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Leaders Hope to Rise Above Rhetoric to Curb Violent Crime in Milwaukee

Erin Toner

Politicians have been pointing fingers in recent weeks, as they look to place blame for a rash of shootings in Milwaukee.

The mayor says the state should do more to help the city curb violent crime, such as send money for police overtime.

Republicans counter that Milwaukee is partly responsible for the problem because of ineffective policies and policing.

Several GOP lawmakers traveled to Milwaukee Tuesday to talk about crime prevention. The big GOP hitters were Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Alberta Darling.

They joined Ald. Bob Donovan on his regular walk through his south side district. Donovan is viewed as a conservative politician and often clashes with Mayor Tom Barrett on crime-fighting strategies.

Just as the leaders were preparing to address reporters, someone crashed the party - Mayor Tom Barrett. He pulled aside Speaker Vos and Sen. Darling and spoke with them for a few minutes privately.

Credit Erin Toner
Barrett pulled Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (center) and Sen. Alberta Darling (right) aside to speak in private about Milwaukee's recent crime wave.

Afterward, Barrett told reporters he believes the Republicans are genuinely interested in helping Milwaukee, so he offered them access to any information that might help.

“I just wanted to stop by and greet the speaker and Sen. Darling, thank them for coming to Milwaukee and just to let them know that we’re very interested in working with them, that we’ve got some serious issues here and we want to find solutions and I think that they agree with that,” Barrett says.

In an effort to curb violence here, Barrett wants to hire 100 new police officers in the 2014 city budget. He also recently transferred $500,000 to the police overtime fund, and asked the state to match that amount.

So far, Gov. Walker has shown no interest in sending Milwaukee more money, but Vos says he’s considering all options.

“The state of Wisconsin always wants to be a partner with anybody who’s willing. But the most important way to do that is to reach out, have the conversations, understand the problem before you assume you know the answers. And that’s why we wanted to be here, to walk through the neighborhoods, to listen to folks who’ve dealt with crime, try to find out what their answers are, what their ideas are,” Vos says.

Vos called Milwaukee the economic engine of the state and said violence here impacts a lot of people.

“I own a business in Milwaukee. We’ve been the victims of crime. So it’s not something that hasn’t directly impacted me, because it has. I see the strategies that the police department are turning into effect and I give a lot of credit. I think Chief Flynn has lots of good ideas and I think they are doing their very best,” Vos says.

That sentiment – that Milwaukee police are doing the best they can – conflicts with other statements Vos has made. He said Milwaukee has created many of its own problems, through errors and bad decisions, such as reducing the number of new officers it hires.

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling also recently criticized Milwaukee, saying the police department would be more effective if it was restructured. On Tuesday, Darling didn’t want to talk about those comments.

“I don’t think it’s going to do any good to think about what has been done that’s wrong, I think what’s important right now is, what do we need to do?” Darling says.

Darling says it’s up to the mayor and police chief to come up with a plan the city and the state can embrace. For her part, the senator says she’s working on a bill that would put people away for three years if they illegally possess guns.

“Because if we have chronic habitual offenders and they just get slapped on the wrist when they’re committing crimes with guns, it creates the atmosphere that nothing’s gonna happen so we might as well keep going, so what happens? The crime keeps getting worse and worse. Guns are used. People are killed,” Darling says.

Tuesday’s walk was all about opening the lines of communication, according to Ald. Donovan.

“I think there’s been a lot of bickering back and forth. I think there’s unfortunately been a lot of politics being played and people are sick and tired of that,” Donovan says.

Donovan contends his decision to exclude Mayor Barrett from the event was not political. The alderman also chose not to invite Police Chief Ed Flynn, but Flynn brushed it off.

“I’m going to start with the assumption of goodwill,” Flynn says.

Flynn says he’s requested a meeting next week with Speaker Vos, and will present him with the police department’s strategies and explain how it’s using state resources.

“For five years we’ve had sustained decreases in crime and functioned within our budget. So I want to put his mind at ease that any assistance the state would give us certainly would be put to good use and would be carefully managed,” Flynn says.

Flynn says he believes GOP leaders’ recent comments about Milwaukee are based on misinformation, and he hopes leaders end the public debate, and start working together to make the city safer.