Sunday on my statewide television show UpFront, I asked Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn a simple question. Given the recent rash of shootings and homicides in Milwaukee, what would he say to out-state residents who might be wondering whether the city is safe?
“As long as they’re not coming here to engage in crime,” the Chief responded, “they’re safe.” Flynn said Milwaukee has one of the safest big-city downtowns in the country, but it also has a well-armed criminal community. According to the chief, 85 percent of Milwaukee’s victims and 95 percent of its offenders in gun-related cases have significant criminal records.
To address the spike in violent crime, Flynn and Mayor Tom Barrett asked the state to kick-in $500,000 for additional police overtime. But their suggestion didn’t get a warm reception from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. In an interview with WisconsinEye’s Steve Walters, Vos criticized how city officials were running the department, and said the strategy to combat violence in Milwaukee isn’t working.
Nearly two dozen shootings in a week. Seven gun-related murders in seven days. The recent events have led to a fierce public debate. Was Milwaukee well on its way to becoming Detroit? Had police strategies to combat violent crime failed? Or was Milwaukee no different from many other big cities which have experienced similar spikes in crime?
The truth is, Milwaukee has been no stranger to violent crime for more than 30 years. Some years, there’s more. Some years, there’s less. I moved back to Milwaukee in 1981, a 24-year-old reporter in a city where the streets largely felt safe. But homicides were not uncommon. There were 76 that year.
In some respects, the city has grown accustomed to a certain level of deadly violence. Six different police chiefs have used different strategies to address the problem with varied degrees of success. The number of homicides has fluctuated, dipping to as low as 48 in 1984. But soon after, the crack epidemic hit Milwaukee, and the struggle for turf among warring dealers and gangs brought a new, stunning level of violence to the city. In 1991, Milwaukee had a record 168 homicides, and the number stayed above 100 (often, well above it) for 18 of the next 20 years. In the last five years, the numbers have significantly improved. In 2008, there were 71 homicides, the fewest since the mid 1980’s. Last year, there were 92 homicides.
Put in perspective, the deadly violence in Milwaukee in recent years has been roughly half of what it was 20 years ago. Improvements in medical treatment for shooting victims may play some role in the decrease in homicides, but policing strategies are certainly another factor.
The other part of the public debate about violent crime in Milwaukee has centered on whether the city is worse-off than other big cities. The answer is yes and no. The chart below (provided by my new colleague, Professor Charles Franklin) shows that in 2012, Milwaukee had considerably more murders than a number of similar-size cities, including Portland, Seattle, and Denver, but half as many as Baltimore.
The next chart provides some additional context. Milwaukee’s murder rate ranks in the top 50 of cities with populations of more than 100,000. But the city is still safer than a number of others, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago. And Detroit? Milwaukee’s not in the same ballpark. The Motor City’s murder rate is nearly four times that of Milwaukee’s.
The recent rash of murders has resulted in Milwaukee’s homicide rate running slightly ahead of last year’s. Whether it remains that way is anybody’s guess. Law enforcement officials readily admit that spikes in shootings and homicides are nearly impossible to predict.
But numbers tell only part of the story about the potential damage done by the recent mayhem in Milwaukee. As Chief Flynn concedes, crime is also about perception. Do people feel safe? For those less familiar with the city and its history of homicides, the chief’s assurances might not be enough.