Another Newspaper Attack on Chief Flynn
Has the Journal Sentinel renewed its war against the police chief or was its Sunday story simply botched reporting?
Poor Police Chief Ed Flynn can’t seem to do anything right.
That, at least, might be your conclusion if you only read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Back in 2012, I suggested the newspaper was at war with Flynn, and nine Milwaukee Common Council members later issued a statement accusing the newspaper of misleading the public about how the police department reported crime data. That was extraordinary: I can’t recall a group of government officials ever daring to criticize the state’s largest newspaper.
Since then JS has dialed down the attacks on the police chief, even as it has done legitimate, important stories about problems in the department. But Sunday’s front page story, blasting Flynn and the department for not getting more officers trained to handle the mentally ill, once again felt like a hit job on him.
The story by veteran reporter Meg Kissinger charges the department hasn’t lived up to its promise to provide more training of police in handling mentally ill people. That makes for a bold headline, but the evidence for this claim simply isn’t there.
When was that promise made? In 2004, ten years ago, under a different police chief, Nannette Haggerty. So at the outset, it would appear she is at fault, not Flynn.
That sounds absurdly short, but in fact, the report only promised “local mental health consumers will provide four hours of training to 1,800 police officers working on the streets.” MPD spokesperson Mark Stanmeyer, trying to piece together what happened a decade ago, found documents showing the three hours was followed by a question-and-answer session that presumably lasted an hour. But Kissinger’s story leaves out the quote about the four hours and leaves readers thinking something far more comprehensive had been promised.
Kissinger, who patiently went through the details of the story with me, says there was “great enthusiasm” at the time over reforming Milwaukee’s mental health system. I believe her, but the report was the result of “a coalition of 43 entities — advocates and consumer groups, community service providers, state and local government, and health care providers.” The role of police was just one part of the coalition‘s report, and there was great enthusiasm over just the four hours they would get: “more than 90% of officers will receive this valuable training!” the report exclaimed.
Kissinger goes on to discuss “Crisis Intervention Team” training, a more in-depth approach to training police modeled on what has been done in Memphis, which “is now used in more than 200 cities in the United States and more than 20 countries worldwide,” she reports. That was not something promised in the 2004 report, which explicitly stated that “Replicating this model in Milwaukee would be expensive and complex and will require much more study and analysis to move forward.”
Instead, what Haggerty did, according the MPD Inspector Carianne Yerkes, who oversees the department’s mental health training, was commit to providing CIT training to 20 percent of MPD officers. That percentage has been maintained since then under Flynn, with an approach that trains all new recruits and all veterans who volunteer for the training. Some experts believe mandatory training for all veterans is counterproductive. “A lot of officers want to serve and protect,” says Yerkes. “They don’t necessarily want to be a social worker.”
Kissinger chastises Flynn for claiming one-fourth of his officers have CIT certification. “The actual number is 367, one in five, by the Police Department’s own accounting,” she writes. But Kissinger admits she doesn’t know what percent of officers are training in CIT training in the 200 cities that have adopted the training. Do they train more than 20 percent of officers, as Milwaukee does? We don’t know.
In short, it isn’t true that the police department broke its promise, and we don’t know if Milwaukee’s police are more poorly trained than in the average big city in America. They might actually be better trained. Mental health has never been a priority in this country.
No one knows this better than Kissinger, who is really the state’s top journalist on this issue, and whose stories — typically thoughtful and well-written — have pushed this community to consider reforming its mental health care system. What has been particularly impressive about her stories — and the Journal Sentinel’s commitment to this issue — is that the mentally ill are a constituency with no clout. Publishing these stories probably won’t win the newspaper any new readers. But they have truly served the community.
So what went wrong with this one? Ten years ago a story like this would have been reviewed by at least three editors. Today the paper has less than half the staff it had back then. Maybe it’s just a case of the newspaper with stretched resources missing some errors.
But the paper does have a history of going after Flynn with questionable stories — and Flynn has responded by bashing the newspaper. Nothing is more likely to anger a newspaper’s editors — leading them to circle the wagons against their tormentor — than getting such criticism.
Kissinger’s story was followed by an article by Gina Barton basically suggesting the City of Milwaukee shouldn’t contest the 50 or so civil rights suits filed against the MPD for its alleged strip searches of suspects and should simply agree to settlements.
I doubt any city would ever adopt that course — which the plaintiff’s lawyers would love — because at the very least city officials would hope to stall the cases, and the impact on taxpayers.
The newspaper seems clueless as to just how difficult the financial situation is for the City of Milwaukee. Once upon a time the City Hall beat was the paper’s most important one, but that hasn’t been true for at least ten years. And most of the JS staff, both editors and reporters, live in the suburbs, many outside Milwaukee County.
Kissinger quotes Yerkes to the effect that the MPD could certainly improve how it handles the mentally ill, and that Milwaukee is “ten years behind” Houston, considered the gold standard in how it handles the problem. But as Yerkes noted to me, “there’s a lot of other training in the department that has to be done as well.” (Kissinger reports that the last state budget provided $250,000 for mental health training, but this is chicken feed, and that’s for the whole state.)
The reality is that Ed Flynn was handed a department that had huge overtime costs and was drastically behind the times in using real-time computer data to target crime. Flynn has slashed the overtime while greatly improving the department’s technology and crime fighting ability. I have no doubt there are many things he’d like to undertake, if he had the money. His priorities are always open to question, but this story instead unfairly bashed him while misleading readers.