Homicides in Milwaukee are at record-breaking level again this year, and now the city has made an abrupt change in leadership at its Office of Violence Prevention. Ald. Ashanti Hamilton has been named to lead the agency. Hamilton, who will resign as the 1st District representative on the Common Council in the coming days, is replacing Arnitta Holliman, whom Mayor Cavalier Johnson unexpectedly fired on Aug. 3.
Hamilton and Johnson stressed the importance of focusing on violence as public health issue despite criticism at times of the office’s effectiveness in combating homicides and violent crime in the city. Milwaukee had a then-record 190 homicides in 2020 as the city dealt with the troubling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That figure was up from 97 in 2019 and far surpassed the previous mark set in 1991, and it jumped to another record, l94, last year. There have been nearly 150 homicides in Milwaukee already in 2022, outpacing last year’s grim mark.
“We do understand the statistics that have been discussed about the high crime and the high murder rate that the city of Milwaukee is experiencing right now,” Hamilton said at a press conference at City Hall on Monday. “There’s a huge community partnership that’s necessary in order to address these issues.”
Reggie Moore, who led the Office of Violence Prevention for more than five years before Holliman’s brief stint, said in an interview with Milwaukee Magazine earlier this year that he left the post, in part, because he thought his work would be more effective outside the confines of city politics. Moore currently serves as director of violence prevention policy and engagement for the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Injury Center.
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Moore, who served as director of the Office of Violence Prevention from 2016-21, grew the agency from two staff members to eight and quadrupled its annual budget to $2.1 million. He helped create Milwaukee’s first community-driven comprehensive violence prevention plan, Blueprint for Peace, expanded rapid response trauma services for young people and families, and launched 414LIFE, a program to reduce gun violence.
Yet, he opted out of his role because, he said, a level of politics is always inherent when an agency is embedded in any governmental entity, a thought shared by others. The Office of Violence Prevention is part of the Milwaukee Health Department.
Johnson, however, said he’s convinced that the office can function effectively within city government and with a leader who has spent the past 18 years directly involved in Milwaukee politics.
“He knows the people most affected by violence,” Johnson said of Hamilton. “Our attention is now focused on moving forward. I want to make certain that tomorrow, next week, next year, that we’re in a safer position and the city is safer and that our city is stronger and is more prosperous.”
Hamilton said he’s been directly involved in violence prevention efforts as alderman, giving him a sense of what’s effective. He pointed specifically to 414 Life, which he said started as an initiative in the Garden Homes neighborhood in his district before being expanded under the leadership of Moore and others.
“There’s been some concern about whether there’s a continued commitment to understanding that violence is a public health issue and approaches to solving violence in our community have to continue with that approach,” Hamilton said. “There are strategies out there that work, and we have to continue to invest in those strategies.”
The office’s stated mission is to “stop violence before it starts” through community-wide prevention efforts with a range of partners to facilitate a multidisciplinary, population-level approach to influence the social, behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to violence.
Johnson and Hamilton both stressed the need for “tangible metrics” in evaluating the office’s violence prevention programs.
Hamilton is shifting into the role as the city’s violence prevention czar despite having been charged in 2009 with felony child abuse for striking his daughter several times with a plastic hanger. The charges were eventually dropped as part of a plea agreement.
“This is a reality that I had to go through, a learning experience that I had to grow through,” Hamilton said. “I think we bring our life experiences to every position. I think that there are many people in our community that thought like I thought during that time period, but I’ve satisfied everything that was necessary.”
Hamilton credited the work of his predecessors in the Office of Violence Prevention and said he wants to expand on their efforts.
“We want to build on that work and we want to ensure that we measure whether or not what we are doing is having an impact on the residents that live in this city,” he said.