A beat cop and social scientist, Chief Ed Flynn has transformed his police department into tacticians who prevent crime. But the media seem clueless about the changes.
Chief Ed Flynn. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
The waiting room outside the office of Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn is large and uncomfortable, with a long row of chairs ceremoniously arranged across from a wall bearing portraits of all 17 chiefs in history. The display starts in 1855 with the usual march of stern white patriarchs with beards. The first mustache appears in 1888, followed by a century of clean-shaven Caucasians. Then, as if someone looked at the wall and said, ‘We need some diversity,’ a Latino, then an African-American male and finally a woman are tacked on at the end.
The years in office, however, pretty much speak to a history dominated by two men who were almost mirror images: John Janssen (1888-1921) and Harold Breier (1964-1984). The first and last lifetime appointees to the office, these two “iron-fisted” emperors together ruled for more than half a century.
Janssen is often called the father of the department. His appointment marked the end of the old spoils system that rewarded political cronies with jobs. Janssen was just 33 when he took over and stayed until he had a stroke 33 years later. Often called the “Czar,” he was an institution who gave Milwaukee its reputation for law and order. When Janssen declared there ought to be a law against singing and dancing in saloons (instrumental music was permitted), politicians had little choice but to join his crusades. When Mayor Emil Seidel tried to assert civilian authority over the police, his secretary, the poet Carl Sandburg, wrote a letter to the chief requesting his resignation. Janssen replied, “Go to hell. Neither you nor any other mayor can request my resignation and get away with it.”
Although Breier’s imperial rule was often compared to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI style, he was really Janssen’s true successor. His officers were forbidden to give sworn statements to city attorneys investigating police misconduct. When the Fire and Police Commission ruled that officers who killed their suspects should be fired, Breier replied, “It makes me want to puke.” Breier’s idea of “fostering community-police relationships” was to send uniformed officers to his critic’s home “to straighten out their thinking.” Breier’s take on school desegregation: “Crime by blacks is now all over the city.”
By the end of his era, the department had become inbred and medieval, and there were calls to end the lifetime tenure of the police chief. State law was changed to make the chief an appointed position. Four chiefs came and went in Breier’s wake, but their impact was limited. Robert Ziarnik was a caretaker, Philip Arreola emphasized sensitivity to the community, Arthur Jones restored a Breier-style autocracy but from a black perspective, and Nannette Hegerty tried to find a happy medium.
The department’s history “has not always been positive,” Flynn noted when taking the oath of office in January 2008. “We will work to learn from that history and not be held hostage to it.”
Flynn looks like the Hollywood image of a cop, with his trim, upright bearing and angular Irish-American face, and he served for years as a beat policeman. But he is also an East Coast intellectual who has written academic papers on criminology. He is one of the top police theoreticians in the country, in the vanguard of a revolution that is transforming practices and slashing crime.
Flynn moved the police from playing defense and waiting for bad things to happen to going on offense: targeting troubled neighborhoods in order to prevent crime. But for some reason, the media haven’t really given the chief much of a chance to explain the measures he’s taken to radically remake the department. Worse, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done articles that simply mislead the public.
There is a story here that is not being told – of a department undergoing a fascinating transformation. From the moment he took his oath of office, Flynn’s ringing words have made the revolution crystal clear: “Change is coming. It’s coming fast. … Too often, police departments act like patrol is an expendable resource, made up of call-answerers and report-takers, while the real police work is done by special units. That has to change. We’re not report-takers. We’re the police.”
How It Used to Be Done
The old, Breier-era style of policing was considered the last word in modernity. “We got off foot patrol, we got into cars, we invested heavily in detectives and forensic science,” Flynn says. If beat cops in cars didn’t solve the crime, detectives would follow up. “And what happened? Crime skyrocketed. What we were doing wasn’t affecting the crime rate.”
Flynn recalls a memorable incident in the early 1980s. “When I was a patrolman, there was a bank robbery. The bad guys had machine guns, serious shit. So we roll, detectives roll, and cordon off the area, search the housing project. Time goes by, and we don’t get the bad guys. So we all reconvene in the squad room. The FBI guy is briefing all of us about what we know, what we don’t know. Then he asks a guy in the back of the room smoking a pipe, ‘Captain, anything you want to add?’
“ ‘Anything I want to add?’ the captain says. ‘OK, just fuck the bank robbery. I go to five community meetings in a week. I got the highest-crime precinct in the city, and you know what? Nobody ever complains to me about bank robberies. We got all this time and talent in here. You’re not helping me.’ And he walks out the door. Stunned silence.”
Not long after that, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s influential article in The Atlantic magazine explained their “Broken Windows” theory of crime fighting: that small problems like broken windows are the key to what creates neighborhood disorder.
This is what Flynn hears from citizens when he shows up at community meetings in Milwaukee with charts and graphs of arrests. “They complain about boom box radios, drug dealing in the hallways, double-parkers blowing their horn, drinking on the corner and people harassing them. We’re talking about serious crime, and they’re talking about livability.”
A few years after the “Broken Windows” article, the first Harvard Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety canonized “community policing.” By then, Flynn had his first job as a police chief. “I was a baby chief then, and I’m reading the report in a true Socratic way, and I’m going, ‘Yes, yes, of course.’ ”
Cities like New York began to abandon the old style of policing. “Wherever we moved in an assertive direction to data-driven, community-based police strategies, there was a dramatic decrease in crime,” Flynn says.
His career has personified this: In city after city where Flynn has served as chief, crime has gone down. This has fueled suspicion, misunderstanding and disbelief in those who don’t get the approach.
How It’s Done Now
In the classic TV show “Law and Order,” beat cops are functionaries who clean up after murders and canvass the neighborhood while leaving the crime-solving to detectives. In fact, according to a paper Flynn recently co-authored with Kelling, detectives do not “affect the success police have in solving crimes.” Adding insult to injury, the study equates detective work to that of an “accountant or bank examiner.”
In reality, they argue, you can’t solve crimes without help from the public. When an offender is not identified by the public, “the chances of solving any crime fall to about 10 percent,” they write.
The old, Breier-era police department operated as a service agency, with police spread evenly throughout the city (or even more heavily in better neighborhoods) and mostly waiting for calls to come in to trigger their activity.
The new model recognizes that crime is concentrated in very few neighborhoods. “When America’s homicide rate dropped in the late 1990s, 80 percent of that decrease came from New York. Last year, homicides dropped 40 percent in Wisconsin, and 90 percent of the decrease happened here in a few neighborhoods.” In a city like Milwaukee, Flynn adds, “10 percent of locations generate 60 percent of the crimes.”
Listening to people in those high-crime neighborhoods develops trust that generates tips and solves crimes. “It’s been a major cultural shift to turn the department into an intelligence operation.” That’s why Flynn has taken police out of the squad cars so they learn to distinguish the criminals from the good people in troubled neighborhoods.
“An awful lot of information comes through beat cops and bicycle cops who people see every day. People talk to them. We give our detectives turf now, too. They know the networks of offenders and the networks of chronic victims. We take groups of four to 10 officers to work a series of blocks. They aren’t totem poles, mindlessly wandering around. Now 20 people are out there looking around for Johnny Jones instead of just the detective and his partner. Then we use our information technology to focus their efforts.”
Good information technology was long lacking in the department, even through Hegerty’s tenure. “It was the dark ages,” John Hagen, now assistant chief of police, once told this magazine. “There was no data.” Flynn reached out to the business community for funding to update the department’s computer systems.
Now, the department has daily briefings on where crime is happening. “Every single day, our people are examining patterns and comparing it to prior times,” Flynn says. “We look at the last 24 hours of activity related to the last week’s activity, related to the month-to-date activity, and relate the last three weeks to the preceding three weeks to see what trends are developing.”
Last summer, the data showed a 65 percent spike in nonfatal shootings over a six-week period. “So we decided to take a harder look at this,” Flynn explains. “We put officers not just in the neighborhoods, but on the very blocks where we’ve seen a disparate amount of violence. And we made sure the officers knew what the plan was, made sure they adhered to the plan.” The result: Over the next six-week period, shootings dropped 63 percent.
In a high-crime area like this, many victims in one case end up as offenders or witnesses in other cases. “You would be amazed,” Flynn says. “And the better we get in analyzing those connections, the better we are in interdicting them.”
Information-sharing between beat cops and detectives is critical. “Detectives are finding they can expand their reach by sharing information with the working cops who are only too happy to go out there and do bits of the investigation. And when a detective shows up at a roll call and talks about what’s going on in terms of some [potential criminal] network, that invites information from the officers.”
Another way of gathering intel is through traffic stops. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was caught thanks to a routine traffic stop? Under Flynn, traffic and subject stops more than tripled to 240,000 in 2010, leading to more arrests and more information.
A data-driven approach requires police to become social scientists. “For example, in the first quarter of 2011, for the first time since I’ve been here,” Flynn says, “we had an increase in stolen cars. Well, we didn’t have a theory, we did some work. And what have we found? Almost 100 percent of the increase was basically crushed cars recovered at scrap yards. The price of metal had doubled in one year.”
It’s a move away from the old military model for the police. A study of the department by the Fire and Police Commission found that police use force of any kind in less than 1 percent of encounters with citizens.
“I want my officers to think,” Flynn says. “Discretion is the lifeblood of the system. That’s something police in the old, rigid, semi-military days pretended didn’t exist. We were very rule-bound. It was all management by how bad the fuck-up was. The decisions by officers have got to come from an ethical place, accomplishing a proper public purpose. And if you make a mistake furthering these ends, you’re not going to get disciplined, you’re going to get trained.”
Flynn’s emphasis on beat cops has led to a decline in detectives. Before Flynn, there were promotions to detective every two years, notes Mike Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association. “Since then, there has not been a promotional cycle. Now, the number of detectives has dropped to an unheard-of level, from 250 to 200.”
Disgruntled detectives now play a key role in the police union, a reliable source for reporters looking to find Flynn critics. Not everyone is on board with his changes.
“There are still pockets of resistance,” the chief admits. “There are people who feel they have lost their elite status, that they have somehow been marginalized.”
But for the most part, Flynn believes, morale is up because officers can see the results of the changes. “One of the frustrations of policing was that you could guarantee you would see the same stuff over and over and over again, and not necessarily have a sense we’re making any progress. That was extremely dispiriting.
“The thing we can offer now is that their work can, in fact, measurably matter. We didn’t have that as a profession just two decades ago.
“I believe the department’s hit a critical mass. I think the officers feel good about having a positive impact on the quality of life in the city.”
The Social Service Agency
Police can be inundated with demands. “Even in the highest-crime neighborhood, there is the constant pressure to do things other than fight crime,” Flynn says. “In the poorest neighborhoods, 80 percent of the calls are going to be social work.
“So, it’s a struggle for us to focus on violence reduction against the backdrop of mediating family disputes, going to car crashes, dealing with barking dogs, noise complaints, obstreperous young men who are harassing somebody, the whole panoply of urban ills. Talk about mission creep. We are the quality of life people, the anti-crying people, the child welfare people, the alcoholic beverage control people. We’re the social agency of first resort for the poor, so we’re basically fighting crime in our spare time, if we’re not careful.”
The challenge is maximized in the summer. “That’s when everything spikes,” Flynn says. “Burglaries spike, because people are pushing in air conditioners to get into your house. Robberies spike, because there’s more people on the streets. Shootings spike, because there’s more people outside with guns getting involved over beefs, feuds and issues of disrespect. Noise complaints spike, graffiti complaints spike.”
Summer nights are by far the most intense. “The period of time, 1 a.m. to about 3:30 a.m., is when everything is breaking loose at the same time.”
The old model for police was just responding to complaints, Flynn says. The new model prioritizes calls to maintain resources for proactive policing. “It’s a management challenge for us.”
For Flynn, the goal is sociological. “We’ve accepted as our mission statement that we’re going to develop neighborhoods capable of sustaining civic life,” he says. “Reducing crime, fear and disorder will help create sustainable neighborhoods. And that requires police to understand the dynamics of the neighborhood.
“One of the depressing things about driving around this city is, you’ll go down a block, and there will be six houses that are absentee landlord, full of people on the porch, eye-fucking you as you drive by, that everybody else in the neighborhood is afraid of. And there will be four houses with, like, manicured lawns and flowers in the flower boxes, so they’re trying, but those folks have bars on their windows and bars on their front door. In an atomized community that is governed by fear, people are prisoners in their houses.
“That’s a neighborhood with insufficient social capital. Not enough people in the neighborhood have a stake in, ‘OK, this is our public space, and we have a role in defining behavior exclusive of calling the police.’
“Go out to the quiet, leafy suburbs. They don’t need a massive police presence. Why? People agree on what the social contract is. We cut our grass, we keep our music low, we don’t speed down the streets where the kids are playing.
“Our challenge is, can we produce the base level of safety where the forces of informal social control, stable renters and homeowners can begin to set the tone. Where people can develop the courage to ask a stranger to get off their porch, or they’ll have enough social support to say, ‘Please turn that radio down. Please don’t break glass on my sidewalk. Please don’t speed down my street.’
“It’s the police department that’s called hundreds of thousands of times by people in the minority community. The minority poor community that’s besieged by crime absolutely depends upon the police.
“People in those neighborhoods know the vast majority of their neighbors are not committing crimes. What they want is police who reliably differentiate between members of that neighborhood. And we’re getting better at that, the more we keep cops in the same neighborhoods over and over, and the more refined we get with our use of data to identify premises and individuals that need policing.”
Beat or bike cops are a key to learning the neighborhood dynamics. “The other reason I do it is for the mental health of my officers, because when they are in a squad all night, they go from horrendous call to horrendous call. When they’re on foot or on a bicycle, people are nice to them, they see regular people, and that has changed the relationship, particularly in those high-crime districts.
“Another advantage of cops in public spaces, not in cars, is that it makes people feel safer. It’s a major fear-reduction component of what we do. It is also a great way to humanize the officers.”
Not only do cops get to know the residents, but residents also get to know the cops. “And the community is noticing that,” Flynn says with obvious pride.
Every year, he attends Juneteenth Day, the annual celebration of slavery’s abolition held on Martin Luther King Drive. “I sure as hell notice the reaction every time I go to Juneteenth and my cops walking down the street are greeted by people patting them on the shoulder and shaking their hand. They are better received than they were just a few years ago.”
The Journal Sentinel’s Skewed Coverage
No Milwaukee chief in modern times has presided over a bigger reduction in crime. Yet, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done series after series of “Watchdog” stories criticizing the department.
The first looked at how certain transgressions of police officers (like drunken driving and domestic violence) were handled by the department. Flynn responded with a newspaper op-ed offering a devastating critique of the stories: He noted the highlighted cases spanned 31 years, back through the administrations of five prior police chiefs; that 86 percent of the cases occurred before he was chief; and that, “The median discipline for domestic violence and drunken driving was two days between 1997 and 2004. My median discipline has been 30 days.” None of this information was included in the JS news story.
Another Watchdog series criticized the response time of the police to dispatch calls. The first story found the average response time had gone up by about two minutes under Flynn, from 37 to 39 minutes, hardly earth-shaking. Another graph buried in the story showed the response to dispatch calls had increased by nine minutes since 2005. But almost all of the increase, about eight minutes, had happened from 2005 to 2007 under Flynn’s police chief predecessor, Nannette Hegerty. Meanwhile, crime had plummeted under Flynn, as had dispatch calls, suggesting police had disorder far more under control.
The story ignored data showing that during this same time, overall citizen complaints about the police department had plummeted from 489 in 2007 to 308 in 2010, as had complaints about police response time, suggesting little concern in the community over the issue. Also left out was that Flynn had accomplished all of this while greatly lowering the cost of police overtime, which had been a huge issue under chiefs Hegerty and Arthur Jones.
Finally, the newspaper’s two stories never proved any crimes went undetected because of a small increase in response time. That’s a rather huge omission, given that Flynn has made it clear his strategy, and that of other leading urban chiefs, is to more effectively fight crime by de-emphasizing response time in favor of proactive policing.
Another Watchdog story by the newspaper found that black drivers were seven times more likely and Hispanic drivers five times more likely to be stopped by Milwaukee police than white drivers. Three days before the story ran, Flynn did a 47-minute response for the media still available on YouTube. He explained that police profile not by race, but by suspects, and that the data on the race of drivers stopped correlates closely with the race of suspects. He noted the JS data did not separate out habitual offenders, giving the example of 24 such offenders, all African-Americans, who were stopped 293 times and ultimately arrested 104 times, resulting in 194 felony charges. But in the newspaper’s data, this would have been recorded as though 293 different African-Americans had been stopped.
The police also profile by car, Flynn explained, stopping a lot of Dodge Caravans on the North Side and Honda Civics on the South Side because they are most likely to be stolen. This has greatly reduced auto theft, he added. Finally, Flynn noted that citizen complaints to the department have steadily declined as traffic stops have increased. None of the information he presented was included in the JS story.
Tom Bamberger is a frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.