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by Peter Moskos

February 27, 2017

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn: "We've got to get beyond the finger pointing that does nothing except to depolice at risk communities"

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn is smarter than your average flatfoot. Generally considered a progressive in the police world, he's the type of chief who should at least be embraced by the political left. But Milwaukee is one of the latest police department to be sued by the ACLU for racially disparate policing. But Flynn refuses to de-police the city's most violent streets. For this, Flynn gets heat from all sides: Republican senators, the anti-police crowd, and conservative Sheriff David Clarke (the Milwaukee County Sheriff better known for his Trump-loving cowboy-hat wearing general buffoonery).

Most recently, Flynn didn't take kindly to lawsuits from the ACLU making him and his police department out to be the bad guys. This is worth watching. "Disparity is not the same as bias," Flynn says. That's an important point that needs to be said loud and clear. If not, we abandon those most at risk. Here's an edited six minutes of Flynn:

[The full version is here.]

Flynn understands the political equations. He frames the right questions. He give the right answers. And he can talk about "ellipses" of social problems, explicit and implicit biases, negative social indicators, evidence-based policing, and the history of racist policing in America. As my father always said, if you get criticized for all sides, you must be doing something right.

[my next post on Flynn]


David Thacher said...

Flynn is clearly very smart and passionate about what he does, and I've been hearing good things about him since he was Chief in Chelsea -- he was already viewed as a leader in community policing back them. I thought he was a standout in that This American Life Episode on policing a couple of years back. I absolutely agree with him that we should pay at least as much attention to victimization disparities as enforcement disparities.

And yet unless the excerpt you posted edited it out, this speech focuses entirely on the easy-to-criticize 14th amendment claim (which always seems like the the trailing argument in these SQF suits anyhow) and ignores the more serious 4th Amendment claim. Stops have tripled since Flynn became chief, by design. Milwaukee Compstat tracks the number of stops by each officer & squad, and the FPOA president has complained publicly that cops feel like they're simply being pressured to get the numbers up. (I assume there's politics going on here when the union complains about the chief this way, but still -- he could find other stuff to complain about.) In the midst of a deliberate effort to increase the number of stops there is apparently no accompanying effort to document the reasons for each stop in enough detail to allow supervisors to monitor whether they're kosher. Maybe some of the specific allegations the ACLU is making, like the allegation that cops have been instructed to stop young men walking through alleys, are urban legends. But how would you know?

When a police chief explicitly calls for more stops, it's predictable that the quality of stops will suffer -- that some cops will push and cross the boundaries of reasonable suspicion. Some of them will fall a bit short of John Terry walking back and forth staring into the windows of the jewelry store. If the chief is going to ask his cops to make more stops, doesn't he have an obligation not only to make sure his officers get a refresher course on the relevant law, but also to make sure his Sergeants monitor and give them feedback about how well they're complying in the field? Otherwise he's just putting them out there blind and letting them take the heat for his theory about how effective proactive policing is. Is it terrible for the ACLU to point out that they apparently haven't done any of this in Milwaukee?

In the meantime homicide has doubled since 2008.

IrishPirate said...

Poverty and the percentage of black and hispanic residents is up significantly in the unofficial capitol of Cheeseland. That accounts for at least a good hunk of the rise in homicides. The rest of the reason? My guess is that the reasons for the rise in black homicides across most of the urban Eastern half of the country America are also at work in Cheese city.

Demoralized cops, empowered bangers, dogs and cats living together..........real end of the world stuff.

Or maybe it's just a severe case of urban ennui as the denizens of the Brennan Center sometimes suggest.

Gangbanger standing on corner smoking cloved cigarette and reading John Paul Sartre quote:

"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you."

Peter Moskos said...

Editing is always tough. Certainly I took out a lot. But Flynn's 4th Amendment argument seems to be this: most of the stops are traffic stops, which are the easiest to legally defend (cause there's a traffic violation). Pedestrian stops, he asserts, are done with reasonable suspicion. Whether they're all proper is of course an unknown. But his point seems to be this: criticism is being placed because A) the numbers are up, B) most stopped are black, and C) contraband isn't usually found. His rebuttals are A) yes, proactive policing is our goal. B) Because we focus resources where the shootings are are, and using general overall city population as a baseline is absurd C) that's a bad measurement because his goal isn't to find contraband but decrease violence and traffic related deaths. I think point B is the most important. Because we need to move on from the idea that policing should not be racially disparate (which doesn't equal bias). But point C is the most interesting, because it's reflects thought, planning, and intellect. This is the discussion he says he wants to have. He's decreased formal citations, and in doing so seeks to mitigate the harmful effects of police action (fines that disproportionately affect poor and already victimized people). More interactions, fewer negative interactions. That to me is a good goal, even if the ACLU disagrees. And he's basing the tactics on evidence-based policing.

I got some numbers to back this up. In a moment.

Peter Moskos said...

Between 2007 and 2014, citizen contacts in Milwaukee increased 4X while citizen complaints went down 75%(!) (and "how to" instructions are now available online), arrests decreased by more than 1/3, and crime decreased 25% percent. (Crime has gone up, since.)

That to me is the ultimate win/win/win of policing.

No good deed goes unpunished. He gets sued *because* there is more police activity in high-crime areas. And he cares about how to mitigate the negative effects of proactive policing so the people already victimized by crime aren't double victimized.

80% of stops are warnings. This is the clever bit he did: Not demanding formal sanction as a measure of police productivity. This is huge. (And could have avoided a lot of hassle, had it been the policy in NYC)

Meanwhile, 62% of blacks were satisfied with policing (even 38% of those arrested). And 92% of all residents want police to be "visible."

But precisely *because* police issued fewer formal tickets, because they're not out to get nickle bags of weed, they get banged for "making bad stops" and "harassing innocent people." Flynn says (correctly) that traffic enforcement targeted in high-crime areas can bring down fear and violence. And you can do so by making legal traffic stops. And you do so with an emphasis on not giving citations.

If this is a bad strategy, criticize the strategy, not the fact it disproportionately affects people who live in high-crime areas. Of course it does. Fewer formal citations and more warnings should be seen as a feature, and not a flaw.

Flynn wants to talk about strategy, tactics, and greater social problems to which police must respond. Instead, he gets sued for focusing *effective* police action in high crime areas. This is the circle that cannot be squared. You simply cannot focus on high-crime areas in American cities without having more interactions with people who live in high-crime areas. And in America high-crime neighborhoods are correlated with every other messed up social indicator, including racial segregation. It's the nature of these interactions that Flynn wants to discuss. Not the fact that they happen.



Peter Moskos said...

I think a large part of Flynn's frustration is that they do have data, they do have outreach and input from the public. They work hard to make sure their policing isn’t biased (even while disproportionate)

It really comes down to whether or not we police high-crime minority areas or we don't. This is the fundamental battle that Flynn isn't willing to concede. The answer is not less policing. Flynn says we need to focus (not "crackdown") on high-crime areas.

Flynn worked hard to lessen the harms of policing on the communities already victimized by crime. He did all this stuff, he brought down crime and complaints... and the ACLU -- and others who aren’t "accountable or taking any physical or moral risks on behalf of people afflicted by violence” – bitch simply because police are focusing their efforts in high crime areas?
Biased or racist police is wrong. But racial disproportion in police action cannot be used as prima facie evidence of racism. Good policing needs to happen in high-crime neighborhoods.

As long as police "reformers" see police activity as inherently repressive and disproportion as inherently racist, the only answer is less policing. And when that happens -- in places like Chicago, Baltimore, or Milwaukee -- crime goes up and reformers navel gaze! (And even then police don’t achieve racial proportionality because calls for service and victimization are still racially skewed.)

IrishPirate said...

It seems to me that the ACLU and their "ILK", I love using that word as it's been used against my moderate political ass, want police stops/interaction/arrests to be exactly proportional to a jurisdiction's demographics. It's just that simple. They see anything else as racist, biased, immoral, unconstitutional and flatulence creating.

The number of police stops in Chicago and number of people killed by police in Chicago dropped drastically last year. The "ILK" sees that as a "good" even though the overall homicide rate is up six BILLION percent. Ok, maybe 50 percent depending on the time frame. We're trading five fewer people killed by cops in Chicago a year for maybe 300 more homicides overall. Let me get out my abacus........seems not to be a good tradeoff to me.

It seems to me Flynn is TRYING to reduce both police involved shootings and the overall number of people shot/killed. Unfortunately, the national trend of higher murder rate in black urban hoods has seemed to have found Milwaukee. The rate in Cheesetown is higher than the rate in Chicago. I refuse to hyperlink as it's a FOX story.


Flynn's more stops/fewer tickets strategy is genius. Someone needs to find a large fish and slap the ACLU with it. They're a well intentioned group and have done good work taking on POTUS Orangus, but they're wrong here.

Andy D said...

Flynn says all the right things; is anyone listening? It is far easier to just make police the Boogeyman, or to blame some other simple cause. Lately blaming police has been easiest. Flynn may not want to de-police, but when the lawsuits and negative press keep rolling in, something will eventually give. If Flynn doesn't give his cops will give. Then it will be like Chicago. I genuinely wonder what the ACLU wants to happen in these cities, because their lawsuits certainly aren't helping people in these neighborhoods, especially young black men, live longer more productive lives.

Andy D said...


That does seem to be exactly whatt he ACLU wants...and the only way you will get it is for cops to literally keep score ["shit I stopped 5 AA, 3 latino and 5 whites. Better stop a few more more whites to bring up the numbers so I don't look racist.!"] This is the same stuff that highway drug interdiction guys have been doing for years after getting sued, now becoming a new feature of city policing. It is stupid but many in government and in the civil liberties crowd see any "disparate impact" as de facto racist. So either cops have to play games with stats or they get sued. Basically you end up forcing good cops to be either actually dishonest or at least unethical.

Peter Moskos said...

Man getting slapped by fish.

IrishPirate said...

I as thinking of the Monty Python fish slap dance, but I'm 2 laaazy to luk it up.

David Thacher said...

The business about explicitly instructing officers *not* to write very many tickets when they stop cars is interesting and progressive and enthusiastically put my stamp of approval on it. Good stuff!

But I notice you're mainly back to the disparities question. The heart of the suit as I see it is -- as always with SQF suits -- about whether the *very* high volume of stops they've begun making since Flynn took over are actually justified.

For years Milwaukee cops were making (or recording) about 15,000 ped stops. That's how often the officers out on the streets policing the neighborhoods thought anybody was acting in a sufficiently suspicious manner that it made sense to stop and question and maybe frisk them. The new administration then comes along and says, "stop a *lot* more people!" To the point that officers themselves are apparently complaining about quotas &c.

All I'm saying (and the main thing the complaint is saying) is: If you're going insist that your cops have to make "more" stops than they used to then give them some guidance and feedback and keep an eye on them to make sure they're doing it all the right way. I mean maybe the response is: Actually there *was* lots of guidance and oversight alongside this push for volume. If so it'll come out in court, and then by all means carry on. But I'm trying to understand why the fact that Flynn does other progressive stuff and really wants to do something about homicide entails that his department should get a free pass on the 4th amendment. And I'm wondering where exactly all the scared and pissed off kids who got hassled by the police when they were just walking to a friend's house after school fit into this.

Yes, I agree, the ACLU is probably not going to get very far with the traffic stops as a constitutional & legal matter. There's still the moral and policy question of whether it's a good idea to pull more people over for rolling stops and for going 37 in a 35 zone in the name of a broken windowsey desire to send messages about how well everybody abides by neighborhood norms and how much the police care about enforcing them. (I can think of other messages that people might associate with hyper-cautious driving around known speed traps.) But yes, the courts probably aren't going to be a very effective forum for that argument.

Peter Moskos said...

I see your point, but isn't this where reduced complaints comes into play? That and the fact that such enforcement (traffic) *was* happening at the behest of the community (that part I did edit out).

And what's the alternative? Never increase proactive policing? I can't (and wouldn't) vouch for every stop, but it sure seems like Flynn was doing this right.

Also what might interest you, I don't know if you noticed, but Flynn is very versed in the semantics and beliefs of order-maintenance policing.

David said...

Not sure if this is what you meant but his mantra of "make the stops but minimize citations & arrests" was definitely music to my Broken Windows-doesn't-mean-arrests ears. On the other side he's much more into the "send a signal about norms etc." business than I am, as my snarky comment about speed traps suggests. If traffic enforcement was really a response to widespread community concerns and the upshot of a thoughtful problem analysis etc. then that's definitely something and I'd be inclined to cut him some slack (which is not inconsistent with being rigorous about legality; gotta occupy the moral and legal high ground, said a wise co-inventor of broken windows in one of his book's middle chapters that nobody actually reads). What I worry about is when there's a generalized push from on high to "stop more people" based on evidence-based hotspot love rather than a close look at what's actually going on in a specific neighborhood. Anyhow if there's more about order maintenance on the long video I should watch it.

More proactive policing I suppose can be fine if I knew what it meant. I mean Detective McFadden shouldn't have ignored John Terry casing the jewelry shop -- which some cops would. But a high volume of stops has never made that much sense to me for the sake of deterrence, seizing contraband, or sending messages about norms. Investigations and good clean problem-solving, now those make sense to me. But I'm probably missing something.

Complaint data are hard to read no?

Hey but thanks for letting me crash your comments section here! A lot better than 140 characters!

IrishPirate said...

Watch the longer video. Flynn is good at the reasons for what he's doing and how he "sells" it.

Mike Maltz said...

My take: http://www.samefacts.com/2017/02/crime-incarceration/police-stops/

Christopher Skidmore said...

I work in a medium sized (~300,000 population), urban Sheriff's Department. I went over and watched the full version. I found the discussion of "stops" very interesting.

I think its important to talk about how it seems most people, including reporters and others who comment on these topics, are not better educated on the difference between a social contact with a person vs. "stopping" someone with articulable reasonable suspicion vs being able to "frisk" someone based on having articulable frisk factors. If I "stop" you, this is very different from me stopping and trying to have a conversation with you.

One of the reporters kept asking about stops, and how she could just be stopped for walking down the street as if the department is "stopping" people without reason, which limits the freedom of their movements and comes into the 4th Amendment conversation. vs just telling his officers to have more interactions with people.

I wish Chief Flynn would have elaborated more on the "stops" or "field interviews". Is his department tracking social contacts on the street as field interviews? Are they only completing paper on contacts that led to a frisk or that they had the legal reason to ID/detain someone for suspicion of a crime? I'd be interested to learn more about Milwaukie's statistical methods in regards to this.

I do want to applaud Flynn for talking about bias and be willing to stand up for his officers and the department's training program. His discussion of bias vs disparity was intriguing, I hadn't heard it framed that way before and he had the statistics to back it up.

free2think said...

Disparity is NOT the same as Bias.

Vidoqo said...

My comment from the next Flynn post:
"Nobody visits these folks at home except the police. "

Seems to just about sum up everything wrong with the entire system. I've worked in the school to prison pipeline - Kindergarten through alternative High School. I've seen this population created first hand. Throughout, they are generally forgotten about unless they create conflict.