The Milwaukee Common Council tries to take control of the MPD chief; Ashley Luthern and Mary Spicuzza explore what this means.
Many aldermen on the Common Council aren’t happy with the performance of Police Chief Edward Flynn. Some think he’s not taking the citizens in the city’s neighborhoods seriously enough. Others think he’s not taking crime seriously enough.
We understand their frustration. Homicides, shootings, carjackings, police chases and other crime issues are all serious matters that can have a devastating effect on a neighborhood and a city. Citizens complain to their aldermen and the aldermen complain to the mayor but feel they should be able to have more control over the department.
But a proposal to give aldermen veto power over the hiring of a police chief isn’t the answer.
Right now, state law gives the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission the authority to appoint the chiefs of both the Police and Fire Departments. Under a proposal being floated in the Legislature, that could change to give the Common Council veto power over the appointments.
Legislators should allow that proposal to die a quick and quiet death.
Mayor Tom Barrett is right on this. Aldermen were taken out of the hiring process when the commission was established in 1885 in order to remove politics from the process. That was wise then, and it still is.
In an interview Thursday, Barrett called the proposal “very political” and added that he would fight it “to make sure that politics stays out of the department.”
In an earlier statement, he said, “I will oppose any attempt to dilute and undermine the statutory authority of the citizen member Fire and Police Commission. The commission is a national model. Politicizing the operations of the fire and police departments is horrible public policy and would run contrary to the principles of citizen oversight and engagement.”
Barrett has it right: Giving aldermen that much political power over the chief would politicize the department and could result in a rotating cycle of chiefs depending on how many aldermen like the woman or man holding the office when the chief’s contract is up. That’s not conducive to a long-term strategy for dealing with crime. And the politics is obvious: This is aimed at Flynn, not Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing, even though Ald. Tony Zielinski told us Friday that both positions would fall under a new law. This is aimed at Flynn, not Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing.
Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton and Ald. Michael Murphy also oppose the measure, as does Ald. Bob Donovan, a frequent critic of the mayor and the chief’s policies.
The initial proposal by Alds. Tony Zielinski and Mark Borkowski said the council is “an appropriate body in which to vest authority to remove from office a chief of police who no longer has the faith and support of the community and its elected officials,” the Journal Sentinel reported. Alds. Milele Coggs, Chantia Lewis, Bob Bauman said they were open to the proposal, which was unveiled at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.
“We are held so accountable for public safety issues that it makes it very difficult for us to not be able to hold the chief public safety officer as accountable as we have to be to those who elect us,” Coggs said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The city — officials and citizens — should have a robust discussion on crime and on Flynn’s strategy. We think Flynn is on solid ground and the rise in some crimes is part of a national phenomenon that many cities are struggling with. We also think the department and the Fire and Police Commission always need to be transparent and work harder on their relationship with citizens and elected officials.
But they need to be free of politics. Changing the current system and opening the door to politics because some aldermen are frustrated with Flynn and the commission is a very bad idea.
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