Should Milwaukee Elect Police Chief?
Alderman Rainey's proposal gets discussion, but not much support.
The current system, governed by state law, has the mayoral-appointed Fire and Police Commission hiring the police and fire chiefs. That system has become a political punching bag in the past year, with Mayor Tom Barrett firing the executive director and preparing to replace existing members, while the Common Council seeks to get control of the process given their displeasure with the former chief Edward A. Flynn.
Alderman Khalif Rainey believes he has come up with a solution by having the police chief be elected. “Ultimately what I’m trying to do is put the power back in the hands of the people,” Rainey told the Judiciary & Legislation Committee earlier this year.
Rainey’s proposal drew the support of alderman and mayoral candidate Tony Zielinski, who said he would work with Rainey to improve the legislation. Zielinski is backed by the Milwaukee Police Association and Milwaukee Police Supervisors’ Association.
Ald. Robert Bauman is steadfastly opposed to the idea. “We have just gone through eight or 10 years of an elected sheriff who was a disaster,” said Bauman in reference to David A. Clarke. “The current system is broken in my opinion in terms of the chain of accountability. I think electing the police chief would make it worse,” Bauman told his colleagues. While Rainey said Milwaukee County politics are different than those in the city proper, Bauman said the position should be similar to other department heads – mayor appointed and council confirmed.
Ald. Robert Donovan also isn’t supporting the idea. Donovan told the committee: “I totally agree that our previous chief was unwilling to cooperate with the council. I don’t see that in our current chief.” Referring to new chief Alfonso Morales, Donovan said: “I think he’s done a great job considering the challenges he’s presented with.” Rainey responded that it wasn’t about personalities. “I have no qualms with Chief Morales,” said the alderman, but that wasn’t enough to make Donovan change his mind and jump on board.
Committee chair Mark Borkowski raised concerns that electing the police chief could effectively shut down a national search for a talented candidate. (Though the Fire & Police Commission has said it would not do this after announcing that Morales, who started as interim chief, was the choice for permanent chief.)
Ald. Cavalier Johnson also raised concerns about how the election process would work.
Borkowski said he sensed the proposal didn’t have the support of his colleagues and offered to Rainey that the committee would hold the matter for further revision. “I’m just trying to be fair to you. We don’t have to act today,” said Borkowski.
If his peers weren’t enough of a roadblock, Rainey appears to face two more on his way to Madison. Mayor Barrett has come out in opposition of the proposal. City lobbyist Danielle Decker also indicated there are potential issues with the proposal as it relates to the anti-Milwaukee makeup of the legislature and other council lobbying requests.
Decker told the committee that the council already has placed two related requests in the city’s legislative lobbying package. One would make the police and fire chiefs a mayoral appointee subject to Common Council confirmation, the second would allow the Common Council to remove the two chiefs with a two-thirds vote.
Citing a defeated bill provision that would have cost the city approximately $1 million annually by reinstating pay for officers under investigation, Decker also warned the committee that unforeseen changes could be inserted into any bill they propose.
Rainey has many months before the measure could become law should his colleagues on the council and the majority of the state legislature support the change. Given that it’s an election year, the legislature isn’t scheduled to be back in session until January 2019.
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