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Seven candidates for Milwaukee mayor discuss public safety amid homicide surge

Chuck Quirmbach
Milwaukee police say they continue to investigate six homicides discovered Jan. 23, in this block of N. 21st St.

Homicides are surging in Milwaukee, and three law enforcement officers have been wounded during shootings in January. The seven candidates for Milwaukee mayor are talking about different ways to improve public safety.

As of Sunday, Jan. 30, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's office reported 26 homicides so far this year — all but one took place in the city of Milwaukee.

The office tweeted that at the current pace, the county would hit 300 killings by the end of 2022. If it did, the city of Milwaukee would be about 100 homicides more than the city's record homicide totals of the last two years. So, it wasn't a surprise when the topic of crime and public safety came up during two mayoral forums over the weekend.

Citizen's Agenda: What do you want the candidates for mayor of Milwaukee to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson has already outlined a public safety plan that includes distributing more gun locks, asking state lawmakers for stricter gun laws, and investing in law enforcement and support groups. At a Citizen Action of Wisconsin event, Johnson said that he's trying to balance police staffing with reform.

"We've got to make sure we have an adequate amount of police on our force to address the public safety concerns for people who live in the city of Milwaukee. But we also have to make sure we're reforming the police, so when they interact with people, especially people of color in our city, that they do so with integrity and constitutional, community policing processes," he said.

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Screenshot taken by Chuck Quirmbach
Four Milwaukee mayoral candidates and members of Citizen Action of Wisconsin listen during an online forum Jan. 29.

Johnson said he supports the city's Office of Violence Prevention.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas emphasized his four decades in law enforcement and security and said as sheriff, he has initiated a crisis assistance response team, which is "a group of deputies along with medical practitioners who respond to a mental health crisis." He continued, "I think that's the appropriate response. We can start now to look at other ways we can respond to mental health challenges, juvenile delinquency and other challenges by looking at alternatives to a police response."

Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor told an NAACP forum that one way to improve public safety in Milwaukee is to adapt approaches that, she said, have been successful elsewhere.

"I want to see us do the High Point, North Carolina model. I want to see us do the COP House model that's in Racine," Taylor said.

The Racine model is a community-oriented policing effort that has officers working in houses in at-risk neighborhoods. The High Point model aims to deter violent repeat offenders, street-level drug dealers and domestic violence offenders. Taylor said it was tried in Milwaukee before, but the city did not provide enough wraparound services to help offenders choose a better way.

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Milwaukee NAACP official Fred Royal (upper left) listens as mayoral candidates Michael Sampson, Earnell Lucas, Marina Dimitrijevic, Lena Taylor, Robert Donovan and Cavalier Johnson take part in an NAACP forum held via the internet on Jan. 29. Candidate Ieshuh Griffin took part by phone.

Milwaukee Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic said the city should go further with the Blueprint for Peace developed under former Mayor Tom Barrett, which focuses on violence prevention. She said she's worked to expand prevention programs.

"I authored, along with Ald. Milele Coggs, $16.8 million for our federal COVID rescue plan act money to go into the Office of Violence Prevention. I believe that when we invest in prevention, it saves lives, it saves money, it saves stress on our law enforcement," Dimitrijevic told the NAACP forum.

The Office of Violence Prevention is part of the Milwaukee Health Department and is based downtown. Mayoral candidate and Milwaukee businessperson Michael Sampson said the office needs to move to the north side, where most of the homicides take place.

"So they can respond to stuff faster. I think faster response times for police, fire, and Office of Violence Prevention is going to help save lives," he said.

Community activist Ieshuh Griffin said she also backs preventing violence. She wants greater city investment in neighborhood economic development and job creation. "Idle time. They say idle time is the devil's workshop. The idle time will be removed," Griffin said.

The seventh candidate for Milwaukee Mayor, former Ald. Robert Donovan, did not attend the Citizen Action forum and only made it for part of the NAACP event. Later, he told WUWM that a key part of his public safety effort would be to add more police officers.

"I would say anywhere between 200 and 300 officers that this department desperately needs to respond effectively to our calls for help, the 911 calls. But also proactively police this community and prevent crime from occurring," he said.

Donovan said he would work with state officials on getting funding for the additional positions.

Chuck Quirmbach
The mayoral candidates and onlookers gather for a beer firken tapping in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood on Jan. 29.

Donovan spoke with WUWM Saturday, as he and at least five of the other mayoral candidates attended a beer cask, or firken, tapping in the Riverwest neighborhood.

As the candidates pounded in the faucets, the audience cheered. It was a moment of fun before the seven contenders resumed their sprint to the Feb. 15 primary amid a sizable increase in Milwaukee homicides.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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