The War Against Chief Flynn
Why is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel trashing the city’s best police chief in decades?
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.”
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.