4th Quarter 2023 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

It’s not often that the Forum issues an urgent call for action as a result of our research, but we came close to doing so in Under Pressure, our August 2023 examination of the Milwaukee County justice system’s recovery from COVID-19.

We warned in that report that several key pillars of the system “are not functioning in the same way or at the same level as they were prior to the pandemic.” Our conclusion then urged justice system leaders and policymakers “to aggressively explore why that is, to what degree it may have impacted public safety, what progress is being made in remedying the identified challenges, and whether additional resources or other solutions are required to get the system back on track.”

One of the findings that most merited such exploration involved arrests in the city of Milwaukee. Arrest totals began to plummet even before the pandemic and have continued their descent since that time.

To be clear, we have not yet dug in deeply enough to determine what that development means. For example, some may consider at least some decrease in arrests to be a positive outcome produced by changes in Milwaukee Police Department policies and procedures in the wake of a 2017 legal settlement (the “Collins Agreement”). The settlement requires officers to take greater care to avoid stopping, frisking, and arresting individuals when other responses may be more appropriate.

Also, as recently reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the city saw notable declines in homicides and nonfatal shootings in 2023, which may suggest that the unusual events of the pandemic are receding and a variety of violence reduction strategies are beginning to pay dividends.

Still, our research found that in 2022, arrests were 36.8% lower for serious Part 1 crimes and 61.0% lower for less-serious Part 2 crimes in the city than in 2018. That’s a huge drop that needs to be investigated and assessed, particularly as 2023 data become available.

Also, just a couple of months after we released Under Pressure, we discovered in research performed for the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission that police-citizen contacts in Milwaukee for field interviews and traffic stops also declined sharply – by 41.0% in just one year from 2021 to 2022.

While justice system leaders and policymakers do indeed bear primary responsibility for following up on these findings, additional Forum research also could be beneficial. That is why, in partnership with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, we plan a series of reports in 2024 that will seek to shed light on why we have seen such a huge decline in police interactions in Milwaukee and what that means. Our research questions will include:

  • What factors are causing the reductions in arrests and citizen contacts and why did arrests begin to plummet even before the pandemic and George Floyd-inspired protests?
  • Is Milwaukee unique among peer cities in seeing such reductions?
  • What impacts – both positive and negative – might these reduced police interactions be having on public safety and police-community relations in Milwaukee?
  • What types of policy and procedural changes, if any, should be considered to reverse or modify these recent trends?

We’ll also be devoting the program of our 2024 annual meeting on January 31 to this topic, with a panel discussion that will include Milwaukee’s mayor, police chief, and public safety committee chairman. Sign-up information for the annual meeting can be found here.

We have engaged in several projects that have touched on policing and public safety over the years and maintained a close relationship with the Milwaukee Community Justice Council – in fact, we house the two full-time positions for this coordinating group for the various actors in the local justice system. Yet these topics have not been so near to the top of the Forum’s research agenda in my 16 years with the organization and probably never in our history.

As summarized elsewhere in this newsletter, we’ll have a rich research agenda in 2024 that will also include topics that are more closely aligned with our traditional priorities. But we’re taking our own call to action seriously, and look forward to shining more light in the year to come on the status of policing in Milwaukee.

Please feel free to give me a call or send me a note on this topic. In the meantime, thank you for your support in 2023 and happy New Year!