Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Hit Job on Chief Flynn

Someone leaks incomplete report to Journal Sentinel, which slams chief with it.

By - Aug 31st, 2017 11:47 am
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn

Somebody up there doesn’t like Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. Somebody who may work for the chief and leaked a dated and uncorrected draft of a U.S. Department of Justice analysis of the police department’s practices and procedures.

“It had to be leaked by someone high up in the police department,” one alderman speculated. “Very few people had access to that report.”

Indeed, some council members had called on Flynn to release the draft version of the report, which has still not been completed, and he declined. He has noted the draft has many inaccuracies that need to be corrected.

The report was wrapped in a brown paper envelope with no return address and sent to at least two Common Council members and also sent to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which could be counted on to give it the most negative slant possible. The newspaper has a long history of slamming Flynn, so much so that a majority of council members once signed a resolution condemning the paper for reporting that “went beyond facts… and spent weeks misleading the public.”

The Journal Sentinel’s front-page story on the report was headlined “Trust in police damaged” and “chief relies too much on data,” a draft report says. The article proceeds to tally a laundry list of allegations against Flynn and the department, while largely ignoring any positive conclusions in the report.

Then the newspaper quickly called Common Council members about its story and got several to express concern about the report. I’m guessing none of the council members actually read the full analysis, which runs 243 pages with appendixes and is a long, tedious, sleep-inducing slog. So they relied on the Journal Sentinel’s hot read.

Before I report what the JS did not, it’s worth noting this report frequently feels like an exercise in nit picking by the worst sort of bean-counting pedagogue, with so many recommendations, with no price tag attached, that no police department in the country could possible carry them out. Many of its complaints could probably be leveled against many police departments. Indeed, the report never offers any analysis comparing Milwaukee’s department to any others in America. Rather, it compares Milwaukee to the ideal. That’s not to say its analysis lacks value, but gives some context — one sorely lacking in the Journal Sentinel’s rush to judgement — for what this report has to say.

A central point of the JS story is that Milwaukee’s emphasis on data-oriented policing has distracted it from building trust with the community and neglected community policing. That is certainly a conclusion of the report, but it is filled with nuance and also says many other positive things about the department in this area:

-That it has created “successful collaborative partnerships” with community organizations” and these “commendable” efforts “appeared to be having a positive impact in various Milwaukee neighborhoods.”

-That “interview participants noted that community policing tends to be woven throughout the academy training curriculum.”

-That others interviewed cited the department’s bicycle and foot patrol officers “as having a positive effect on community relations…”

-That “in addition to identifying problems and solutions, we heard about positive experiences with MPD officers that are worth noting… Stakeholders cited numerous positive examples of police-community engagement.”

None of this is mentioned in the Journal Sentinel story.

It also minimizes the report’s summary of three different community surveys that were done, all of which found a very high percentage of respondents approved of the department. In all three surveys a majority of both white and non-white respondents approved, though the percentage was lower for minorities.

Why such results if the department is so poor at community relations, and why has the chief enjoyed support for years from most of the council members, whose job is to pay close attention to their constituents and neighborhoods? The recent council disagreement with Flynn on his pursuit policy was notable precisely because it was a rare example.

The Journal Sentinel story makes much of the report’s finding that African Americans are three times more likely to be subjected to traffic stops. But it leaves out that DOJ analysts examined stops using the “veil of darkness” technique, under the assumption officers can more easily see who they are stopping during the day than during the night, to thereby test for bias. “Daytime stops were not more likely to be of African Americans than night time stops. In other words this analysis did not find any evidence of such an effect.”

The Journal Sentinel reports that blacks were three times more likely to be searched than whites but doesn’t report that whites were found with contraband 21.7 percent of the time and blacks 13.3 percent of the time. That number may suggest a racial disparity but it’s nowhere near a factor of three.

The JS reports a finding that the department lacks diversity in its ranks. The DOJ analysts note the MPD force is 17 percent black compared to 39 percent black for the city’s residents, but offers no comparison to other cities. As a New York Times story reported, “The overwhelming majority of cities where blacks make up at least 35 percent of the population have wide gaps — 20 percentage points or more — between the community’s minority composition and that of local law enforcement.

The JS notes the report’s findings that the department could improve how it disciplines officers and handles complaints against them, but once again skips many positive findings by the DOJ, including:

-Analysts ranked the overall quality of each complaint investigation and found the average was “fair to good.”

-Analysts did a “complaint file review of the discipline in the 29 sustained cases” and overall discipline appeared to be appropriate and consistent given the offense… Our review of discipline outcomes from 2011-2015 revealed that discipline solely based on the allegations and outcomes was consistent.”

-And the department has undertaken special training to prevent incidents that might provoke complaints and discipline issues. “MPD has undertaken an impressive commitment to provide Crisis Intervention Team training,” with 958 of 1,867 officers trained as of July 2016 or more than half the force, the report found.

None of this was reported in the JS story.

The one thing in the report that stood out for me — also unreported — was that traffic stops can average from 15 to 40 minutes. Given that many result in no arrests, one can imagine this infuriating the mostly minority recipients of such treatment. The report blames “outdated technology,” which may be the case, or it may be a lack of financial resources and manpower.

Indeed, there is simply no way to evaluate the accuracy and value of this and many other findings. The report appears to be at least one year old, and Flynn’s spokesperson claims it was initially “riddled with inaccuracies” and the DOJ has a corrected version that hasn’t been released. As Pat Curley, chief of staff for Mayor Tom Barrett notes, “a firewall was established so the mayor and other electeds would not see or review drafts. Not knowing what exactly is in the first draft much less the subsequent drafts makes it damn hard to provide comments.“

Perhaps the biggest hole in the report is the central question asked of any department: how well is it policing and even preventing crime? The report notes “that data-driving policing strategies, such as hot spots, that focus on places, are generally found to be effective,” which is precisely Flynn’s approach. But it never bothers to relate any of its recommendations to this central task.

“MPD’s strategy seems to be working on paper — some data seems to show the positive effects of this policing tactic,” the report notes, “but it may be missing the larger point of public safety: building relationships and developing trust.” That conditional conclusion leaves one wondering just how much its recommendations will do to make Milwaukee a safer place. I came away from this report not knowing the answer.

“This is not a gotcha moment,” says Ald Nik Kovac, who pushed for release of the report and was on the aldermen who was sent it. “This is a thorough, wonky analysis of how to transparently manage a department when you have lots of overlapping stakeholders.”

And if treated in that way, it could be helpful. But clearly the Journal Sentinel sees it as a gotcha moment, and is on yet another campaign targeting Flynn. Curley faults the paper for not providing more context to this draft report, which has left Flynn and the department in a no-win position.

Noting the turnover in staff and philosophy of the Justice Department under a new president, Curley says the fact that “no one out there seems to know what to do next is concerning to us and should be an embarrassment to the Justice Department. MPD initiated and entered into the Collaborative Agreement in good faith. Inherent was a collaborative, back-and-forth approach that, one can easily assume, is not a priority for the current administration and, as a result, leaves the MPD, the Fire and Police Commission and the public in limbo; not a good place to be given the seriousness of the initial effort.”

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