Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Backs New Handling of 911 Calls

Wants MPD and FPC to develop approach where unarmed professionals handle non-violent social issues.

By - Oct 14th, 2020 01:17 pm
Stress. (CC0 Public Domain)

(CC0 Public Domain)

A new proposal from the Common Council tasks the city’s public safety departments with coming up with a plan to respond to non-violent 911 calls with unarmed first responders.

The council proposal, passed unanimously Tuesday morning, calls for the Fire & Police Commission to develop the initiative in partnership with the Milwaukee Police Department, Milwaukee Fire Department and Milwaukee Health Department.

The program would only be used for calls where there is no threat of violence. It would target issues of homelessness, mental health and substance abuse.

“Too often police have been called to do everything when really there are other trained professionals that can handle situations that do not involve violence,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs when the proposal was before the Public Safety & Health Committee on October 1st.

“We recognize that law enforcement personnel may not have the depth of crisis response training and access to social service resources to respond effectively to such situations, and that the addition of armed law enforcement personnel to a non-violent, non-criminal incident too often unnecessarily escalates a situation that can lead to incarceration or other criminal sanctions from an incident that did not initially present a threat to public safety,” said Ald. Chantia Lewis, the measure’s lead sponsor.

Because the council does not directly oversee the fire and police departments, the proposal takes the form of a request to the Fire & Police Commission to develop a master plan. A timeline of six months was given to develop the plan.

“We need the cooperation of everyone involved,” said Alderman Nik Kovac, the third co-sponsor on the measure. “We can’t just wave a magic wand and say we would like a different kind of emergency response. We have to build up the infrastructure and capacity.”

The alderman said it would likely take a partnership with Milwaukee County, which operates a Behavioral Health Division, and 24-hour staffing. “The logistics of having enough people to respond in real time to emergencies is a real challenge and is expensive.”

The sponsors all noted that an impetus for the proposal was the city’s fiscal situation. MPD’s budget currently exceeds the entire property tax levy for the city and consumes almost half of the city’s general fund.

Kovac called police officers “the last man standing” after “defunding” has come to virtually every other government service. As a result, he noted, the police department has taken on the burden of responding to every call when better solutions may be available.

Swapping out who responds to calls could have a positive financial impact, even if the number of personnel doing the work doesn’t change. Sworn police officers are protected by a union contract that includes guaranteed pay raises every year. Mayor Tom Barrett‘s proposed 2021 budget includes a less-than-one-percent cut to the MPD budget, yet reduces the number of sworn officers by 120. Much of that is due to the increasing costs of salaries and fringe benefits.

A report authored by Dana Zelazny of the Legislative Reference Bureau details cities with programs that Milwaukee might emulate, including those in Eugene and Portland, OR and one in Albuquerque, NM. Only the Eugene program is more than two years old.

Eugene’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program responded to 23,000 calls in 2018 according to the report. The service is funded at approximately $1.1 million in 2020 and covers the entirety of the city of 171,000.

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