Is Chief Flynn Off the Hook?
The federal investigation could cool calls for Flynn's resignation.
It’s ironic, but the two federal investigations of the Milwaukee Police Department announced this week are likely to cool down the fire of those pushing for Chief Ed Flynn to resign.
The FBI has announced it will investigate the death of Derek Williams in police custody to determine if there was any wrongdoing by police. And the U.S. Department of Justice announced a far more wide-ranging inquiry, to determine if there is a pattern of civil rights violations by the police department. The latter is far more germane to the question of Flynn’s leadership: if the investigation finds a pattern of abuses, that would likely point the finger at the man in charge.
A group of community activists has announced a petition drive that will demand the restructuring of the Fire & Police Commission and the resignation of Flynn. They have not specified how the commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Common Council, should be changed, or how it could be made more “independent,” as they demand. Many Common Council members would probably say it is already too independent of them, and a further change in that direction would make it less answerable to elected officials.
As for Flynn resigning, he’s made it clear he remains committed to the city and the job. Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council members have resisted calls for Flynn’s resignation and they can now argue the federal investigation would make such a decision premature. Better to wait for federal investigators to complete their work. If they find a pattern of civil rights violations or poor decision making by the chief, then Flynn should be let go, they can argue. And the federal investigation is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to complete its work.
So I asked Flynn to describe how he had handled the issue. “Back in 2010,” Flynn recalls, “we had a single complaint of this by one of our officers against another officer. Our internal investigators looked into it but weren’t able to sustain the charge.”
“A year later, in 2011, a second complaint came from the same officer about the same other officer, so we referred this to the DA’s office. The DA’s office evaluated it for several months and finally decided there wasn’t sufficient information for a charge and referred it back to internal affairs.” But by then, Flynn says, the person who was the alleged victim of a cavity search had been murdered in an unrelated incident.
“Then, in February 2012, we got two complaints, fairly close together, about the same officer.” At that point, Flynn again referred the case to the DA, which led to the recent charges. The toughest charge, of sexual assault, was issued for Officer Michael Vagnini, whom Flynn says was the officer that all four complaints he received had named.
Critics of Flynn may or may not be mollified by this explanation of how he handled the issue, but the newspaper should at least report it in full. And by the way, Flynn does talk to other media outlets, so the newspaper can always quote him from those sources if he declines at times to talk to a JS reporter. The paper’s mission, I hardly need note, is not to punish the chief but to serve readers with the full story.
Flynn also says he had expected the federal investigation. “I had conversations with the U.S. Attorney some time ago. He indicated it was a soft inquiry.” Obviously it’s now become a hard inquiry. “I said I welcomed the investigation but look at the data, not just the coverage by the media.”
-Sources tell me that JS reporter Ben Poston, who has arguably written the most slanted stories about Flynn, has taken a job with the Los Angeles Times. Poston’s specialty is data reporting, and he’s certainly showed talent in that field. It’s the conclusions drawn from the data — by him and his editors — I have questioned.
-In response to my column featuring an interview with Flynn giving his views on the death of Derek Williams, there were some interesting comments. Said George Mitchell about the Journal Sentinel’s managing editor: “George Stanley will keep his foot on Flynn’s throat, underscoring his biggest flaw. Stanley’s about causes, awards, and being a tough guy. As a result, MJS coverage of MPD and Flynn now has to be viewed as suspect. Solid journalism would have highlighted important issues but avoided that perception of bias. ‘Watchdog’ journalism easily becomes agenda journalism.”
Said reader Bill Sweeney: “This feud between the Police Dept and the largest news source in the metropolitan area… does a great disservice to citizens hoping to get an accurate picture of some very serious events. Perhaps the Mayor and the Publisher of the Journal Sentinel should try to arrange counseling or mediation for Chief Flynn and Mr Stanley.”
-And in response to my column on the Journal Sentinel’s elevation of erstwhile Republican operative Christian Schneider to regular columnist, former school board member Bruce Thompson commented that “the direction of the J-S puzzles me too. If I want the official party line for either the Republican or Democratic parties, I can just go on their web sites.”
-And how frequent aldermanic allies Bob Bauman and Nik Kovac are beating down Gary Grunau and his proposal to create a special taxing district for Juneau Park and Cathedral Square.