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Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn Faces Criticism Some Say is Unwarranted

Photo by Megan Dobyns
Edward Flynn is the longest serving Milwaukee Police Chief in decades

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has been facing a lot of criticism lately. The police chief recently came under fire after it was revealed that he had made changes to the way in which the department deals with immigrants -- without public input or the approval of the Fire and Police Commission. The department and commission reversed many of the changes after public outrage. Flynn has also caught heat over how he wants to spend asset forfeiture dollars.  To some it may seem like Flynn is losing support of leadership, while others say the criticism is unwarranted.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn was hired by the Police and Fire Commission nine years ago. For much of his tenure, at least publicly, city leaders haven’t expressed much discontent until recently. This is a snapshot of a common council meeting earlier in the month. Some aldermen complained about problems under Flynn’s tenure, including money the city has had to pay to resolve claims about police behavior.

“You got $302 million, lawsuits, a plethora of lawsuits, with a plethora on the rising, moving out the city. And you don’t want to work with the alderman that represent the city? The aldermen that have crime and murders every day.”

That’s Alderman Russel Stamper. He was objecting to holding a vote on a measure that would allow Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn to spend $1.1 million in federal asset forfeiture money on tasers, security cameras, dog food and dog animal care among a list of other things. Stamper says there are better ways to spend the money to help the community.

“Yes, we need to apply political pressure. Absolutely. Yes, I want to improve safety. Yes, I want a safe neighborhood. Yes, I want my constituents to feel safe in their neighborhood but it’s not happening. And this money might be minor to you, but it’s major if we can get some objective programs and some objective tactics and measures in place. The crime is ridiculous and he’s not working with the people who represent the very areas that he has to patrol,” Stamper said.

In recent years, there’s been an uptick in concerns over car thefts and homicides.

A couple of days after that common council meeting, Chief Flynn was again on the hot seat at a Fire and Police Commission meeting where people were upset over changes to the departments Standard Operating Procedure. Commissioners also disagreed with Flynn's pursuit policy, and ordered him to change it. During that meeting, some commissioners pointed out that the commission also has the power to pursue disciplinary action against Flynn.

The Fire and Police Commission alone is in charge of hiring the police chief—something David Crowley would like to see change. Crowley is a Democratic state Representative from Milwaukee.

“When you live in the communities where we are over policing and one of the biggest issues facing many communities of color is related to police brutality, we need to make sure that there is some type of level of accountability on the police department. And I think that having the Fire and Police Commission hire that individual is great, but I think it should go through the common council approval for the fact that many individuals want to hold somebody accountable, including their local elected officials,” Crowley says.

Crowley admits that his legislation is controversial and will likely be an uphill battle, but says that his goal is to start the conversation about what so-called real community policing looks like.

Yet some observers point out that many of the problems officers face can't be solved by policing. Stan Stojkovic is dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee.

“The accountability kinds of issues that they lay at the doorsteps of chiefs often times don’t make a lot of sense. Many of these things are structural failures, institutional failures, failures of family, school employment situations, high rates of poverty. You could have 100 cops on every corner, they’re not going to be able to address that. Being a big city police chief is a difficult task, no doubt about it,” Stojkovic says.

Meanwhile, Mayor Tom Barrett says Chief Flynn continues to have his full support.

“I think he’s doing a very solid job. I think he’s very professional. I think that he has really improved standards and the performance of the Milwaukee Police Department. There’s always room for more improvement, but I think that even his detractors would acknowledge the fact that he’s a strong leader in the department,” Barrett says.

When it comes to the proposed bill that would require the common council to approve the police chief, Barrett says politicizing the position would be the wrong way to go.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.