Council, Mayor Clash Over Police Grant
Nine council members blast Barrett, claiming he's not committed to police reform.
Should Milwaukee accept a federal grant to pay for 30 additional police officers?
Some Milwaukee officials, including Mayor Tom Barrett, believe it’s a simple answer: yes.
But a majority of the Common Council has argued it’s far more complicated.
The issue has come to a head as the city deals with growing fiscal issues, caused in part by the steady growth of the Milwaukee Police Department‘s budget, and a nationwide debate on policing policy. The debate locally has become clouded as the city experiences a record number of homicides, following four years of declines.
“People can no longer accept a police department that takes so much and spends what it has in ways that they do not believe truly protect them,” wrote council members Ashanti Hamilton, Nik Kovac, Nikiya Dodd, Milele A. Coggs, Khalif Rainey, Chantia Lewis, Jose G. Perez, Marina Dimitrijevic and Russell W. Stamper, II in a press release. “They want to see investment in intervention, mental health, de-escalation and non-violent responses to problems. Of course it is a long and complex road to get these goals, but we will never get there unless we start somewhere.”
Lewis was the lone signer who didn’t vote against the grant. She abstained. The alderwoman told Urban Milwaukee she would like to accept it, but with conditions.
The council appeared poised to do just that Tuesday, with Hamilton introducing an amendment with seven conditions for the police department. But the amendment was ultimately withdrawn after the council and other city officials couldn’t agree whether the city’s legislative arm had the legal authority to impose the requirements, and whether the U.S. Department of Justice would accept them being imposed.
The council then voted to reject the grant in its original form, earning the ire of Barrett.
“Here we are in a year where we are seeing a record number of homicides, where reckless driving is a serious problem throughout this community, where we are seeing break-ins and robberies, and our council is saying, no, we don’t want that money,” said Barrett in a press briefing after the vote.
“I’m hopeful that at the next council meeting after a very, very fruitful debate, that we will be able to come to a point where we can do two things at the same time,” said Barrett. “One, we continue the work that needs to be done to reform policing in America but two, we can do so in a manner that is fiscally responsible and is in the best interest of public safety.”
But the dissenting council members said the officers would impose costs on the city well past the time when the grant expires.
The $9.7 million grant would pay all costs for 30 new officers for a period of three years. The city would be required to fund the positions in the fourth year. The only major commitment the city must make is to allocate 30 veteran officers to the Donald Trump administration’s Operation Legend crime-fighting task force.
Milwaukee has cut officers in recent years, even as the police budget remains steady. The rising salaries, pension and healthcare costs for officers will result in the city losing 120 officers via attrition over the course of 2021 while saving only $432,000. Rejecting the grant would increase the loss to 150.
The dissenting council members fired back at Barrett Wednesday morning.
“Mayor Tom Barrett knows as well as anyone the challenges the growth of the police department’s budget are creating,” wrote the nine members. “He tells the Council about them every time he presents his proposed budget. He also insists that he has heard those calling for change and we want to believe him. His own remarks yesterday afternoon, then, sounding a good deal more like an unsympathetic state legislator than an advocate for progress in his own City, were intemperate and counterproductive.”
“Isn’t it ironic that many of the same state legislators who rejected tens of millions of dollars in federal Medicare assistance and turned their backs on $800 million in federal transportation aid to build a passenger rail line across Wisconsin, now castigate Milwaukee for not wanting to burden a generation of taxpayers with unmanageable future costs?” the council members wrote about the Republican-controlled Legislature. “We ask those criticizing this decision to consider what it is about transparency, accountability, and financial responsibility they oppose?”
Acting Police Chief Michael Brunson, set to retire later this month, said Tuesday he supports the seven proposed conditions as goals, but that they wouldn’t work as requirements.
According to MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato, the city has been receiving various forms of the grant for 25 years. He said imposing the conditions was unprecedented.
The full council meets again January 19th. At that time it could also vote to approve a new Fire & Police Commission member who would serve as a tie-breaking vote on selecting a new police chief. The FPC’s acting director requested the wrong background check, preventing the body from voting Tuesday.
For more on the city’s reckoning with policing, see my colleague Bruce Murphy‘s latest column.
The Seven Proposed Conditions
1. Adopting a performance-based approach for producing measurements for police staffing and allocations guided by the framework and recommendations included in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – University of Michigan report, “A Performance-Based Approach to Police Staffing and Allocations”.
2. Improving police response times, particularly responses to lower priority calls, compared to average response times at 2020 year-end.
3. Cooperating with the Department of Administration, who will conduct a civilian-sworn patrol resource analysis of the Police Department, similar in nature to the 2007 Patrol Resource Analysis conducted by Matrix Consulting Group.
4. Expediting implementation of previously-authorized technology integration systems, and in particular implementing Project Greenlight, as a means of leveraging technology resources to reduce strain on sworn and civilian personnel from budget constraints.
5. Taking a proactive approach to crime reduction by focusing on Milwaukee Promise Zone resources and institutions. This shall include enhanced police participation in activities and organizations associated with Promise Zones, and an increase in the physical presence of experienced police officers within the boundaries of Promise Zones, both as a means of deterring crime and for increasing officer familiarity with Promise Zone neighborhoods and community issues.
6. Leading a community engagement process for implementing the forthcoming Community Oriented Policing Standard Operating Procedure. The intention is to demonstrate a commitment to building and maintaining relationships with community members and groups, and to collaborate with the community to address public safety issues and identify solutions to neighborhood problems.
7. Preparing a plan for allocating additional personnel and resources, made available through acceptance of the 2020 COPS Hiring Program grant, to traffic enforcement.
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