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Where Does Defunding The Police Stand In Milwaukee?

Supporters of Liberate MKE, a movement to divest money from the Milwaukee Police Department, at a press conference in 2019.
Maayan Silver
Supporters of Liberate MKE, a movement to divest money from the Milwaukee Police Department, at a press conference in 2019.

Activists around the country, including in Milwaukee, are asking leaders to defund the police and reallocate resources to underfunded communities. Some even want to abolish the police altogether at some point down the line.

At protests in Milwaukee after the murder of George Floyd, a common refrain by activists in addition to Black Lives Matter and “I can’t breathe” was “Defund the police.”

But what does that really mean? And how are defunding and abolition different than reform?

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Paru Shah teaches political science at UW-Milwaukee. She says those who advocate for police reform must first agree there’s a good way to police.

“[Reformers think] what we really need to do is shift police culture, police transparency, fairness, accountability, and that we can use reform measures to achieve, you know, an outcome of more good policing," she explains.

That would involve doing things like putting money back into police departments for training, making sure police live in neighborhoods they’re patrolling and changing policies like banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

But defunding the police, says Shah, means transferring money spent on reacting to crime into services that can prevent crime. “Like bringing in social workers to the community, providing mental health services, building up community infrastructure. So really trying to address the problems before they become something that become criminal behavior or other types of behaviors that end up requiring police presence," she says.

Some activists, like Markasa Tucker of Liberate MKE and the African American Roundtable, also work from an “abolitionist lens.” “We want to continually divest from police until the budgets are zero, equipment is zero, surveillance is zero, invest into true public safety, which we know is access to food, employment, public health, affordable quality housing and folks’ basic needs,” she says.

Extended conversation with Markasa Tucker

But before total abolition, activists are thinking about divestment and the creation of a nonpolice infrastructure to address poverty and other problems in marginalized communities.

Since 2019, Tucker and her team have asked to divest tens of millions of dollars from the city’s approximately $300 million policing budget and reinvest it into communities. The group has documented some of their past budget wins. But largely, in 2021, the most recent Milwaukee policing budget changed by about $430,000 dollars, or about .0.15%.

The common council also rejected, then approved a temporary federal grant to add policing jobs in the city.

“[It is completely reckless and irresponsible] the way that the people in power are operating in the city of Milwaukee, they have to be a part of radically shifting their mindset to get the people in Milwaukee to things that they need. We're still in a pandemic," Tucker says.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says people may not realize the 2021 budget calls for 160 fewer officers than in the past, even though the budget remains virtually the same.

Barrett says the reduction in police is unfortunate. “Just in the last couple of weeks, I've had a couple incidents where people I know have had their cars stolen, and the Milwaukee police have recovered the car in both instances within 24 hours. Once they found the car. The second instance, they found the people who stole the car committing an armed robbery. And so I want our police to respond when we have stolen cars. I want our police to respond when there's violence," he says.

Barrett says there are situations in which the city can use responders who aren’t in law enforcement, like in some mental health crises. “But even those individuals oftentimes want to have police backup. So, I think, clearly, we want to have resources go into the areas where we can improve the quality of life in Milwaukee. But I don't know that most citizens want to see the police department slashed as dramatically as some people are saying we should," he says.

Both Barrett and Tucker have their eyes on the American Rescue Plan Act money — the city of Milwaukee will be getting just over $400 million dollars.

Barrett says the money will allow the city to fund housing initiatives, lead abatement and early education programs, and his spokesman says the city is still deciding on the best uses for the money.

Tucker wants zero dollars spent on policing and to see participatory budgeting, in which the community has a say in how the money is spent.

Members of Milwaukee’s Common Council were not available for this story, but Alderwoman Milele Coggs has been pushing for community input on American Rescue Plan money. She helped organize a virtual town hall with that focus last month. Liberate MKE will be issuing their updated demands for the city later in the month.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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