NAACP and Others Push for Milwaukee to Adopt Problem-Oriented Policing

Oct 5, 2016

Milwaukee leaders continue to grapple with how to reduce crime. A Common Council committee began a series of public meetings this week on a proposed public safety plan. It relies heavily on beefing up law enforcement and imposing tough sentences to the dismay of people who favor a different tack.

The NAACP and others want Milwaukee to learn from an approach police in some other cities take.

"There's another model in Cincinnati, called the community problem-oriented policing," Fred Royal, president of the local NAACP, said.

Royal told aldermen about a report that highlights the strategy's success. "Looking back at the results of Cincinnati's reform efforts are startling. Between 1999 and 2014, Cincinnati saw a 69 percent reduction in use of force incidents." The NAACP is among organizations that sent city leaders a letter a couple months ago, urging them to push for problem-oriented policing in Milwaukee. 

Cincinnati adopted problem-oriented policing in 2002, after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the police department to implement reforms. The approach grew out of discussions among police, researchers and other stakeholders in the late 1970s. In part, here's how one of its founders, UW-Madison professor Herman Goldstein, described it, in 2001:

Problem-oriented policing places a high value on new responses that are preventive in nature, that are not dependent on the use of the criminal justice system, and that engage other public agencies, the community and the private sector when their involvement has the potential for significantly contributing to the reduction of the problem.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine (L) and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence (R) debate during the Vice Presidential Debate at Longwood University on October 4, 2016.
Credit Mark Wilson/Getty Images

While problem-oriented policing is a specific method, some police departments and advocates for reform use the term "community policing" to describe efforts that adopt portions of the approach, such as community engagement.

The term came up in Tuesday's vice presidential debate, with Hillary Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine advocating such measures:

"The way you make communities safer and the way you make police safer is through community policing. You build the bonds between the community and the police force. Build bonds of understanding and then when people feel comfortable in their communities that gap between the police and the communities they serve narrows. And when that gap narrows, it’s safer for the communities and it safer for the police."

Mike Pence, Donald Trump's running mate, had this response:

"Police officers are the best of us. And the men and women - white and African American, Asian, Latino, Hispanic - they put their lives on the line every day single day. And let me say, you know at the risk of agreeing with you, I think community policing is a great idea. And it's worked in the Hoosier state and we fully support that."

READ: Transcript and Fact Check of the Vice Presidential Debate

Arizona State University professor Michael Scott heads the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. He says the approach departs from traditional policing models.

"The historical understanding of police work, at least since the 1930s, is that police would see their job as primarily dealing with criminal behavior, and really their only contribution was to try to identify and arrest the offender for the crime," Scott says.

Scott says what's different about problem-oriented policing is that it focuses on the root causes of issues officers face, and encourages them to seek solutions: "What are the connecting patterns, what are the underlying causes of some of these chronic problems?"

"Make the citizens aware that the police have a presence and they're not the bad guy. They're there to work with the community."

UWM professor Stan Stojkovic shares an example of what the approach might look like, in action. Stojkovic is dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, and an expert on criminal justice issues.

"They may identify a specific problem. For example, kids hanging out after school or late at night, or there's a specific area like a bus stop or business where there's (high crime). They may do things to try to work with the city to move, let's say, the bus stop. They may try to do things with the school system to try to offer activities, or at least minimally, make the citizens aware that the police have a presence and they're not the bad guy. They're there to work with the community."

The Milwaukee Police Department was not available for an interview for this report. But MPD has implemented aspects of problem-oriented policing, according to Public Information Officer, Sergeant Timothy Gauerke. He says "the Milwaukee Police Department has been using problem oriented policing strategies for decades in many different forms.  A wide variety of methods have been used across the city to deal with drug issues, nuisance properties, gambling, general disorder, etc."

Professor Stojkovic confirms the MPD has been moving in that direction under a couple of previous chiefs, and especially with Edward Flynn at the helm. "Chief Flynn has had as his operating philosophy that the community is not the enemy, the community we have to engage," he says.

Flynn even invited Arizona professor Michael Scott of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing to train him and high-ranking staff when Flynn first became chief.

But Stojkovic says there are signs the approach has yet to permeate the city's department: "We've had some horror stories in Milwaukee, where police behavior was so either illegal or in violation of policy (that) this raises the question about is a problem-oriented policing model actually being implemented, and does it actually filter down into the rank and file?"

Executive Director of the ACLU, Chris Ahmuty, shares the concern that most police do a good job, yet "we often hear complaints about officers who appear to be aloof or disrespectful of citizens, or even bullying. Or in some instances, it's excessive use of force. And I think that Milwaukee still has a ways to go to change that dynamic."

Ahmuty added his name to the letter organizations sent in August, urging the city to fully implement the problem-oriented policing approach.