Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Should Chief Flynn Resign?

The city is divided over the chief. But is it all his fault?

By - Oct 5th, 2012 11:33 am
Police Chief Ed Flynn

Police Chief Ed Flynn

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?

I think the Journal Sentinel deserves credit for its aggressive investigation of Williams death. That was watchdog journalism at its best. But its endless run of negative stories on Flynn prior to that was often wrongheaded and clearly damaged the chief.

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.

Short Takes 

-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.

-Longtime Milwaukee Journal religion reporter Marie Rohde offers a provocative take on the new documentary film about the priest who abused boys at St. John’s for the Deaf.

-And our Urban Foodie columnist Young Kim explores the myth that obesity is more of an inner city problem.

Categories: Murphy's Law

19 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Should Chief Flynn Resign?”

  1. Jan Wilberg says:

    It’s not just the ‘minority’ community that is concerned about police brutality. Really, as a whole community, are we happy paying taxes so we can watch a video of a handcuffed man dying while two officers, in our employ, sit just inches away and don’t help him? People are calling for Chief Flynn’s resignation/firing because there is a leadership issue at the core of this situation. Flynn sets the tone. His arrogance, his unwillingness to recognize the legitimate concerns of the PUBLIC – not just the minority community as you put it — tells his officers that it’s ok to run roughshod over people’s rights. He’s the leader, he sets the tone, he creates the culture. And he has to go. We deserve a lot better – all of us.

  2. Garrick Jannene says:

    He just recently added college students to the list of people that he’s offended by calling us all “guests” in a letter to a UWM vice chancellor because we’re just renters and not landowners.

    The quote: “I view your students as ‘guests,’ since most do not own property in Milwaukee and they do not directly contribute to the tax base,” he said. “As guests, they should be exhibiting appropriate conduct.”

    Screw you, Flynn. I’ve been defending you from the Journal Sentinel’s wrongful crusade. You now have one less supporter.

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    Jan, I did lead off noting that community groups like Milwaukee Peace Action were protesting against him. I’m not suggesting only minorities are upset with him. (You can obviously add some students to that list.). But in a city that is 55% minority, that is a hugely important constituency. There is a history of police chiefs in this city and elsewhere having problems relating to residents in low-income minority neighborhoods and that, I believe, is a key backdrop to this controversy.

  4. Stacy Moss says:

    When it comes to understanding the police it helps not to be so thinned skinned. Considering the stakes, an errant or misconstrued comment should be beside the point. The article points out that the story of releasing the tape is more complicated than it has been portrayed. What about the corner? The District Attorney?

    What about the death — should we charge the cop with murder or manslaughter? That’s a tough call.

    On the video it is apparent that the cop on the beat should have believed the kid when he said he was having trouble breathing. But the cop wasn’t angry or hostile, or mean. In fact, he was polite. You get the feeling he was on automatic pilot, just doing his job. It wasn’t the first time an apparently healthy young kid handcuffed in the back of police car complainied about something and was ignored.

    It wouldn’t be the last time either. This is a tragedy all the way around. I can’t imagine watching your son gasping for air, crying for help, and slowly dying in the back of police car. I can’t imagine how bad I would feel if I was cop who showed no ill intent.

    Think about how an instant decision that someone wasn’t telling the truth changed so many lives. This is heartbreaking. There are lots of reasons reasonable people would have reservations about putting such a video on the internet. Now the story is so simplified by imagery and emotion that it is impossible to understand.

  5. Jim Huston says:

    As one who lives outside the city and who expects police chiefs to be targets of (often) unwarranted criticism, I’ve been neutral to supportive of Flynn. Especially have I taken his side on allegations of intentional misreporting crimes of violence: he’s right and the JS wrong on that issue.

    But he lost me when he called east-side UWM students (many of whose tuition-paying parents own their own homes, more than a few probably in Milwaukee) mere “guests” in the city. If he thinks that way, it’s no wonder cops are unsympathetic to the young and the poor. Now I think it’s time for him to go. Surely not all potential police chiefs are so mean minded . . . .

  6. Wilbur Wood says:

    Good stuff a usual but be very careful if you interview him Bruce!

  7. Wilbur Wood says:

    I’ll try that again: Good stuff as usual but be very careful if you interview him Bruce!

  8. We have heard this crabbing for years, back to Harold Breier. Break up the school system into 10 units and the police dept into smaller units the same way, with the investigative unit kept as one.
    Let the inner city whiners run their own schools and their own departments.

  9. Bill Sweeney says:

    Water boarding is considered to be torture. What happened to Mr Williams can be viewed as worse than water boarding, a slow, torturous death as he gasps for help. This had to scream out at anyone who viewed it, this is not who we are as human beings. So did people not look at it or looked at an edited version? What if there was no video? What does this say about people within the criminal justice system who had some knowledge of this? If they did not react to this as an outrage that had to be addressed, what does it say about the level of desensitization within that system?

    How do we know what we so far think we know? Most of it has come thru the Journal Sentinel, and Mr Murphy, in this thoughtful article, reminds us that there has to be more information than what is provided there, especially given what appears to be campaign against Chief Flynn.

    Given all this, there should not be a rush to judgement. There is going to be an inquest, and we hope that U. S. Attorney James Santelle will perform a federal investigation of this matter as well as “pattern and practice” of the entire police department as recommended by NAACP President James H. Hall Jr in an op ed in today’s Journal Sentinel. If anyone is going to be fired or going to resign, it should only be after a thorough investigation.

    Let’s hope that Chief Flynn can take some time by himself or with some friends to reflect on how he has reacted to the anger and distress of the community. I believe Chief Flynn held a meeting with community leaders after the death of the young man on the south side who was shot point blank by his elderly neighbor, whose mother was detained in the back of a police vehicle for an unconscionable amount of time when all she wanted was to grieve for her son. Chief Flynn made some remarks and then left before hearing anything back from the community, saying he had another meeting to attend. That was just unbelievable. While these matters are being, we hope, thoroughly investigated, Chief Flynn could step up, admit that he has been grossly insensitive, and start to make amends by reaching out to people in the community.

  10. Juli Kaufmann says:

    Dear @Wis.ConservativeDigest: I note you are the only poster to not use your real name. These are complex issues and I am personally very concerned and equally conflicted regarding the many dynamics impacting each situation. I have many strong opinions about the Chief and the police that are based on my personal experiences. However, both of the “inner city” (your words) tragedies referenced in this post and the related comments involve situations that resulted in dead people. Describing reactions to these situations as “crabbing” and “whiners” is in my view, at best, grossly insensitive. This is a place and a time for thoughtful debate. If you want to participate with audacious ideas, I suggest you be willing to subject yourself to the debate by using your real name so that you might be personally accountable for your words and the intent they carry.

  11. Yes, they are constantly crabbing and whining cause the never do anything to solve the problem, only whine about results. Where the hell is everyone that should be making sure that the kids can read, math and science. In a tavern somewhere? They sure do not make sure that their families work. It has become a matriarchal society with few real families anymore.
    Why are so many in jail? Cause there are not any jobs, Cause the political makeup of Milwaukee is basically liberal and like all the cities run by the Liberals the last hundred years they have failed. Detroit is just the worst, Milwaukee is a step behind.
    Look at that stupid railroad they are going to build downtown, far better to put the money into structural improvements and business parks to get people jobs, plus change the attitudes. Listen to Bill Cosby, whom they consider an “Uncle Tom”.
    Prescription for continued disaster is to stand around and whine about the police chief instead of going on a positive course of educating kids, pushing the govnermetn sot be business friendly, make sure that they is a good bus system and building families.
    Failing that it will just be one more disaster after another with no futute for the citizens in Milwaukee.
    When I first came to Milwaukee in 1964 I thought that these problems would be solved by now. Wrong! It has gotten worse. This Hope and Change saw great possibilities of solving the race issue, instead it has just disintegrated to Chicago style politics, with a depressed, failing economy and class warfare. Some Hope and Change.
    This lousy school system should have broken up years ago, but you have poltiical leaders far more interested in buttering their own bread than solving the problems, but you deserve it cause that is waht you elect.
    Waukesha county works, Milwaukee does not.

  12. Bob J. says:

    Wisconsin Conservative Disgest hack: quit commenting while drinking.

  13. judith ann moriarty says:

    Juli: I like your attitude about commentators hiding behind disguises. It’s my feeling that publications should cease giving space to them, but I guess, in the broader sense of “democracy,” anything goes, incuding peeing into the wind.

  14. Jeff Jordan says:

    Let me just put a small note of clarification on the comments of Chief Flynn that students are guests in our city. Like it or not students in the UWM area of this city have established a “Party Zone”. It runs from Thursday evening until early Sunday morning as many, not all, of them exercise their right of passage, by drinking to excess and raising the noise, litter and danger level on the upper east side. They are not all UWM students, but the presence of UWM students and the party atmosphere attracts young people from other schools, including high schools.
    Mayor Barrett, Chief Flynn, Captain Basting and others have all experienced this scene personally and have decided that talking, educating and pleading with this minority s useless and they have decided to enforce the law. Of course this has upset a group of teenagers that were hell bent on having the traditional college experience. If you think kids will be kids and the neighbors and long term residents should just shoulder the burden, I invite you to join us and live with this madness. (That invitation includes the Chancellor and any other employee of the University.)
    Here’s the bottom line for behavior. Would these young people behave this way at home and if they did what would be the consequence?

  15. Flynn deserves complete backing on this. As a college kid and right after our party atmosphere was only stopped by strict enforcement of laws and rules. At that age you feel that you are indestructable and that whatever you want to do is alright.
    If you want peace and quiet in these neighborhoods with responsible parties and atmosphere you will have to crack down.

  16. Patty Doherty says:

    Why do so many keep insisting on picking apart every word uttered by public figures? We need to start putting things back in context and discussing the actual message, not each phrase. Chief Flynn has noted that there is a difference between college students who live in an area for a short period and those residents who have put down roots there. My son (25 and out of college) lives in that area and has told me about how the college students behave. All of them? No – but enough to disrupt an otherwise peaceful neighborhood.
    We all know what Chief Flynn was getting at, and taking things out of context does nothing but deflect from the real issue being discussed.
    As for the call for him to step down, I disagree. I think he is doing exactly what he should be doing in facing these tough situations. Perfect? No – but to expect perfection is unrealistic.

  17. Garrick Jannene says:

    Pick apart? I think the intentions of Flynn’s words are pretty clear. He doesn’t think I’m a ‘real’ Milwaukeean even though I’ve lived here for almost 4 years.

    There is no “picking apart” here. It’s just a highly insulting quote, plain and simple. I’m not taking anything out of context. But you don’t have to take my word for it, you can go read it yourself here:

    It’s one thing to enforce law and order, which I agree should be done. I don’t live in the Upper East Side, but it sounds like a bad situation. It’s another thing to show disdain for a large chunk of the city’s population, and to view renters as lesser people than property owners.

  18. flyonthewall says:

    An overwhelming majority of students in that area are “guests”. They are living there while going to school & will leave when they’re done. Is that even up for debate?

  19. The choice is quite simple, either the city controls the situation or it does not. If you want to have some sort of anarchy down there ask the local residents what they think.
    I remember those days very well and we were on campus amongst other students. We were a pain and if it is in a neighborhood than the problem is much worse.

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