Flynn Blasts “Incompetent” Report
“We want to talk about reform,” police chief says, not DOJ report’s many errors.
In an exclusive interview with Urban Milwaukee, Police Chief Edward Flynn patiently waded through all the inaccuracies in the unfinished, uncorrected and out-of-date draft report of department’s patterns and practices by the Department of Justice that was leaked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“This was not a Department of Justice report, it’s a consultant report paid for by DOJ and that consultant was fundamentally incompetent,” Flynn charges. “The report is based on anecdotes and anonymous comments rather than statistical analysis.”
Remarkably, the consultant never interviewed Flynn nor any of his command staff about its findings, Flynn noted, which resulted in a host of errors and misunderstandings that could have been easily corrected. The draft report leaked to the newspaper, he noted, was created in October 2016 and Flynn and his team had meetings with the DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which were beginning to bear fruit, he said, when the new administration under President Trump took office and lost interest in the whole thing.
“We are frustrated because we want the conversation to be about how to improve rather than having to defend ourselves from this shoddy analysis,” Flynn says. He was joined in the interview by members of his command staff, including Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) assistant chiefs William Jessup and James Harpole, Crime and Intelligence Manager Dan Polans, and Policy and Planning Director Leslie Silletti, who helped go through the report and its errors.
But the reality of American cities is that crime falls heaviest in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of black and Hispanic residents, who are far more likely to be the victims and perpetrators of crimes, so you would expect higher rates of traffic stops and searches in those areas. MPD crime data shows African Americans in the city are 14 times more likely to be arrested for robbery and 29 times more likely to be arrested for auto theft and 15 times more likely to be victims of non-fatal shootings than whites.
Traffic stops have been a key strategy in reducing such crimes, Flynn notes, and “the vast majority of the victims of these crimes are African Americans. It would be immoral for us to give the same level of policing for every neighborhood. All it would do is increase the victimization in the worse neighborhoods.”
That said, when you analyze MPD data by district it shows blacks are not always most likely to be stopped: In District 1, whites account for 50 percent of traffic stops compared to 39 percent for African Americans. This is true despite the fact that African Americans account for 84 percent of suspects in the district versus 15 percent for whites. Similarly, in District 6 whites are far more likely to be subjected to traffic stops though they are far less likely to be crime suspects.
The DOJ report, by the way, had completely inaccurate data for traffic stops: it showed blacks accounting for almost the same percentage of traffic stops, about 66 percent, in every district, when the true figure ranges widely, from 28 percent in District 2 to 90 percent in District 7. (Those MPD numbers are very similar to numbers reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2011, yet the newspaper didn’t notice this huge error in the DOJ report.)
The only actual test of bias in traffic stops the DOJ report made was the “Veil of Darkness” test, comparing stops in day time (when the driver’s races is more obvious) to night time, and it found no racial disparity.
Nearly any of the report’s major findings, including those emphasized in the JS story, fall apart on closer examination, including:
–MPD does limited awards or acknowledgments of good job performances. In fact, the department gives 60 to 70 awards twice a year to officers in a major ceremony.
–MPD lacks a community policing plan. Flynn, who served on the National Community Policing Advisory Board and is considered a national expert on this, notes the idea of a separate community policing plan has been discouraged for years by experts in favor of an approach that imbeds community policing in every aspect of the job. To that end, MPD emphasizes neighborhood policing, bicycle patrols, neighborhood liaisons, community problem policing and academy classes where community policing is threaded through all aspects of training. There is no separate plan because community policing is integral to everything the department does.
–There’s a quota for how many traffic stops a cop must do. “We’ve never had it, no one has ever been disciplined for not doing it, take a look through our discipline files and that will be clear,” Flynn notes. The charge, he says, is based on anonymous complaints and is one the police union has pushed. “The union has been complaining about us making people work since I got here.”
–Internal Affairs officers investigating use of force receive no training. Jessup, who oversees this, says these officers get both entry level training and later follow-up training. “You can always use more training,” he says, but the DOJ report is simply wrong, and could have been corrected had he and Flynn been questioned.
–The early warning system to identify cops is ineffective. “Clearly they haven’t researched this issue,” Flynn says. “There’s virtually no research on what the best practices are in this area.” That said, the chief notes, MPD has taken numerous steps, including a peer referral program for officers with an alcohol problem and adding an on-staff psychologist. MPD police, in fact, were asked to do a workshop on its program by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “We have a comparatively strong program,” Flynn says, “but would be happy to improve upon it if you could point to a department that’s doing more.”
–Supervisors have too much latitude in dealing with community complaints. This is not so much a problem of not having guidelines for complaints, but is more about paperwork, the chief says: in essence, the analysts want more documentation when those who initiate complaints agains the department drop them.
–The police force needs more diversity. Flynn notes this is the responsibility of the Fire and Police Commission. But here again DOJ analysts never bothered to check their findings: FPC director MaryNell Regan told the Journal Sentinel the commission has developed a strategic plan for hiring more women and people of color, but federal reviewers never asked about it.
–Traffic stops can take 15 to 40 minutes. Harpole says this was an issue officers frequently complained about and was caused by the department’s Track 7 software, which was poorly designed for a department as large as Milwaukee’s. MPD switched to an upgraded system more than a year ago, and the problem has been reduced, he says, along with the complaints from cops.
As for the report’s assertion that the MPD’s reliance on data-driven policing has hurt its central mission, the report offers no specific analysis of how the department has combatted crime or might improve in that area. Indeed the entire report is bereft of statistical analysis of any kind.
Flynn was asked to speak to the COPS Commission on 21st Century Policing, and notes that much of what the MPD does is in line with that 2015 report’s recommendations, which was why the COPs consultant’s report on his department was such a shock. “When I first read through the report I was horrified,” Flynn says.
Going forward Flynn and his staff will be presenting a detailed response to the report to the Common Council and Fire and Police Commission. But their task won’t be easy. It seems clear that many council members feel Flynn has not been receptive to their concerns and complaints, which has lessened support for him. Flynn clearly needs to do more to shore up his support. But the fact that Ald. Bob Donovan was put in charge of the council’s public safety committee in 2016 hasn’t helped matters; Donovan has been taking demagogic pot shots at the chief for years, helping sour relations with Flynn.
The other difficulty is the Journal Sentinel, which will feel it must defend its huge story hyping this inaccurate and outdated report and will be gunning for Flynn when he addresses the council. That will make it all the more difficult for the community to accurately assess what’s really going on with the police department.
Nationally, relations between urban police departments and the people they serve in crime-ridden neighborhoods have become fraught with racial tension. Certainly police should be held to the highest standard of conduct. But addressing this issue becomes a lot harder when a horribly flawed report like this muddies the waters. Here’s hoping Milwaukee can move beyond it.
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