Milwaukee needs to improve community-oriented policing program

Story Date: 
Jul 15, 2016

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

After witnessing the recent violence against police and by police, it should be clear that we don't need "them vs. us" rhetoric. We need to look to one another to find ways to reduce tension by solving problems.

Take a look at police officers.

Police officers frequently are in stressful, not to mention dangerous, situations. The public adds to their stress because it has high expectations and sometimes unreasonable expectations regarding the ability of officers to reduce, crime, fear, disorder and associated societal harms. When stress affects officers' ability to do their job properly, that is a problem.

A Wisconsin legislator says he will introduce a "Blue Lives Matter" bill in January. Proponents of this type of legislation — to make crimes against police officers into hate crimes — are offering little solace and no practical support.

Police officers and their families will not be helped by gaining a heightened sense of victimization. They should not adopt the mantle of a beleaguered minority because, in fact, they are valued public servants. We give them the power of life and death and great discretion. We should recognize the stress police officers and their families confront, but piling on by claiming that there is a war against police or that the law isn't already severely penalizing attacks on police, does a disservice to everyone.

Even after the killings in Dallas, the declining number of attacks on officers during the Obama administration doesn't support the notion that we are at war. Furthermore, there already are severe penalties for attacks on police officers in many states, including Wisconsin, where even a true threat may be charged as a felony.

A more fruitful approach to creating a better working environment for officers and better public safety for residents is community-oriented policing, which has existed in various forms for decades now.

The Milwaukee Police Department claims to use community-oriented policing. Community-oriented policing is based in part on the premise that police officers who have regular contact with all sorts of residents will create trust between police and residents.

Unfortunately, across the country and in Milwaukee there still are too high levels of distrust between police and communities of color. Distrust is not accurately reflected by the number of complaints filed against police officers, as many residents believe that the complaint process is not effective.

At community forums, Milwaukee residents have reported being ignored or treated with disrespect when they contact police, including at district stations. Surveys by the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission and the ACLU of Wisconsin suggest most residents are only somewhat satisfied with the Milwaukee Police Department, and that the more contacts residents have with police, the less likely the residents will be to help the police. Every time there is an officer-involved killing, community members justifiably demand accountability, and when it does not appear to be forthcoming, trust is undermined.

In Milwaukee, since at least 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department has used a police strategy based on establishing a large presence in neighborhoods afflicted by high crime rates. It has done so in part by utilizing roughly 200,000 officer-initiated stops per year. The stops are often not made for the reason given and potentially abuse the use of consent searches.

Because Milwaukee has such a robust stop-and-frisk program, the good things that the MPD and its community partners are doing may not result in the benefits we should expect from community-oriented policing. Community-oriented policing in Milwaukee appears to be subservient to a policing strategy that is concerned with giving the illusion of control.

Who could disagree that every neighborhood deserves professional, unbiased and cost-effective policing? We can do that and respect the civil liberties and civil rights of everyone. If we avoid "them vs. us" rhetoric, listen to one another and adhere to fundamental principles, we can improve police-community relations.

Chris Ahmuty is executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.