The Ed Flynn Factor
Politico Magazine concludes Milwaukee is an innovator in policing. Why? Chief Flynn’s leadership.
The story is one the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel could have done anytime in the last few years, examining the tremendous impact Chief Ed Flynn has had on the Milwaukee Police. Instead the paper has concentrated on an endless run of gotcha stories on Flynn and has often seemed at war with him, while ignoring the big picture view of his nationally innovative leadership and leaving readers to assume he is a lousy chief.
So leave it to veteran writer Erik Gunn, a frequent free lancer for Milwaukee Magazine and the Madison weekly Isthmus, to let us know what is really going on. His story for Politico Magazine, “What Works: How Milwaukee Went Soft on Crime,” begins by noting the big decline in crime nationally over the last two decades, including in Milwaukee.
“But what makes Milwaukee stand out is not just that crime has fallen,” he writes, “but that it has done so in a town where 28 percent of the population falls below the poverty level, far, far above the national average, and where conventional wisdom has it that the entrenched problems that go along with such long-lasting economic deprivation make it much harder to do anything about crime. The secret? A reforming police chief named Edward Flynn who’s determined to make Milwaukee an unlikely textbook demonstration for just about every innovative policing idea out there.”
Among the changes that occurred under Flynn, the story notes:
-A massive improvement in the department’s data system so it provides timely information on crimes and trends in the city. Flynn went to the private sector and secured funding to make this happen.
-Bringing New York City’s CompStat model to Milwaukee. “Commanders gather every Wednesday afternoon to dissect data day-by-day and cop-by-cop… monitoring crime trends and then developing strategies in response.” This recently enabled the department to identify a network of more than 30 people who were responsible for well over 100 robberies and carjackings.
-More emphasis on community-oriented policing, whereby police get to know neighbors and neighborhoods, building trust so residents will share information about potential crimes and criminals. (Hence the story’s headline about going “soft on crime.”)
-Revising promotional standards to create more of a meritocracy in advancing people to higher command positions. “One consequence has been a decidedly more diverse group of commanders. The 1,800-member force is 35 percent minority; women make up 17 percent of the force. Of the three assistant chiefs, two are Hispanic and one is an African American female.”
-Greater use of bicycle patrols, which also provide closer contact between police and residents.
-Use of ShotSpotter, sensors placed throughout the most crime-ridden parts of the city to pinpoint the origin of gunshots so quickly that patrols can be dispatched to the scene in seconds. Flynn notes that only 14 percent of the shots detected with the technology had been called in to 911.
-“Members of the Homicide Review Commission now help ex-offenders get back on track once released into the community. The program began in two of the seven police districts and has since branched out citywide. Supplementing the work of parole and probation officers, police officers are tasked with making random visits to the homes of ex-offenders, guiding them on how to obtain high school-equivalency diplomas or how to find a job.”
In truth, Flynn has mixed measures to get tougher on crime through measures like shot spotter with “softer” efforts to connect police with residents. As Gunn notes, the fact that 86 percent of gun shots fired weren’t getting called into 911 shows the need for police to sell more residents on the need to relay this information to the department.
A key takeaway from the story: “The law enforcement theories, including problem-solving policing and community-oriented policing, used by Milwaukee have been around for a long time, conceptually, says Michael Jenkins, a criminal justice professor at the University of Scranton who devoted a chapter of his forthcoming book to Milwaukee. But many of these approaches ‘remained part of, at most, a small unit within a police department.’ Milwaukee under Flynn decided to employ the approaches across the board—in all parts of the department and all sectors of the city. The city, Jenkins says, is ahead of the curve on that score.”
Gunn doesn’t overlook problems that have occurred under Flynn, noting the death of Derek Williams in police custody, and the more recent shooting of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill, unarmed black man — two incidents that both outraged the community.
Flynn, for instance, notes that the idea of community policing was among the principles espoused by Sir Robert Peel, the British statesman and two-time prime minister who reformed police work in the United Kingdom in the early 1800s.
And Flynn, a believer in the “Broken Windows” theory (that small neighborhood disturbances lead to bigger crimes and must be taken seriously), offers this take on it: “It turns out that poor neighborhoods have the same damn values as the middle class: They want stability, order and peace and to not be afraid.”
There’s also a great quote that Flynn would probably like to take back: “We deal with critical incidents, violence, things go wrong and it turns into a tragedy. The military sometimes drops shells on the wrong village; we sometimes handle a critical incident in the wrong way.” (Hey, it could be worse, we could have dropped a bomb on your city.)
That quote aside, what Gunn’s story suggests is that Milwaukee is very lucky to have Flynn in charge. In a city with so much poverty, there are all kinds of accompanying social problems that can also lead to crime, and as Flynn has often noted, his officers become the social service agency of the first resort. Jason Smith, a captain in the Third District, one of the poorest sectors of the city, tells Gunn the police are not just in the crime business anymore. The mission is far broader: “We are in the housing business, the education business, the public health business.”