years on the council I’ve never seen anyone condemn someone’s press release.”

He has now. In response to a press release by Ald. Bob Donovan and signed by three other south side aldermen demanding more police in their districts, council president Ashanti Hamilton released a statement blasting them.

And no, that’s not my language or media sensationalism. The press release Hamilton sent out was headlined (by him or his staff), “Pres. Hamilton blasts council members for divisive and irresponsible press release.”

“I would say it’s a sign it’s not all peace and paradise (on the council),” Witkowski says.

Hamilton won the post of council president in April with an unusual alliance of all the African American council members, who tend to be liberals, and three white aldermen who are more conservative: Donovan, Tony Zielinski and Mark Borkowski, who signed the letter demanding more police (along with Ald. Jose Perez, who did not support Hamilton). Suddenly that coalition looks divided. “It’s the first sign of any crack in the wall,” says Witkowski, the only south side alderman who declined to sign Donovan’s letter.

Beyond the politics is a policy issue, of how the assignment of police should be handled. Chief Ed Flynn has a data-driven approach to policing, that deploys officers based on where the most serious crimes occur. The mayor and council have supported this approach, and the department has been criticized when it has failed to respond quickly to serious crimes.

Donovan’s letter, in essence, proposes assigning policing on a per-population basis. “The five aldermanic districts on the city’s south side are home to approximately 220,000 residents,” the letter notes. “We do not believe we are asking for a disproportionate response but only for our residents’ fair share of police resources. Our constituents are hard-working tax-payers like any others and deserve better.”

To which Hamilton responded: “A strategy that pits neighborhood against neighborhood for policing resources is simply irresponsible, and it is not the direction the council should take… these council members, three of whom serve on the Public Safety Committee, ignored their responsibility to represent the public safety concerns of the entire city.”

For the police chief, assigning cops based on requests from council members would quickly become a nightmare; soon he could have the East Side, Downtown and other areas all pressuring for more police.

Donovan’s letter also suggested the five south side districts have “for quite some time experienced unacceptable increases in response time,” but when asked for documentation of this by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Mary Spicuzza, he released “about a dozen emails from residents, most of which reported prostitution and drug activity complaints and requested more police enforcement on those issues,” Spicuzza reported. “Requests to the other three aldermen for additional details in their districts went unanswered Thursday.”

Meanwhile, Donovan changed his story for Fox 6, suggesting he wasn’t asking for police to be reassigned from the north side of the city. “They’re needed up there without a doubt. I am saying the chief has an obligation to find the officers in other assignments and get them into this neighborhood,” Donovan said.

In short, Flynn is now to blame and simply needs to reassign officers he has on hand somewhere, perhaps “in the attic,” Witkowski jokes.

Donovan has made a living issuing press releases calling for more police, even as he’s regularly opposed budget proposals to pay for officers.The reality is that the city spends the entire property tax levy on police and to add more in the last budget would have been painful, hiking it to a point where the state would have deducted shared revenue to the city under the Expenditure Restraint Program (which punishes municipalities that exceed a prescribed level of spending). “We’d have gotten $17 million less in state aid,” Witkowski says.

As for the politics involved, Witkowski and other members of the council have charged that Donovan is simply carrying water for the police union, which always supports an increase in the force. Donovan’s line to other alderman, Witkowski says, was “you’ll look good to your constituents (in demanding more police). So it’s okay if you ask the impossible.”

Donovan did not respond to requests for comment, but as today’s story on prostitution on Greenfield Ave. suggests, there is reason for Donovan and Perez, whose contiguous districts include the street that’s one of the city’s main areas for prostitution, to be concerned.

But the letter demanding more police was released without first making a request to Chief Flynn or Council President Hamilton. “Ald. Donovan did not check in with the Chief or Assistant Chief in charge of patrol,” MPD spokesperson Timothy Gauerke confirms. Witkowski calls this “politicking by news release.”

It’s all the more questionable for Donovan, since he now chairs the Public Safety Committee. Donovan actually operated in a statesmanlike fashion during the committee’s hearings in the spring. He had every opportunity to raise these issues then, yet now belatedly blasts the city’s approach to policing. If the Public Safety chairman doesn’t agree with these policies, why should any other Common Council member?

As for Hamilton, it’s hard to understand why he would release his blistering press release. The reality is he has all the power. He has the position of council president for four years and during this time appoints the members and chairs of all committees. He merely needs to remind Donovan and the other aldermen who signed this letter of this.

When Willie Hines was council president, he appointed and later removed Donovan as Public Safety Chairman after the latter blamed violence at State Fair on “a deteriorating African American culture in our city.”

That’s the gun Hamilton holds over Donovan’s head. So you have to wonder why be decided instead to get into a losing battle of dueling press releases. Donovan has thrived on such theatrics for years.

Update 10 a.m. November 23: I have heard from some readers questioning my characterization of Ald. Zielinski as leaning conservative. In truth, his politics have been all over map and are difficult to succinctly characterize, as this story makes clear.

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Council’s Battle Over Police”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    No one really looks good here and I can’t really take issue with anything Bruce says. However, something Hamilton said seems highly problematic. He says council members “represent the public safety concerns of the entire city.” Yeah, but each one represents a specific district right, and therefore must be primarily concerned with said district and its residents?

  2. Think this is the head of a three-sided (yes, three) fight for Common Council and future mayoral race control,

  3. “That’s the gun Hamilton holds over Donovan’s head.”

    Maybe not the best choice of words given the topic.

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