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Dozens Weigh In on Milwaukee Public Safety Plan, Criticize Addition of Officers

Community groups lined up at Milwaukee City Hall on Monday, when they were invited to voice opinions about a plan to boost public safety. City leaders assembled the draft in August and are now taking it out for public comment. Its recommendations include hiring nearly 300 new police officers and building a juvenile detention facility. Many people who testified Monday panned the proposal to put more officers on the streets.

More policing is not the solution, according to Joseph Ellwanger, who spoke on behalf of the faith-based organization MICAH. Ellwanger mentioned the unrest that broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood in August, after a Milwaukee officer fatally shot a man.

“Milwaukee cannot arrest and incarcerate its way out of the poverty and the violence that negatively impact so many families today. In fact, a heavy handed, stop-every-vehicle with-a-burned-out-tail-light approach to policing is counterproductive. It deepens mistrust between police and community and adds to the trauma that underlies violence,” Ellwanger says.

Ellwanger suggested the city put more money into jobs programs, rather than enlarging the police force. One person who insists the culture in the police department needs to change is Patricia McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. She says she’s lived in the Sherman Park neighborhood for nearly 30 years.

“I heard someone say the other day that the purpose of the police is to protect and serve. But their purpose in our community seems to be law and order. That ranks so true to me because of what I have seen and experienced personally. Adding police will not change what is wrong with the department at its core,” McManus says.

McManus implored city leaders to use more money recommended for policing, to invest in small businesses in the central city. Another person opposed to additional officers is Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. He thinks the city needs to make better use of the money it already spends on its police force.

“We should be getting better outcomes than the outcomes we’re currently getting from our police department. When you look at what has happened to the 75 individuals who were cavity searched and the $5 million that the city had to pay out, that’s not being effective or efficient. When you look at the $6 million that you had to pay out to Chaunte Ott for false imprisonment for 13 years, that’s not being efficient,” Royal says.

Royal called on city leaders to move to community-based policing models that some other cities say have been successful in improving public safety. Tammy Rivera of the South Side Organizing Committee agrees that partnerships between neighbors and law enforcement work best.

“I think if we all approached every individual with a little more dignity and humanity and understanding, that we’d get further as a community in problem solving,” Rivera says.

Nobody from the Milwaukee Police Department testified at the hearing in response to the recommendations – or the criticisms. Council members plan to hold several more hearings on public safety, throughout the month of October.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.