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What Can We Learn from the History of Milwaukee Policing?

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What Can We Learn from the History of Milwaukee Policing?

March 23, 2016
Public safety
Cities

In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson and George Kelling discuss Kelling’s new book Policing in Milwaukee: A Strategic History, and its key takeaways. 

Audio Transcript

Brian: The Milwaukee Police Department was once among the most distinguished police forces in the country. Technologically advanced, in sync with the community it policed, and effective in making Milwaukee one of America’s safest big cities. During the 60s though, the MPD, like so many other big city departments, began to deface a deteriorating situation of soaring crime, poor relationships with minorities, and disgruntled cops. Has the MPD been able to reverse that downward spiral in more recent years? And if so how? Today on our show we have George Kelling, a long time Milwaukee Native, influential policing scholar and consultant, and a Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow. He’s going to discuss his newest book “Policing in Milwaukee: A Strategic History” which traces this story expertly.

Thanks for joining us George.

George: Thank you for having me.

Brian: Your book opens with recollections of your childhood in Milwaukee where you and your friends could roam the streets at all hours without your parents batting an eyelash. By the late 1960s that kind of scenario had become very hard to imagine, didn’t it?

George: Yes, what you describe is the case. I remember vividly, when I was quite young, using public transportation. I grew up across the street from one of the first housing developments in the United States, Parklawn in Milwaukee. It was loaded with kids. We had great times playing ball and when it got dark we’d come home and the rest of the day we’d be out playing baseball, football, basketball depending upon the season. Basketball even winter outside if we had to. For me it was a great place to grow up at a great time.

Brian: Can you explain the various eras of policing in Milwaukee. Obviously your childhood was one particular era. Very different circumstances prevailed not so much longer.

George: The Milwaukee Police Department like most police departments during the late 19th century and early 20th century was really quite a corrupt organization. In many respects police department in the United States, including Milwaukee, were overlaid on the political structure at that time and that political structure was oftentimes like a collection of tribes. You had various neighborhoods with councilmen, you could call them, or ward bosses, depending upon your inclination. And the ward bosses would basically have control of the police departments in their particular districts. So you might have a chief of police but that was largely just symbolic head, and things were so bad. For example in Milwaukee, first chief of police was in office three separate times depending upon the political party. Trainloads used to come to Milwaukee because of… Milwaukee was a place for gambling, prostitution, other forms of corruption. So Milwaukee was pretty much a wide open town, and the police did little about it.

In the early 20th century Milwaukee Mayor at the time in collaboration with the state government had two basic ordinances passed that covered Milwaukee that changed Milwaukee really for the rest of the century. And that was… The first was the chiefs of police would be appointed for life and that was that they had tenure and they could only be removed for cause. That was a radical change in American policing. Milwaukee was the first city to do that. The second major change in Milwaukee, and this again was pushed by the mayor and the state legislature, was that the chief alone was responsible for setting policy and practice. The chief did not have to account to anyone or anything or any political body, and this in a sense set up a fire wall between the Milwaukee police department and the political structure. And throughout the first half or really into the 1960s this operated as a model for the rest of the country in terms of how to rid departments of corruption and to get stabilized police departments. And I forget the exact number, during the first 60 years in Milwaukee you probably didn’t have more than 4 or 5 police chiefs because of this tenure provision, and Milwaukee was considered to be a model reform police department in the first half of the 20th century, and visitors from around the world would visit Milwaukee because it was considered such a model police department with these model provisions of tenure for the police chief and the police chief responsible for establishing policy, again establishing this firewall between the political structure and the police department.

Brian: This may have cut down on corruption, but did it have a positive effect on policing?

George: As best we can tell it did. Milwaukee was always noteworthy as a low crime city. The first national commission on policing, the Wickersham Commission, singled Milwaukee out as a model police department, and its low crime rate was due… both due to the nature of its population and because of its wonderful police department. So Milwaukee was highlighted in that respect as being an orderly city with relatively low levels of crime, and during the 1940s when I was coming up as a boy it was the low crime era that I really came up in.

Brian: What happened during the 60s to destroy that era?

George: Well Milwaukee like many other cities began to have some comeuppance, and that was that during the 1930s/40s/50s increasingly the police began to use cars. And at first cars would take off just from beat to beat so they could walk. Then later on, riding in the cars became an end in itself. That got hooked up with the telephone and that ultimately got hooked up into computers and 911 systems. That’s more contemporary, but again a model was laid out of police being in cars and we had no idea at that time… I shouldn’t say we because I wasn’t involved… but there was no awareness at the time of exactly what that would mean in terms of policing not just Milwaukee but any city. And the most dramatic outcome was that it removed police from any familiarity with neighborhoods and communities and it isolated police.

But the 1960s, 1950s/1960s, were also years of rapid social change, and in the name of urban renewal , in the name of highway construction, and in the name of integrating schools, etc. it was an era of massive social change and many of the neighborhoods were broken down, the neighborhood schools were broken down, and if you had asked a way to break down the social controls that neighborhoods and communities offered Milwaukee and many other cities could provide you with a good example because all the agencies of social control, all the agencies of socialization really came under well-meaning but nevertheless an assault that broke down their ability to maintain order and to keep youths especially under control. And so Milwaukee started, along with most other cities at that time, a movement towards increase crime, but also antagonism developed between police and the African American community and that… and we know about the riots of the 1960s. For most people now those riots are history, but I remember being on the streets of Milwaukee after the riots, seeing the military on the streets, and it was something tragic to see. But an antagonistic relationship started then between the Milwaukee police department and citizens… excuse me… and African American citizens that really lasted up until the current scene.

Brian: Now what has the department done to try to address policing in a racially divided city? Obviously it speaks to the very large national debate we are having these days on policing in minority neighborhoods.

George: Yeah, well I think first of all the current chief Ed Flynn, and I should make it plain that I know Ed. I partially recommended… not partially… I recommended Ed Flynn to be chief. So, you have to take what I say in that context, but Chief Flynn was a strong advocate of community policing. I think he is aware of the great gap that began to develop between the minority communities and the police department, and from the very beginning moved towards genuine community policing.

Brian: Could you describe exactly what community policing entails, George, for our listeners?

George: I think first of all, what happened when we put police in cars was that police moved from preventing crime to responding after crime happened, and that was built around the 911 system and it was built around keeping police in cars, and the idea was that you could move cars quickly around city streets and by moving them rapidly and randomly through city streets you could intercept crimes in progress and you would be available to respond rapidly to 911. I can’t go into the details but those tactics simply failed. And so from the late 1970s on police began to explore alternate ways of dealing with crime. And one of the dawnings during the 1980s was that the community played an important role. And that is the community had information, you had to work with the community, and you had to organize yourselves or organize the police department in ways that you would be available to get that information and that you would be trusted with that information. So you would have to restructure the relationship between communities and the police. And so, one of the first things that Chief Flynn did was to refocus around a geographic orientation.

In the past police departments were built around Algorithms to reduce response time. Instead, community policing emphasizes building police departments around natural neighborhoods, and so that you work with neighborhoods to develop their strength. So that was one of the key elements of any community policing attempt and the second most important thing apart from the geography is that you move away from just enforcing the law after a crime happens to preventing crime before it occurs. And I think these are the two key elements. It’s geographically oriented and the focus is on preventing crime.

The other thing that Chief Flynn from the very beginning I think, in terms of working with the communities, was very frank about the very nature of the problems in Milwaukee and that was serious crime and victimization was located in the African American community. And Chief Flynn, not a guy to mince words, didn’t mince words about this, and so he was upfront and where… And I’m not sure exactly where the figures are now, but I think last year in 2015 they had well over 400,000 contacts between police and citizens, and they had under 150 complaints about police behavior, so that the relationship between the police and the citizens has substantially changed. And I should add Milwaukee had all the difficulties that we read about with officers shooting unarmed African American males, and this goes back to the 1950s when it was first noted, but that concern has largely evaporated and the complaints are way down in Milwaukee at the present time.

Brian: What has Flynn done in terms of say training of police officers to have brought about that quite striking turnaround? It’s just it’s a very significant development.

George: I think, from the very beginning, he began to focus around the issues associated with community policing, and that is the orientation that if you are going to win the confidence of the community it doesn’t come about as a result of community relations programs. It comes about as a result of the everyday contact that police have with citizens, and that’s been the focus of training in Milwaukee, and on top of that is training regarding dealing with the mentally ill.

Milwaukee had its own tragedy with an emotionally disturbed African American male who got involved in a brawl with an officer and who was shot and killed, and the officer had gone through the training but didn’t follow the protocol for how to deal with the emotionally disturbed, and Chief Flynn fired that officer for not following the protocol. So it’s training plus holding officers accountable to carry out that particular training. So I think the term that’s been used to describe this idea that good relations with the minority community comes about as the result of the everyday contacts has got the fancy term of “procedural justice.” And that is that in every contact you should be unbiased, you should be fair, you should listen, you should try and understand. Even if it results in arrest you can still handle that contact civilly and I think that’s been a prime focus of Chief Flynn and the training that he’s installed.

Brian: You’ve consulted not just with the Milwaukee PD, but with a number of police departments over the years including here in New York where you’re currently advising the NYPD under Chief Bill Bratton.

George: Yes

Brian: Is the culture of the MPD very different from that of the New York Police Department, or are police basically the same everywhere?

George: No, they have very distinctive cultures, and I think speaking in the most broad sense you can say there is kind of a west-coast culture and an east-coast culture, with the Midwest being more like the western culture. The eastern culture has traditionally, although that was lost for a period of time, has been much more oriented around foot patrol, much more oriented around the move towards community policing. The west coast for a long period of time… Now I’m talking historically… For a long period of time emphasized that they could do the same kind of policing with smaller numbers of police.

Los Angeles was the model of that, and for a long time Los Angeles prided itself that it had a very aggressive police department but a very small police department, but it could do that. Well I think the recent couple of decades have demonstrated that the cost of trying to do it with a small number running around very swiftly are so high that you have to be moving towards having more police than what’s been the case in cities like Los Angeles. But you do get very different Police cultures depending upon department and depending upon location.

Brian: How much of a model can the Milwaukee Police Department be for the rest of the country?

George: Oh, I think the shift towards community policing and what Ed has done there in terms of a geographic orientation, and I think in terms of his forthrightness in terms of dealing with the community and what the problems are… I think that it’s been very hard especially for white chiefs to be talking about victimization in the African American communities and the fact that the vast majority of serious rime sadly is black on black crime.

Ed has been very forthright about that. He has been open to the community to discuss that, and I think that that has had enormous pay off in terms of the decline of the antagonism of the relationship, signified by the decline of complaints against the MPD.

Brian: George Kelling’s latest book “Policing in Milwaukee: A Strategic History” is available on Amazon, and you can find other articles he has written about crime and policing on our website. You can tweet your comments and questions about today’s discussions to @CityJournal with the hashtag #10blocks. Thanks again for joining us, George.

George: Thank you for having me. 

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