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Milwaukee Police Give 911 a Facelift

Milwaukee has overhauled how it responds to serious crimes -- but not without criticism. Are the risks of challenging policing's status quo worth the rewards?

David Kidd
Eight years ago, Vicki Kopping moved back to Milwaukee, into the comfortable two-story home owned by her mother in a tidy, middle-class neighborhood in the northwest corner of the city. When the economy tipped into recession in late 2007, however, Kopping’s neighborhood began to change. Banks foreclosed on her neighbors’ homes. Drug dealers started selling out of the apartment building across the street. Soon they were running a discreet but open drug market, complete with lookouts, runners and curbside sales.

Kopping tried to ignore it. She could still sit on her stoop in the morning and enjoy a cup of coffee; the drug dealing didn’t start until 11. Then one morning she discovered that someone had broken into her car. So Kopping did what thousands of Americans do every day when confronted by crime: She called 911.

In West Bend, Wis., where Kopping had lived previously, “police came immediately whenever you called them,” she says. Not in Milwaukee. Instead of a visit from a squad car, Kopping got a phone call from an officer assigned to a recently created unit, Differential Police Response (DPR).

DPR is the brainchild of Milwaukee’s reform-minded police chief, Ed Flynn. Flynn arrived in Milwaukee four years ago, after serving as police chief in Springfield, Mass.; Arlington, Va.; and several other cities. He also served as Massachusetts’ secretary of public safety under Gov. Mitt Romney. In Milwaukee, Flynn found a department “trapped in amber,” the majority of whose officers were focused on clearance rates and response times rather than on preventing crime.

Flynn had a different vision for the department and indeed for police in general. “It’s our job to create neighborhoods capable of sustaining civic life,” he says. By being visible in high-crime neighborhoods, by working with other government entities to solve problems and by encouraging residents “to reoccupy their public spaces,” Flynn believed that the police could help neighborhoods regain the ability to police themselves. But in order to do that, he needed more officers. Changing the way his department dealt with 911 calls was one way to get them.

“When your computer breaks, they don’t send a guy to your house to fix your computer,” says Flynn. “You dial a number and some very nice person in India tells you what to do with your computer.” Instead of dispatching “the armed authority of the state to your living room,” he reasoned, there was no reason that for certain types of calls -- nuisance or noise complaints or stolen property reports -- a police officer couldn’t handle it by picking up the phone and making a call.

Today, nearly three years later, approximately 13 percent of dispatched calls for service in Milwaukee are handled over the phone by one of the police department’s seven DPR units. Flynn’s attempt to curb 911 and rethink the role of patrol officers have made him into a figure of national significance. But within Milwaukee, Flynn’s reforms have created powerful critics, most notably the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has run stories that question the department’s crime statistics and its response times. The pushback from a respected paper and other critics raises the question: Are the risks of challenging policing’s status quo worth the rewards?

In 1968, AT&T created a single number for emergency services nationwide, 911. “The whole focus,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, “was on making police more responsive, more accountable.” The advent of 911 gave ordinary citizens a power once enjoyed only by police commanders: the ability to affect police deployment. Departments, in turn, had a new measurement they could track: response time. By the 1970s, response time, numbers of arrests and clearance rates (cases solved) had become the holy trinity of American policing. But there was a problem with this new, more democratic approach to police deployment. It didn’t work.

The 911 systems reinforced some of the least effective practices in policing, notably police departments’ reliance on radio patrol cars. Since the 1930s, American police departments had been moving officers from foot beats into radio-equipped squad cars. The theory behind this shift was that by circulating quickly and unpredictably, police would create an illusion of omnipresence. Criminals would be afraid to commit crimes because they never knew when a squad car might appear. The reality was that so-called routine preventive patrol had no effect on crime, fear or disorder, as demonstrated by a famous experiment conducted in Kansas City, Mo., in the early 1970s.

Departments largely ignored this finding. Instead, as the volume of 911 calls began to rise, they put more officers in radio cars. For a generation of police officers, the experience of policing became racing from one call to the next. Officers were measured not by how many crimes they prevented -- the conventional wisdom was that police couldn’t prevent crime -- but by how quickly they responded, notwithstanding research that suggested that quick police responses only rarely increased the probability of an arrest being made. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, departments began to experiment with new approaches that fell under the rubric of community policing; however, cities continued to encourage citizens to treat 911 as the gateway to police services.

“That was OK as long as departments could continue to grow,” says Bernard Melekian, the former Pasadena, Calif., police chief who now heads the federal COPS office (Community Oriented Policing Services). But after 18 months of recession and three years of anemic economic growth, American police departments are no longer expanding. On the contrary, many are now facing cuts. As Melekian sees it, that has presented departments with a choice: revert to the traditional model of policing or truly commit to a new approach. “The overwhelming majority of departments,” says Melekian, “are not going to have the resources to do both.”

There was never any doubt as to what Ed Flynn’s choice would be. Flynn’s selection as chief in 2008 -- only the second time in the 153-year history of the Milwaukee Police Department that the chief had come from outside the department -- was a clear sign that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the Fire and Police Commission (whose members the mayor appoints) wanted changes. Flynn lost no time in delivering it. He focused first on the department’s data systems, instituting Compstat, the computerized crime tracking and deployment system developed by the New York Police Department in the early 1990s. However, Flynn soon turned his attention to the more controversial topic of transforming the culture of the Milwaukee Police Department.

Flynn wanted uniformed officers deployed to hot spots. But the city was facing steep reductions in state assistance. While Mayor Barrett was prepared to defend the department’s budget, there would be no resources for more officers. To get them, Flynn would have to think creatively.

That thought process got a jump-start when, soon after arriving in Milwaukee, Flynn was headed to an event at the police academy. A squad car sped past him, sirens flashing. Flynn asked his chief of staff what was going on. It turns out someone had called 911 about a red car that was speeding through the neighborhood. No one had gotten a license plate number, and the speeding red car was presumably many miles away.

Flynn was incredulous. Police were chasing after a red car, somewhere in the city, that had been speeding at some point in the past.But the department handled all kinds of issues in a similar fashion. Instead of treating everything as urgent, Flynn thought, “For the love of God, why can’t sworn officers who’ve had years of experience and hundreds of hours of training tell you on the phone how to deal with your problem?” Then Flynn realized something: They could. Soon thereafter, the DPR program was launched.

Milwaukee’s 911 system receives more than 900,000 calls a year for an average of one call every 35 seconds. Under DPR, telecommunicators handle the calls and assign each incident a code, depending on how serious a threat it is.

On a recent Monday afternoon at the District Three emergency command center, a dozen or so 911 telecommunicators and police department dispatchers were sharing a barn-like room on the third floor. They were preparing for the spike in calls that normally starts when school lets out and crests around 7 p.m. This particular afternoon, there were a smattering of high-priority code one and code two calls -- a ShotSpotter (gunfire locator) alert, a suspect with a gun and a possible arson investigation. There were a much larger number of code three and four calls -- an assault on an animal, one by an animal and a missing elderly person. And then there were the code five calls.

Code five calls now go to the DPR units at the seven district police stations. Today in District Three, that means they’re appearing on the computer screen of Officer Josh Nemeth, whose computer and desk sit one floor down from the main room. Nemeth was on the phone, talking with a woman who had called 911 about an older man who was dating her much younger daughter. She wanted him to keep his distance; Nemeth was walking her through the process of getting a restraining order.

“They seem to like the quicker response over the phone,” he says. Sometimes the solution is as simple as his calling a noisy neighbor and asking him to turn down the stereo or send his guests home. On occasion, he has issued a citation by mail.

“The benefit of it is, it is not tying up our squads,” says Lt. Iris Ziolkowski, who oversees District Three’s DPR unit. If a resident calls in the afternoon to report that someone broke into his car and stole his radio the night before, police wouldn’t respond immediately. “Sending a squad car to respond many hours later just makes citizens angry,” Ziolkowski says. “This way, DPR can get all the information, and I can get somebody to go [finger]print the car. We can handle it the way the officer on the patrol handles it. It’s just that the citizen is talking to an officer here.”

Surveys conducted every month by the police department show that more than 80 percent of residents who deal with a DPR unit are satisfied by the experience. According to Michael Tobin, executive director of the Fire and Police Commission, only seven citizens have filed complaints. Kopping is one of the seven. The week after her first 911 call, someone broke into her car again. This time she found clothes and a screwdriver in her car. She called the police. Then she waited -- for four hours, she says. Finally, in frustration, she drove over to District Seven and presented her complaint in person to the desk sergeant.

“I walk in and he says, ‘Well what do you want us to do?’” relates Kopping. “I said, ‘You’re a goddamn cop! Do something.’ Pardon my French, but that’s what I told him.” Now she doesn’t bother to call about the little things.

Kopping’s experience underscores Michael Crivello’s reservations about the DPR program. Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, the local union, asks, “Should we be responding to everybody’s little call where it really is not a criminal matter or quality-of-life issue? Probably not.” However, Crivello worries that not sending patrol cars to whole categories of quality-of-life complaints essentially trains citizens not to call the police at all. “The less [frequently] we dispatch cars, the more disinterested we get people in calling the police,” he says. “When you look at the statistics, crime has dropped, but has it really dropped, or is it the calls to police that are dropping?”

These concerns have been amplified by Milwaukee’s daily newspaper. During Flynn’s early years as chief, the Journal Sentinel generally provided positive coverage of the chief’s reforms. Recently, however, the newspaper has turned critical. Last fall, the paper ran a major story alleging that the police department’s response times had grown longer -- 10 percent longer during Flynn’s first three years as chief compared to his predecessor’s final three years -- thus threatening public safety. By focusing on incidents where the department had failed to respond promptly to serious incidents while discussing the department’s new DPR policy on responses, Flynn felt the paper had painted a misleading portrayal of the new program.

“They tried to discredit me by highlighting mishandled Priority One calls,” Flynn says, with obvious irritation. The mistakes were real, he says, but they were isolated mistakes that had nothing to do with DPR. As for the broader charge, Flynn acknowledges that overall response time has slowed, but it’s because the department is now handling non-emergency calls differently. “We’re creating time to be proactive,” Flynn says. “They caught me doing what I promised to do.”

Flynn’s changes to 911 are part of his effort to clear the way for patrol officers to focus on problem solving. One of his other reforms, which builds on the changed 911 system, is far more controversial.

When Flynn arrived in Milwaukee, he found a department dominated by its detectives, particularly its homicide detectives. Working closely with the district attorney’s office, they routinely “cleared” more than 80 percent of total homicide cases. If case clearance was the goal, notes District Attorney John Chisholm, “it was an extremely effective system.”

While clearance rates are important, Flynn felt the department was focused on the wrong goal. It was important to solve crimes, but it was also important to prevent them. The role of the uniform patrol needed to be redefined and expanded. With the support of the mayor and the Fire and Police Commission, Flynn took key plainclothes commanders from the Criminal Investigation Bureau, put them back in uniform and moved them from the Police Administration Building downtown out to the districts. The elite plainclothes units were disbanded and consolidated. Now, instead of patrol officers running from “hitch to hitch,” says Tobin of the Fire and Police Commission, referring to individual calls for service, patrol officers are supposed to take the time to investigate incidents from start to finish, including such serious offenses as aggravated assault and armed robbery.

The process has not been an easy one. “We have had growing pains on that,” says Tobin. Assistant district attorneys have had to deal with cases that were not as well prepared as when investigations were conducted by detectives. Sometimes cases were dismissed as a result, and uniformed officers have been disciplined for botching investigations.

Police Association President Crivello, himself a detective, makes it clear just how much anguish Flynn’s changes have created. “It has caused a division in our department,” says Crivello. “Detectives are not allowed to do their jobs, and police officers are mandated to.”

A response to a 911 call one summer evening in District Three offers a glimpse into both the challenges and the opportunities of this new approach. A man called in that he had been stabbed in the hand during a dispute with a roommate. Because the incident involved an assault with a deadly weapon and the alleged perpetrator was still at the scene, it was a code one call. By the time Sgt. Adam Riley arrived at the scene of the incident, police officers and firefighters were already there and talking to the victim, who was nursing his hand while angrily denouncing his roommate.

The wound didn’t look very serious. But since the roommate was at home one block away, officers went to investigate. There, they heard a completely different story. The complainant started the fight, the roommate claimed. As for the stabbing, yes, he had a penknife but he hadn’t used it.

Three years ago, Sgt. Riley would probably have been on his way at that point. Instead, he stayed to try to sort things out. The police entered the house to look around and found drug paraphernalia. When Riley stepped outside, a young woman walked over from the house next door. She was there visiting her mother, she told Riley, but had grown up in the neighborhood. Working-class people, friends of her grandmother, had once lived in the house. They had moved to Atlanta and now, she said in a low voice, “This is a dope house. It’s ridiculous. I am sure you know how many people have been killed over here.”

Riley asked if she’d called anyone about it. The woman said she’d called the anonymous tip line a couple of times.

It would be satisfying to report that Riley was able to promise the woman beat or bike patrols, or that he referred her to an innovative community-prosecution unit embedded in District Three. In fact, though, he just listened. Then, he asked her for her name, date of birth and phone number.

“When people are out drinking and loitering, call it in,” he told her. “If the department gets enough calls, there might eventually be things we can do.” Then, almost as an afterthought, Riley said he would like to pass the woman’s information on to the community liaison officer.

“For her to actually come up and say listen, ‘This is a drug place,’ you know, that doesn’t happen often,” he says. “They’re scared. They’re like hostages in their own homes.”

His follow-up -- and her follow-up -- is what will ultimately determine if Flynn’s vision of the police as problem-solvers is realized.

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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