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The History Of Policing In Milwaukee: From Prevention To Response

(vincent desjardins)
The Milwaukee Police Department was once considered one of the country's best police force, but what happened to prompt its decline?

The work of police departments around the country has been under particular scrutiny in the last year. Some high profile shootings by police — and of police — have strained the relationship between some departments and the communities they are sworn to protect. 

Milwaukee has not been immune from that trend. But a new book illustrates that the Milwaukee Police Department, or MPD, has been nationally significant almost since it was formed in the 19th Century. Policing in Milwaukee: A Strategic History was written by George Kelling, who served as a consultant to several police departments – including Milwaukee’s. 

Kelling is a Milwaukee native, holds a master’s from UWM, and is now a professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

MPD was one of the country's premier police departments during the first half of the twentieth century, acclaimed for efficiency, honesty, leadership and a record of being one of American's most crime and corrupt-free cities.

However, by the end of the century, Milwaukee's ranks fell swiftly. What was once strong community policing turned into alienation from the minority communities, which was heightened by internal divisions and escalating crime. Kelling attributes the decline of effective community policing to the advances in technology that took officers off foot patrol and into cars.

"Typical of when you apply technology ... people didn't think it would make much difference that if you put police in cars rather than have them walk foot patrol, that they could cover more territory, it was more convenient for the officers, and it was easier to supervise officers in cars," he explains. "We didn't understand that in effect, when you put police in cars you really isolated police from the community and a lot of community desires. "

The more police departments adopted new technology and strategies, the more they isolated themselves, Kelling says.

"Inadvertently, a tactic of riding around in cars changed the overall strategy of policing...policing moved from being a preventive force integrated into the community to a law enforcement force. Rather than trying to prevent crime, they responded to crime after it occurred. And that was congruent with the development first of all with the radio and the telephone, and then later on 911, and then computer agent dispatch. And so police moved from being an integral part of the community to being a response organization, riding around in cars waiting for something to happen," he explains.

Editor's note: This interview originally aired Sept. 9, 2015

» Find all of the Project Milwaukee: To Protect And Serve reports here.