Impact of Reductions in Poverty-Fighting Increasingly Affecting Policing, Flynn Says

“Think big, folks,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn urged a full-house audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall on Tuesday. And Flynn did that himself during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program, taking a broad view of the role of police in protecting and enhancing the quality of life of people and communities in the city.

Flynn’s perspective focused frequently on how police have become the ones dealing with a gamut of social problems, as well as criminal problems, as public investment in programs aimed at helping people, especially those in poverty, have declined across the United States.

Over the last 25 years, Flynn said, “we have seen a consistent and unrelenting disinvestment in the social network, OK?” He gave mental health as an example: “Right now, the response of our society to issues of mental health is the criminal justice system. I’ve seen this for years and it’s becoming more so. . . . If you have a mental health problem, we can guarantee you a jail cell.” He said substance abuse problems are another example. “What is our social network dealing with substance abuse? Jail.”

Flynn, who is in his sixth year as Milwaukee’s police chief, said, “I’ve got 1,800 men and women out there who are being asked to deal with virtually every single social problem that presents as an inconvenience, discomfort or issue. . . . It is this one group that right now has the weight of every single social problem on it. And maybe we should start asking ourselves, do we need to double back and see what else we’re doing?”

Flynn said. “The problems of intergenerational endemic hard core poverty are pernicious and effect everything.”

“Crime is probably 20% of the police department’s work,” he said. “My average copper is out there spending 80 to 85% of his or her day dealing with social problems presenting themselves as things nobody can do anything about except call the cops.”

In order to increase the focus on fighting crime and provide the kind of patrolling so many people, Flynn said the department needs “to figure out ways to not respond fast to non-emergency calls. . . . We have to not do other stuff as often or as fast.”

He said the vast majority of crime involves a small fraction of people who are perpetrators and victims and a relatively small number of locations. Many locations and many people – both committing crimes and being victimized by crimes – show up over and over again in police reports.

That makes the value of high-tech use of information and data all the more valuable in focusing police efforts, he said. He said the Milwaukee department is upgrading its data use, along lines implemented already in Chicago, to get a better handle on the networks of relationships among people frequently involved in contact with police.

So far this year, there have been only four homicides in Milwaukee, Flynn said, compared to about a dozen at this point last year. But in 2013, the number of reported homicides was low until a surge of murder in August and September, much of it due to in-fighting within gangs, Flynn said. The total for 2013 was more than 100 for the first time in Flynn’s tenure. Overall, he said, it is too early to make conclusions about how this year will go when it comes to crime rates.

Flynn said some people attributed low crime totals so far this year to the unusually cold weather. He downplayed that as a factor, as well as downplaying hot weather as the reason for high murder rates last summer. “The bad guys are out there, heavily armed, predisposed to do bad things,” Flynn said. “And the weather by itself is not the deterrent unless, of course, fewer of them cross paths.” He added, “I don’t want people to think for a minute that just the cold weather does it for us.”

The police department received international attention and praise for its recent success in recovering a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin and making arrests in the case. But Flynn said that, even as a great amount of police time was given to that case, police continued to do the rest of their work. “Every single murder that has taken place in this city this year has been solved,” he said.

The full session with Flynn may be viewed by clicking here.


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