Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service: OPINION: 5 qualities Milwaukee needs from its next police chief

By Joe’Mar Hooper
August 21, 2020
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Joe’Mar Hooper is the executive director of Safe & Sound.

Throughout our 22-year history, Safe & Sound has consistently worked to create lasting partnerships that bring needed resources to the residents we serve. With these resources and our unique model of community organizing, we work to empower residents and youth to be a part of change in their neighborhoods.

Serving our residents has always been our primary goal and one of our major partners in this work has been the Milwaukee Police Department. In this partnership, we strive to build relationships that lead to a foundation of collaborative, community-oriented policing throughout the neighborhoods we serve.

I recognize that much of Safe & Sound’s work with MPD in the past has been on the micro level — we have facilitated thousands of direct and meaningful relationships between MPD officers and residents. But, as we move forward, we hear from the community that we need to prioritize reform within our criminal justice system and how we police our neighborhoods.

Today, we have a unique opportunity in Milwaukee to see that call for reform and hear community voices as we are in the preliminary stages of selecting a new chief of police.

There are many qualities that I hope to see in our next chief, but first and foremost, that chief needs to bring a community-minded perspective to his/her work in Milwaukee. The next chief will be in a position to chart a new course for meaningful change within the institution of policing in our city and will define how the department works with Milwaukee’s residents.

It is imperative that they come with an understanding that residents who live in our neighborhoods are the center of their work and meeting their needs should be at the forefront!

Additionally, it is vital that our new chief possess qualities that include:

1. Openness to change, reform and accountability

The new chief must come in understanding and ready to repair the strained relationship between the community and the department and must be open to acknowledging that policing has traditionally been a racist institution in our country.  This acknowledgment must lead to an understanding that policing has been a source of fear and cause for anger in many parts of our community for decades.

The department must be open to moving past the idea of “this is how it has always been done” to bring a more holistic view of policing to the forefront.  This includes being open to changing the organizational culture of the department and working with city leaders, the Collaborative Community Committee and other local stakeholders to determine the necessary reforms that build community trust.

This must also include an acknowledgment that policing is just one spoke of the public safety wheel, which must also include expanded community mental health options and violence prevention strategies.

2. Empathy

The new chief must not only come with a mindset ready to understand the perspective of residents, but they must also be empathic to the fears and concerns of our community.

They must understand the historical conditions that have led to the current inequalities in Milwaukee and the ranking of our city as one of, if not the worst, for African Americans. This historical perspective plays into how the community feels and reacts to the police, and the chief must understand and empathize with these feelings.

3. Partnership minded

As we talk about the resources allocated to MPD in the future, it will be important for the new chief to be open to working with partners in the community to facilitate meaningful change.

The chief must be open to building strong collaborations with the Office of Violence Prevention, mental health advocates, housing and services providers and a multitude of community-based organizations (including Safe & Sound) to implement new models of public safety in Milwaukee.

The current model of having MPD work either on an island or on the surface level with organizations has not achieved meaningful change within our communities, and it is important that we bring a new, collective impact mindset to our city’s efforts around policing and public safety.

4. Eye toward efficiency

The new chief will face mounting pressure from the community to re-examine the police budget, which currently eats up the entire city annual tax levy, to find new ways of funding public safety which allocates additional funding to community resources and away from traditional policing.

Additionally, the city is facing mounting fiscal pressure from a continued lack of shared revenue from the state, loss of revenue due to the current COVID-19 pandemic and expected balloons in future pension payments.

With this as a backdrop, current MPD funding levels are unsustainable.

The new chief must be open to looking at how to accomplish the community’s public safety goals in a manner different and more efficient than what is being done currently.  Our taxpayers deserve to know that their tax dollars are flowing to a department that demonstrates fiscal responsibility and a willingness to engage thoughtfully on the realities of the city budget.

5. Ability to communicate, listen and learn

Our next chief must not only be a recognized expert in policing, specifically community-oriented policing, but he or she must also understand that residents of neighborhoods in Milwaukee also are the experts at what they need and want around public safety.

Their voices have often been solicited but not often listened to.

The new chief must make it a priority to be a transparent communicator, both verbally and through his or her actions, acknowledge when mistakes are made and be ready to learn from them and apply those lessons to making the department better.

One way a new chief could show an immediate impact in the department would be to expedite data and open records requests from Milwaukee residents and community organizations.

This list is by no means all inclusive of what is needed in our new chief. This will not be an easy job by any measure, but I am confident that if the right person with a community-oriented policing mindset is chosen, MPD can become an institution that will work in conjunction with the community to provide equitable and efficient services to our residents.

My team at Safe & Sound and I will continue to push for the needs of our community through this process and advocate with city leaders for the change that is needed.