Police Blame Mayor, Council For Murder Rate
Department uses official account to say budget cuts driving murder rate higher. Data doesn't prove link.
A growing divide is emerging between the Milwaukee Police Department and the city’s elected officials.
Last Friday, a special council committee meeting was held reviewing the department’s response to a three-day curfew and the “6th and McKinley” incident where police used rubber bullets and “smoke” on protesters and an investigation is underway on what was thrown at officers.
Mayor Tom Barrett used his opening remarks to express concern about police tactics, including the enforcement of the curfew and the use of force. “I don’t think that using rubber bullets to disperse crowds is appropriate,” said Barrett. “I don’t think we should be using tear gas unless it’s a very, very, very serious situation.”
On Wednesday morning during a committee meeting, Alderman Nik Kovac brought to light recently announced purchase requests for a “tactical gas delivery system,” an “aerosol projector irritant” and “gas mask equipment.” City purchasing director Rhonda Kelsey, appearing before the committee as part of her reappointment by Barrett, said the request was related to the department’s request for preparation for the Democratic National Convention and it could be pulled.
“Whatever weapons you give someone they end up using, is a general rule of thumb,” said Kovac. “If we’re really going to train police to be de-escalators, to humanize, to respect the First Amendment, we probably shouldn’t give them the tools where they can very easily not do that.”
The requests for proposals were canceled hours later, and another open bid for a “remote firing device kit” was put on hold. The police department said the moves were made without consideration from law enforcement and they are routine purchases for such an event.
Later Wednesday Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs introduced legislation that would require the police department to disclose its current inventory of such equipment and provide notice to the council before purchasing any more. Committee chair Ald. Michael Murphy said he thought the proposal would find wide support.
But that wasn’t the end of the escalation.
Correlation Versus Causation
Thursday afternoon the police department used its official Twitter account, regularly used to share footage of unidentified suspects or announce other incidents of community concern, to attack the Mayor and Common Council.
“MPD is committed to serving our community with the resources we are afforded. However, the Mayor and Common Council reduced our budget by 60 police officers this year. The homicide rate has more than doubled & non-fatal shootings have increased by over 35% since 2019. #DidYouKnow,” tweeted the department in an account managed by its public information office.
Common Council President Cavalier Johnson was quick to respond with a statement. “I am calling on MPD to immediately remove this post. Putting the information contained in this tweet aside, issuing political jabs at local Milwaukee leaders in a forum such as this is a misuse of resources,” he said.
But the department didn’t remove the tweet, instead opting to double down on Thursday night.
“The Milwaukee Police Department’s recent Tweet was in response to comments related to questions regarding defunding police and how that would impact the City of Milwaukee. The information in the statement is factual. MPD looks forward to positive dialogue in the future,” said the department in another tweet.
How accurate is the information?
Yes, the department’s budget was cut, and, yes, 60 positions were eliminated (through attrition, not layoffs). But that’s far from the whole story.
But the budget is down only $1.5 million in 2020 versus 2019, a decrease of 0.5 percent. The size of the personnel cut was driven more by the police union contract that gave officers a raise greater than general city employees, than it was by the budget reduction.
The department’s staffing levels have fluctuated in recent years, as have the number of homicides. But the two don’t have a direct correlation and can even more in opposite directions.
The homicide total went up from 88 to 145 from 2014 to 2015, as the police budget went from $244 million to $248.5 million. It had increased by approximately $4 million per year in the two preceding years.
In 2016, the budget jumped by over $28 million to $277 million. The number of homicides fell by four to 141.
Morales, who became police chief in early 2018, saw the number of homicides drop notably in his first two years. Following a drop to 119 in 2017, the total fell to 101 in 2018 and 97 in 2019.
What happened financially over that period as the homicide rate fell? The budget was cut. It went from $309 million in 2018 to $298.9 million in 2019.
So while the police department insists its tweet is factual, so would be this one:
MPD is committed to serving our community with the resources we are afforded. However, the Mayor and Common Council reduced our budget by $10 million in 2019. The homicide rate fell by 3.9 percent the same year. #DidYouKnow
While the police department is linking the unfortunate homicide surge in 2020, currently at 72 according to the Journal Sentinel’s interactive database, to a budget decrease, it appears more closely linked to tragic situations.
There have been two mass shootings in the city this year, one at MillerCoors claimed the lives of six people on February 26th, five of which were classified as homicides. Five more people were killed on April 26th at a home on the near north side. An 11th homicide victim is Joel Acevedo, who died at the hands of an off-duty police officer who is now facing charges.
Barrett is scheduled to present his budget in September after holding listening sessions in August. In 2019 Black Leaders Organizing Communities lobbied for a $25 million police budget cut, with the funds to be reinvested in public health and other community-focused programs. Council members didn’t acquiesce to that request, but credited it with changing the narrative.
And regardless of what the council and mayor want to do, they’ll need to grapple with three difficult realities. First, COVID-19 is already negatively impacting the city’s budget. Second, the police department budget now exceeds the total amount of revenue the city collects via property taxes. And finally, the city’s annual pension fund contribution, much of which goes to cover public safety employees, is expected to grow by over $100 million to $170 million in 2023.
“We have to face a practical reality, that for the fifth consecutive year, the budget for the police department exceeds the entire property tax levy for the city,” said Barrett in September 2019. “Police and fire costs are the areas where we’ve seen the biggest increases. Next year, the increase in the police and fire budgets are larger than all other city departments combined. We have little control of that because of current state law.” Public safety employees were exempted from the state’s Act 10 law that eliminated collective bargaining for public employees.
The police operating budget does not include the over $20 million in debt the city has issued to settle cases involving officers or capital expenses.
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