What Does ‘Defund the Police’ Mean in Milwaukee?

The Milwaukee Common Council proposed a 10% cut from the Milwaukee Police Department’s budget, but that’s just the beginning, according to protesters.

Advocacy groups and protesters nationwide have called for the defunding, or even the complete deconstruction, of police departments in response to the killing of George Floyd. Milwaukee is one of several cities reassessing how its police department is funded.

The Milwaukee Common Council passed legislation on June 15 directing the city’s budget director to decrease the police department’s budget by 10% in the 2021 city budget model. Common Council President Cavalier Johnson and Ald. José Pérez co-sponsored the resolution, with signatures from Alds. Milele Coggs, Marina Dimitrijevic, Ashanti Hamilton, Nik Kovac, Robert Bauman, Khalif Rainey, JoCasta Zamarripa, Chantia Lewis and Russell Stamper II, totaling 11 of the 15 aldermen.

Demands from Milwaukee citizens for the city to reduce investment in the Milwaukee Police Department prompted this piece of legislation, according to Johnson.

The 2020 budget for the Milwaukee Police Department is $297.4 million. A 10% decrease would amount to around $30 million.

However, the passage of the legislation does not guarantee a reduction in the police budget. In September, the Mayoral administration will present the executive budget to the Common Council and at the beginning of October, the Common Council has the opportunity to review the budget. In early November, the council will adopt the budget with whatever amendments members may introduce and pass.

Johnson explained that either the Mayor will present the budget with the 10% cut or an amendment will be added while the budget is “in the council’s possession.”

Johnson also noted that the resolution calls for the reallocation of the money deducted from the MPD budget. Although the budget office will determine where the money will be reallocated, the resolution suggests “services and agencies that work to address racism, poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and other underlying causes of criminal behavior.”

City Budget Director Dennis Yaccarino told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that coronavirus will play a large part in the creation of the 2021 city budget given the city will have an approximately $30 million deficit. Yaccarino said to the Journal Sentinel, “we will have to deal with the budget gap first and then any decisions on funding for any particular service will then be determined.”

Johnson acknowledged this challenge and believes that almost every department will “get a haircut.”

The Milwaukee Police Department released a statement that it “remains committed to best serving the community with the resources it is afforded, including partnering with the various agencies that provide much needed social services. A 10% cut in the police budget, or $29.7 million, is the equivalent of approximately 375 police officers.”

MPD also tweeted a series of posts with the hashtag #DidYouKnow, including information about the MPD budget and what the 10% cut would mean for the department. One tweet explains that the loss of the 375 officers due to a 10% budget cut is equal to “shutting down District 5, District 7 and Sensitive Crimes.” Another tweet said that in 2019 the police department faced a budget reduction resulting in the loss of 60 officers and, within the same year, “the homicide rate [in Milwaukee] has more than doubled & non-fatal shootings have increased by over 35%.”

But some Milwaukee-area organizations, such as Leaders Igniting Transformation, The African American Roundtable and Liberate MKE, have called for a greater reduction of $75 million.

Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) has focused on raising awareness about police presence in Milwaukee Public Schools. On June 18, Milwaukee Public Schools ended all but one of its contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department.

“Young people in Milwaukee Public Schools, which are predominantly Black and brown people, are being policed before their essential needs are even being met,” said Dakota Hall, executive director of LIT. 

The day the school board took up the proposal, MPD tweeted that it “fully supports the Milwaukee Public School system if it decides to remove all School Resource Officers from its schools,” and agrees that the “funding should be reinvested into our public school system to support social services.” 

Hall believes MPS students’ needs would be better met by those who are trained in handling students and the issues they may experience, rather than police officers who “are not trained to deal with the trauma these students face.”

“Where violence comes from is oftentimes a lot of trauma,” Hall said.

The resolution is not the only step the Common Council is taking toward better policing in Milwaukee. Johnson said the council “voted to send the Mayor’s cabinet-level appointees back to committees so that they have an opportunity to ask questions about how they might use their positions or departments to support social and racial justice in Milwaukee.”

Additionally, the council adopted a resolution “urging the Fire and Police Commission to adopt a policy whereby if someone says they cannot breathe, police have to listen to them and have to make sure they seek medical attention for them right away,” said Johnson.

Johnson also introduced legislation prompting the Fire and Police Commission to adopt new standard operating procedures “so that the police department has a stated policy against chokeholds and policy for de-escalating situations before they escalate to the point where deadly force can be used.”

Other legislation includes policies to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles, utilizing a more thorough reporting mechanism and encouraging the Fire and Police Commission to use police officer recruitment as a chance to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

Johnson wants to emphasize that the council’s decision to modify the police department budget “is not an attack, it’s not personal against any officer, or the Milwaukee Police Department itself, it’s looking at the entire institution of policing.”

“For decades and centuries, in the United States, these kinds of institutions, and policing is no different, have caused oppression and death to people of color, primarily Black people,” Johnson said.




Marla Hiller is an editorial intern at Milwaukee Magazine. She is a junior at Boston University majoring in international relations and minoring in journalism