Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Where City’s Crime is Rising

The biggest hike is in Ald. Donovan’s district. No wonder that’s his major issue.

By - Feb 18th, 2016 01:00 pm
Bob Donovan. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Bob Donovan. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In recent years, alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Donovan has been like a broken record, issuing press release after press release blasting Mayor Tom Barrett for being soft — or something — on crime.

A typical broadside, issued by Donovan on July 28, 2015: “In my 15 years of service on the Common Council, I have never seen such a high level of fear and frustration in my constituents and others in the community. The level of violence and disorder, and the lowering quality of life across Milwaukee has people wondering when things will start to improve, if ever…We’ve created our own perfect storm, haven’t we Mr. Mayor?!”

You can’t blame Donovan for complaining. Because the fact is, no other alderman has seen as big an increase in his/her district has Donovan has over the last three years. Indeed, if crime was rising as much in every aldermanic district, Barrett would be dead meat.

In early January, the Milwaukee Police Department released a report on crime by aldermanic district it shared with all Common Council members, perhaps to help them with electoral opponents targeting the issue. The report shows that in Donovan’s south side district all crime rose by 21 percent in 2015 compared to the prior year and by 31 percent compared to 2013. Violent crime rose by 21 percent in 2015 compared to the prior year and 28 percent compared to 2013.

This increase was more than twice as high as the next-worse district, just east of Donovan’s district, represented by Ald. Jose Perez, where all crime rose by seven percent in 2015 compared to the prior year and by 10 percent compared to 2013. In the city’s other 13 districts, crime overall actually declined, dropping by about two percent in 2015 compared to 2013 and by less than one percent compared to 2014.

And those auto thefts Donovan has been screaming about? They rose in his district by 89 percent in 2015 compared to the prior year and by 151 percent compared to 2013! One can certainly imagine he is hearing complaints from constituents.

It’s important to note that Donovan’s district, despite the recent increases, still has far less crime than in many other parts of town. In 2015, seven other districts had more overall crime and violent crime than his district.

The highest-crime aldermanic district is the 15th, represented by Ald. Russell Stamper II, and mostly located between 7th and 43rd streets, between Vliet and Locust. His high-poverty district averaged more than 3,300 crimes per year, including about 1,200 violent crimes. By contrast, Donovan’s district, mostly between the Menomonee Valley and Cleveland Ave and between 20th and 40th streets, averaged about 1,900 crimes per year, including about 425 violent crimes.

Still the changes in Donovan’s district exemplify the problems that have arisen in the last two years, as crime has begun to rise in Milwaukee after years of decline. The police department’s statistics show overall crime declined by 26 percent and violent crime by 11 percent from 2007-2013; but that began to change in 2014, as overall crime rose by three percent and violent crime rose by eight percent. (Final city-wide statistics for 2015 have not yet been released by the department.)

While property crime rose only one percent in 2014, auto thefts rose by 51 percent. There were big spikes in this crime in either 2014 or 2015 (or both years) in many aldermanic districts. That includes the 11th district represented by Ald. Mark Borkowski on the southwest side, which has the lowest crime rate in the city, but which has seen auto thefts rise in 2015 by 45 percent compared to 2014 and by 117 percent compared to 2013. Borkowski caused a huge furor after a statement defending illegal anal cavity searches of suspects, but he was also expressing frustration about limits on the police pursuit of auto thieves.

For decades, America’s police engaged in high-speed chases, even of minor offenders, and the result was the killing of thousands of innocent bystanders and passengers, records going back to 1979 show. The U.S. Department of Justice called pursuits “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” in 1990 and urged police departments to adopt policies specifying when officers can and cannot pursue someone.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, who believes in aggressive, proactive policing, nonetheless changed his pursuit policy in 2010 after five innocent people were killed during police chases.  Donovan has claimed the new policy allows criminals to “thumb their noses” at the police, a sentiment Borkowski seems to share, while Flynn has emphasized the policy is intended to discourage the pursuit of minor offenders.

Auto Theft (1967 - 2015).

Auto Theft (1967 – 2015).

The reality is that auto thefts, historically, were far higher back when there were no constraints on police pursuits. As the accompanying graph shows, annual auto thefts in the city peaked at 14,320 in 1992 and from there dropped all the way to 5,743 in 2004. They were at 7,752 when Flynn took over, dropped to 4,329 in 2010, the year he changed the pursuit policy, and stayed at that historic low for three more years, before jumping to significantly higher totals in 2014 and 2015.

These statistics strongly suggest auto thefts rise and fall for reasons that have nothing to do with police pursuit policies. That said, it appears the reins have been loosened in Milwaukee somewhat of late: as I’ve previously reported, the city’s police did 263 vehicle pursuits last year, at least five times more than in 2011 and 2012 (about 50 pursuits each year).

Milwaukee is among a number of big cities that have seen increases in violent crime, particularly murder, in the last year or two, as the New York Times has reported. Still, “the overall violent crime rate — remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s,” the newspaper noted. And crime in Milwaukee is still down overall on Flynn’s watch.

But that’s hardly a comfort if you’re living in Donovan’s district, where crime had clearly had a big upswing. Donovan has been short on solutions: as I’ve reported, he’s regularly voted against city budget bills that paid for an increase in the number of police officers in Milwaukee, even as he has called over and over for more police. But however contradictory Donovan’s policies, the statistics in his district certainly dramatize his major — if not only — issue in the mayoral campaign.

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Where City’s Crime is Rising”

  1. AG says:

    Our neighborhood has stopped calling in crimes unless they are of the most serious variety. No one calls 911 except in the most extreme cases because people “don’t want to tie up the lines” so they call the non emergency number and site on hold for half an hour and then hang up. Probably part of Milwaukee’s plan to make crime appear lower than it actually is (tongue in cheek, I don’t actually believe that for you nitpickers).

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Has your neighborhood taken the problem to the nearest precinct? Or are the crimes not being called in un-serious enough to not warrant taking action? If people in your neighborhood are living in fear because of the slow response time, I’d think you’d be getting organized and active to try and do something about it.

  3. AG says:

    You’d be right if you think that. The neighborhood is very active with neighborhood watches, attending meetings w/ our local liason officer, regularly exchange communications, notify others of issues, etc. The biggest issue right now is some people have stopped calling things in when they seem them because nothing happens… one example, several drug deals from car to car, by the time the cops respond they are long gone even though they’re called in 10-20 minutes before the people leave. it’s been a fierce debate within the neighborhood groups to get people to call 911 for things like that so it’s at least recorded by the city.

  4. Rich says:

    @AG, did you mean to equate “call 911” with “I saw car to car drug deal”? Calling 911 at the point of witnessing the exchange seems like it could elicit a faster response and a simultaneous rebuke for abuse of 911 services.

    Now, generally…

    This problem occurs occasionally by my area of town (either as part of a normal distribution with some spikes when it might be getting pushed out of other areas of town) and I get nowhere with calling non-emergency too — too slow. Tried the “drug fusion center” for a while, and while they were initially interested, eventually they told me all they do is forward reports to precinct captains since they have no squads of their own.

    The pattern is often obvious (one car, often a shitty one, sitting for a while with no one getting out or moving except for the glow of a smartphone) and the other one pulls up. Surprised about the reports of having a 10-20 minute timeframe, my experience has shown approximately five minutes either side of the exchange. While that adds up to 10 minutes, it seems dubious to call even non-emergency and effectively say only “there’s a car idling on my street”.

    All that aside…

    It’s also my understanding that at least calling non-emergency is sufficient to get the report into the PD’s database that Flynn so heavily relies upon for deployment and priority. If there’s evidence counter to that, I’d be shocked and saddened.


    I’ve found it to be quite effective to make yourself visible to the buyers (generally, but not always the first car on scene) and all but the brazen few will typically go somewhere else, even if only up to the next block. I get the sense that the telephone conversation between buyer and seller includes “is there anyone around?”.

  5. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    As a frequent victim of crime and/or close by crime in pharmacies I can tell you simply why crime is escalating. All of the people that robbed my pharmacies the palces where I worked, burglariezed them were all repeat felons, lt out by tthe Barrett/Chisholm/Flynn/Kremers program to keep thugs otu of jail. by the way all of the thugs that robbed me were white. Ask Clarke, Glen frankovis. Stuff all your grpahs, the facts are that I carry a gun all the tiem, reuse to let my wife go east of 92nd st and fight to stop these crimes. As long as the real4 thugs decide they will nto rosecute or put thugs into jail. you better defend yourselves/

  6. AG says:

    Rich, you described the scenario perfectly. and yes, 10-20 min total from first car on site to last car (usually both at same time) leaving. Also yes, calling non-emergency does get the incident reported, but that means a person has to be willing to sit on hold forever.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    I can’t believe illegal drug buyers and sellers aren’t in a bigger hurry. 10-20 minutes seems like an awfully long time to complete the transaction. Are they negotiating? Sharing cooking tips?

  8. AG says:

    HA! No, usually it’s one car sitting for a while, another car shows up sometimes they just do a quick pass and both leave other times its a few minute and they leave.

  9. SteveM says:

    Why do I get the distinct impression that seriously proactive neighborhoods have lower crime rates. Creative, not just violently destructive, interventions work. The increased foot traffic and “nosiness” of our neighbors has made our place in the city a great place to live and raise a family. I can’t say the same for all that crime west of 92nd street!

    Bruce, thanks for the breakdown and data. Amazing what a little sunshine will do to someone’s rainy day.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    All joking aside AG, that’s not cool and not something I think is funny. I would not be happy if that were happening in my neighborhood, right out in the open.

  11. mygreendoor says:

    Thanks for breaking down the stats, Bruce! I support Donovan’s stance on crime, but I do wish he’d start talking about his plan for other major factors of city life. While the above stats are reality for SOME parts of our city, in other neighborhoods, crime is simply not much of an issue. What is Donovan’s message for folks for whom crime is not the #1 concern? What is his plan for bringing in new jobs? Improving housing stock? Creating new draws for tourism dollars? How would he work with MPS and other educational institutions to improve education? How would he partner with our suburban neighbors? There are so many topics Donovan has yet to cover. I like him….but I’m waiting for more than just commentary on crime.

  12. AG says:

    SteveM, I agree, it’s all about neighbors caring about where they live. Our neighborhood is actually really nice and very safe. In fact, I think some people are a little bit too hyper vigilant in watching for crimes, if you know what I mean. But at the same time, we’ve also seen a big uptick in crime. Property crimes, car thefts, drugs specifically.

    This does remind me of a fun discussion we had about my area about a year ago off of one of Donovan’s PR’s. Starting around comment 58 it gets fun:

  13. Andy says:

    Mr. Murphy – I’m no data wonk (sorry, I think that nomiker belongs to someone else), but when I looked an your auto-theft graph, I started wondering if the increases in auto thefts correlates to increases in new-car sales. For me, a gap in your article is an attempt to explain the increase. For me, notion that it has something to do with police pursuits is ridiculous.

  14. Rich says:

    @Andy, check the auto sales correlation for yourself: (registration required, but has data back to 1976)

  15. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Mygreendoor, finally someone with some sense is talking. Milwaukee has great problems, least of which is a trolley and an Arena. You cannot save Milwaukee by building downtown, Detroit did that.
    I have itemized them at length, no one here has done more than give out talking points. First Milwaukee needs to hire 250 cops to saturate the inner city per Frankovis. How to do that? cut the frills from budget, have employees pay into health and pensions same s we all do prirotize.

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    Donovan is hardly the only elected official in Milwaukee to talk about crime problems, so that’s not really strong criteria to determine whether or not someone likes him. Or it shouldn’t be at least. Anyone can grandstand and call a lot of press conferences and just generally do anything to get media attention. Hardly makes one a strong leader.

  17. JS says:

    Didn’t Donovan have breakfast with a guy who later that day killed a black teenager in front of his mother?

  18. Andy says:

    @Rich – I took your advice. The link you provided showed a sharp increase in auto sales in the last two years. However, it also showed an increase from 1992 to 2000, when auto theft in Milwaukee declined. Then I started wondering if the number included used cars, so I did a search for just new vehicle sales, which would include pickups and SUV’s. There’s an inverse correlation. The data only goes back ten years and shows a downward trend. Go figure.

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