Should Chief Flynn Resign?
The city is divided over the chief. But is it all his fault?
Police chiefs are often a lightning rod for criticism. But that hardly begins to describe Ed Flynn, who’s become a kind of super receptor attracting mega-zaps of controversy on a 24/7 basis.
Community groups like Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope and Milwaukee Peace Action have called for him to resign, due the death of suspect Derek Williams in police custody. The chief’s response was unwisely defiant: “If they think they can accomplish that, I welcome them to try. But I’m not going anywhere.”
Flynn is now bedeviled by the usual problem for a police chief, trying to please both the minority community, which is rightly concerned about police brutality, and and the law and order types like conservative talk radio (which still supports him). In his early years, Flynn did outreach to the minority community and seemed to have connected well, but those days are long gone.
It is extraordinary just how divided Milwaukee has become on this issue. The Journal Sentinel has hammered the chief repeatedly with negative stories, its columnist James Causey has called for Flynn to resign and there have been several community protests lambasting the chief. Meanwhile, County Executive Chris Abele has so much faith in the police chief he has a proposed a deal to have the Milwaukee Police Dept. take over patrolling the parks from the Sheriff’s Department. Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council have so far stood by the chief, though Barrett and a dozen aldermen have joined the NAACP in urging a federal investigation of Williams death.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the way Williams was handled: starting with the police officers who let him die in custody to those who investigated it afterwards, including Flynn, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the Fire and Police Commission and most notably, Milwaukee County Medical Examiner, Christopher Poulos, whose office declared Williams’ death “natural,” only to more recently contradict that with a ruling of “homicide.” But curiously, there are only calls for Flynn to resign. Why is that?
Governing Magazine recently did a very positive piece about Flynn’s approach to handling crime that the JS has ignored. Maybe that’s because the magazine references the newspaper’s criticism of police response time under Flynn while providing a competing and quite compelling description of Flynn’s approach.
Nationally, the advent of the 911 emergency call system, the story notes, helped push police departments into an emphasis on radio patrol cars chasing the ever-rising number of 911 calls. “Officers were measured not by how many crimes they prevented,” the story notes, “but by how quickly they responded, notwithstanding research that suggested that quick police responses only rarely increased the probability of an arrest being made.” As a result, crime kept rising and departments needed ever larger forces to respond to the calls.
Flynn’s approach, the magazine explains, was to create a sophisticated system that screens 911 calls and prioritizes them, with officers handling minor stuff with a phone call. “Surveys conducted every month by the police department show that more than 80 percent of residents who deal with a DPR unit are satisfied by the experience,” the story notes.
The story does note potential problems with Flynn’s approach, but it is a largely positive piece about a chief “with national significance” whose approach might be a model for other police departments.
Now contrast that to the dreadful series by JS reporter Ben Poston claiming response time to crimes had badly declined under Flynn. The story failed to provide Governing’s thorough description of how and why crime rose under the old way of policing. Meanwhile, Poston offered no proof that Flynn’s approach had resulted in less arrests, didn’t report that citizen complaints about response time had actually declined under Flynn, and buried a graph showing that eight of the nine minutes increase in response time had actually occurred under Flynn’s predecessor.
The JS, which once operated more like the state’s paper of record, where all the important issues are examined from several sides, has now become a publication that chases journalism awards with gotcha stories. Balanced reporting of the kind Governing does and the JS used to routinely practice won’t win those awards. And so this community has gotten hyped headlines with slanted stories about the department: its unbalanced expose about a “racial bias” in traffic stops by police undoubtedly lent more outrage to the protests by the black community regarding the death of Derek Williams.
Another case in point: JS reporter Gina Barton has repeatedly reported that Chief Flynn waited ten months to release the video of Williams death. That’s misleading. Barton requested the video and lots of other materials on November 21, 2011 but was told by the police department the video is evidence in an ongoing internal investigation. “We didn’t come up with that policy out of thin air,” says the department’s chief of staff Joel Plant, “that’s state law. Any evidence in an ongoing investigation can’t be released.”
After the investigation was completed on May 9, Barton made another formal request. On June 26, the department responded, sending her 77 pages of documents requested but denying the video because under the law the family of Derek Williams must give permission to release it. From there, the situation gets murky. Barton claims she was in constant contact with the family and they wanted the video released. Plant says the Journal Sentinel lawyer rather than the family’s lawyer Robin Shellow got involved in the issue of getting a waiver from the family and that it took “a month and a half” for the family to agree. After that it took even longer because the first waiver form wasn’t done in the correct legal fashion. Once it was done correctly the department immediately released the video.
In this case, I don’t blame the JS for suspecting they were being stonewalled, but there are clearly legal procedures involved here. Surely somewhere they need to give the full history of why the video wasn’t released for ten months. Increasingly, in all of its stories about the police department, the newspaper itself is a player in the disputes and declines to be fully transparent about this. As a result, readers — and the community at large — are denied crucial information about these controversies.
I’m not defending how Flynn has handled the death of Derek Williams or the cavity searches of suspects. I think he handled both situations badly and was tone deaf (and defiant at times) in response to community concerns. It’s worth noting that Flynn is already under fire from the police union, which has fought some of his reforms, which makes it harder for him to appear unsupportive of his officers. That’s not an excuse (I don’t think there is any), but it helps explain the choices the chief faces. When you try to reform a huge department like this, you are going to get blowback and controversy, and the JS, rather than attempting to understand this, has had a feeding frenzy of slanted stories against Flynn.
Speaking as a city resident, it’s deeply disturbing. The police chief, along with the mayor and school superintendent, are the three most important leaders in creating a good city. But it becomes difficult for them to do their job once their reputation has been destroyed. I fear that’s the point we’ve reached with Chief Flynn. He has made mistakes, but that’s not enough reason for him to resign.
-JS columnist James Causey first did a column declaring Flynn should resign, only to offer a later column with this head-scratching observation: “But the bigger question is who comes next if Flynn does go. I’m not confident any replacement would do better until the department’s culture changes. Until then, distrust will continue to fester.” So if the department won’t improve under a replacement chief, why do you want Flynn to leave?
Causey also did a blog criticizing Mark Belling for his on-air comments calling Derek Williams a “dirty rotten thug” and asking why the same attention isn’t paid to “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib and roll over the top of them while sleeping on a futon on the floor.” Ugh. Causey asked “Why does WISN-AM (1130) continue to allow this kind of insensitive speech?”
Causey in turn was taken to task by conservative blogger James Wigderson, who contends that Belling was offering an accurate description of a man with a criminal record. In retaliation, Wigderson clearly seems to be pushing to get Causey kicked off his part-time gig with WMCS-AM radio.
Wow. These are ungiving times. Belling’s comments were apparently meant to provide context for the situation police deal with on a daily basis, but they are pretty tasteless. Of course, that’s how he gets ratings and Causey’s column isn’t going to get Belling muzzled by WISN. But the JS is very careful about anything its reporters say on the air, and Wigderson’s blog could cause problems for Causey. I hope not.
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