Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Homicides, Shootings, Auto Thefts All At Record Highs

MPD Acting Chief Jeffrey Norman presents vision of community-centered approach to solving issues.

By - Oct 11th, 2021 03:39 pm
Milwaukee Police Department. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Police Department. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The crime stats don’t look good for Milwaukee.

After a surge in 2020, virtually every major crime category is still increasing, according to Milwaukee Police Department data.

Through Sept. 30, there have been 141 homicides, a 1% increase over 2020, which in itself was a record year. Non-fatal shootings are up 27% to 682.

MPD is reporting a 10% increase in the violent crimes it reports to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting database.

Heatmaps presented by Acting Police Chief Jeffrey Norman, during a three-hour hearing before the Finance & Personnel Committee Monday morning, showed that the homicides and non-fatal shootings are primarily clustered in the neighborhoods around W. Center St. from N. 12th St. to N. Sherman Blvd. But the problem is increasingly being felt citywide.

The city’s ShotSpotter system, an automated system that triangulates gunfire locations using sensors, is reporting a record level of gunfire. It’s been activated 14,359 times in 2021, a 34% increase over 2020’s record total. MPD has recovered 50,983 spent rounds, a 25% increase.

Gun violence is increasing nationwide, but what’s happening in Milwaukee is beyond that.

“Our homicide increase is about three times the increase of other cities,” said MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato. He said the national increase was 32%.

And the city’s ability to solve homicides is declining.

DeSiato said the department closed 77% of its homicide cases in 2019, beating the national average by 22 points. That fell to 55% in 2020 and 46% in 2021 (though the latter figure exempts the last three months of homicides).

Criminal investigation bureau inspector Paul Formolo said MPD relies on community members to provide information to help solve homicides. “Obviously in the post-George Floyd era we have been having an issue with police legitimacy in the community,” said Formolo. “There is definitely a connection with clearance rates.”

Norman, who has been acting chief since late December, said violent crime is the biggest issue MPD faces.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck approach, we cannot be one group working on this issue,” he said, noting the department engages with the Office of Violence Prevention, residents, its own “shoot review” team and others. “I know that there is more to do, but we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were before.”

According to MPD data, the three largest known causes of shootings are arguments, poor conflict resolution and drugs (either use or sale). When looking only at homicides, domestic incidents and robberies appear in the top three. Norman said the department is seeing a surge in people grabbing firearms to resolve disputes.

The pandemic, as both MPD and committee members agreed, is also a factor in the surge.

The department’s second-biggest issue, according to Norman, is staffing followed by clearance rates.

“It goes without saying that as we have less officers and investigators our clearance rates will go down,” said Norman.

In the last two years, the city has reduced the sworn strength of MPD by 60 and 120 officers. Mayor Tom Barrett frames the change as “fiscal, not philosophical” matter, driven by increasing pay for individual officers and declining or stagnant state aid. The department’s budget remained relatively stable at just below $300 million while the recent cuts took place.

The average sworn strength would drop by 25 (1.4%) in 2022 as proposed by Barrett, even after using approximately $1.4 million in federal aid to support the hiring of 195 new officers.

“It is a challenge,” said Norman.

“We get into a debate about the number of officers, but I have yet to see a study that says more officers equals safer streets,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. “It might be less about more officers and more about the resources made available.”

Norman, the lone candidate to become the permanent chief, said he is working with the situation at hand. That includes replacing union-protected sworn positions with less costly general employees.

“Civilianization is a big topic with what can we do not only to address the cost needs, but what can we do be more efficient with our services,” said Norman. Barrett’s 2022 budget proposal calls for 23 new civilian forensics positions, a civilian police records director and a civilian legal compliance officer.

A previously-funded, but largely unstaffed role of civilian community service officers is also slated to be mostly filled by the end of the year. A recruiting class is about to begin training.

A third-party consultant is expected to complete a report on the appropriate sworn strength level for MPD next spring.

Norman also gave an overview of the cultural and training changes he is attempting to make across the department, including complying with the complicated American Civil Liberties Union’s Collins settlement related to racial profiling. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said on the settlement. A recent consultant review raised issues with documentation and other practices.

“Lead from the front, be clear in my expectations,” said Norman of his goal as chief. “We forget as a department we are providing a service, we are not plumbers or someone that is changing a tire, but you are responsible to our elected officials, our residents, our community stakeholders.”

The acting chief said the department is in compliance with the principles of the “8 Can’t Wait” police reform movement and is working on the Collins settlement requirements. He said officers need to follow their training and he will support them.

“The chief is still one person, you are trying to change an aircraft carrier’s drift,” said Alderman Scott Spiker.

“Yes, I am one person,” said Norman. “I am not looking for mocking birds. I am looking for someone that believes.” The acting chief, an attorney, said he wasn’t interested in being the smartest person in the room

“I do have standards. I do have expectations. And I will get them, period,” he said.

Despite the negative trend in crime statistics and challenges with complying with the Collins settlment, Norman is receiving backing from many council members.

Committee members Coggs, Spiker, Nik Kovac and Michael Murphy all publicly backed Norman after his presentation. Barrett and Council President Cavalier Johnson are also Norman supporters.

“You are respectful, you take demands seriously, you don’t overpromise but you make it clear what is a priority,” said Kovac of the chief’s interactions with the community.

“I’m glad you stayed,” Spiker said. Norman was previously a candidate for Wauwatosa police chief at the time that the city was facing legal uncertainty regarding the demotion of former MPD chief Alfonso Morales. “I think the city is better off for it.”

The budget office is also praising Norman and his team for keeping overtime costs down.

“They are making every attempt to be fiscally responsible and I appreciate that,” said budget director Dennis Yaccarino.

The department is currently under its overtime budget, but the 2022 budget would increase the planned amount to $18.5 million as a result of salary increases. Overtime costs associated with the Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers are covered by the teams. A revised agreement with Summerfest also covers those staffing costs.

But there is one issue no one has a good answer for yet: a record level of vehicle thefts.

Vehicle Thefts and Reckless Driving

Motor vehicle thefts in Milwaukee continue to shatter records.

Through Sept. 30, there were 7,921 vehicles stolen. That’s a 179% increase versus 2020. And with three months remaining, the total is already enough to have eclipsed the previous high for a full year.

Most of the vehicles being stolen are either Kia or Hyundai vehicles, a result of the manufacturers making an easy to expose (and turn) ignition slot and not using a keyfob-based push-button start.

A heatmap from MPD shows the vehicle thefts correlate with the city’s population density, with the greatest number of offenses occurring on the Lower East Side and Near South Side. But it’s become a problem everywhere.

With funding from the manufacturers, MPD has distributed more than 2,000 steering wheel locks. Norman called it a “target hardening” strategy, but acknowledged it wasn’t the solution.

Car break-ins are also on the rise. Coggs said she has heard anecdotally it is because people are looking for firearms, primarily in vehicles parked outside of downtown nightclubs.

Norman said he didn’t have specific data, but has heard a lot of reasons.

Moving vehicles are also posing a problem, with reckless driving and other driving offenses on the rise. “We are seeing an increase in all categories,” said Norman.

Hit-and-run crashes are up 16% year to date, with 4,584 recorded in 2021. Reckless driving citations are up 41% to 3,983, with arrests up 15% to 508. Coupled with speeding, driving citations are up 134%.

But fatal crashes are currently down 12% year-over-year, with 50 reported in 2021 versus 57 in 2020.

Norman reinstituted a specialized traffic safety unit in February. Year to date, it’s issued 50% of all speeding citations, 44% of traffic sign and signal citations and 40% of drivers license citations, but only 6% of operating while intoxicated citations.

What about the rash of catalytic converter thefts? Formolo and DeSiato said that the department is often catching repeat offenders but has limited intelligence about where the converters are being sold. “It’s a property crime, unfortunately,” said Formolo of the lack of jail time.

One network interrupted by police, via information from a nonfatal shooting, had the converters being sold to a business well outside the city of Milwaukee. City scrap yards are required to document everything they purchase and Formolo said MPD hasn’t found them to be the buyers.

Full PDF copies of the MPD and the budget office presentations are available on Urban Milwaukee.

One thought on “City Hall: Homicides, Shootings, Auto Thefts All At Record Highs”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    The Republican policy is working well.

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