Milwaukee police tighten policies to prevent DOJ investigation
As a result of the new guidelines, reports of use of force by officers have more than doubled this year
By Gitte Laasby
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — In an attempt to avoid a possible investigation from the federal Department of Justice, the Milwaukee Police Department has tightened several of its policies, including a broader and more common-sense definition of what's considered a use of force and stricter standards for when officers have to report it.
As a result of the new guidelines, which went into effect Jan. 1, reports of use of force by officers have more than doubled in the first half of this year compared with the same period last year. Reported incidents are up from 225 in 2012 to 538 in 2013, the department said late last week. Force was previously used in 1% of citizen encounters, police say.
The changes come in a response to series of high-profile media stories in 2012 about officers, documented on camera, who behaved questionably -- from the death of Derek Williams in the back of a squad car to inappropriate strip searches, an officer delivering blows to a reckless, drunken Lamborghini driver lying face down in a parking lot on Water St., and an officer striking a drunk, argumentative woman in the face.
The incidents attracted the attention of the Justice Department and led many to call for a formal federal investigation. So far, none has been launched, and Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn wants to keep it that way.
He believes the department can identify and fix its problems on its own.
But in his first-ever department-wide risk management training session earlier this year, Flynn was blunt: 2012 was a bad year for the Milwaukee Police Department. Internal reviews showed changes are needed to make the department less vulnerable to what he called a formal U.S. Department of Justice investigation and a subsequent "ruinously expensive" legal agreement similar to the ones that have cost taxpayers in other police districts millions of dollars to pay for a company to monitor compliance.
Such agreements have led to layoffs of hundreds of officers in Detroit and a loss of local control at the police department, he said.
"A lot of things went very badly, very publicly wrong," Flynn told officers at a training session in February, according to a video obtained by the Journal Sentinel under a public records request.
"Some of it was willfully misrepresented. Some of it was maliciously reported. Some of it was just plain bad. 2012 revealed a number of failures that needed to be addressed.
"The gap between what our policy was and what was going on was too wide a gap for us to explain away. We weren't doing what we said we were doing or what we thought we were doing."
In an interview last week, Flynn referred to some of the 2012 incidents as "errors," others as "misconduct." During the training, he explained the new policies and the importance of adhering to them, and urged officers to intervene against any of their colleagues who may act inappropriately.
The purpose of the training, he said, was ultimately to reduce the risk of liability to the city, protect the reputation of the department and maintain the public's trust.
So far, the department has instituted requirements to call certified medical personnel when questions arise about an arrestee's health condition, stricter guidelines on consent searches and tighter reporting requirements for use-of-force incidents.
The previous use-of-force policy from 2009 said officers were "entitled to use whatever force is reasonably necessary" to make an arrest. Under the revised policy, released Jan. 1, use of force must be "objectively reasonable" and officers "shall use only the force necessary to effectively maintain control of a situation and protect the safety of police members and the public."
Flynn stressed that force shouldn't be used against restrained people or those who are only verbally confronting officers.
Officers were previously required to report use-of-force incidents involving guns and other weapons and incidents that result in an injury.
Now, officers are required to report any type of force in which a person is injured or claims injury, regardless whether the injury is immediately visible.
That includes hands-on uses of force, such as focused strikes, diffused strikes and incidents in which an officer throws someone to the ground.
Public concern about the 2012 incidents showed average citizens already regarded that as uses of force.
For reporting purposes, so did most other police departments around the country that Milwaukee police surveyed.
Milwaukee police had a different interpretation. Flynn says most officers did document hands-on uses of force in their regular reports but weren't required to report incidents in a separate use-of-force report.
As a result, supervisors had no documentation and context to refer to when people complained. This made it seem like the department was hiding something, he said.
"One of our greatest vulnerabilities," Flynn told officers during the training session, "is the gap between what our policies say and what we're on the record as doing. I can't tell you how many times we had critical incidents and we go to look at the reports and they're not there. Or we find out what we thought the organization was doing, it hasn't been doing."
Flynn said gaps between policy and practices were a major reason federal authorities intervened at other police departments around the country.
Use of force was the primary reason that the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division investigated police in Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; and Seattle, which had three custody deaths in one year.
"Their data supported the position that their police department is restrained in its use of force, just as our data demonstrates the same for us," he told officers during training. "But they had three deaths in one year, all caught on video, all questionable. Didn't matter what their data said. Stories drove the outcome."
Milwaukee officers are now required to take photos of the people on whom they use force, regardless whether there's a visible injury. Officers also have a duty to intervene if they observe a colleague use more force beyond what is "objectively reasonable."
Use of force incidents
Milwaukee Police Department's use of force incidents have more than doubled in the first half of 2013 compared to 2012 because of stricter reporting requirements. Previously, officers were required to report only use of force incidents that resulted in injury. Incidents involving "hands-on" uses of force in which someone was thrown to the ground, for instance, were not considered uses of force. That changed Jan. 1, 2013. This is the reason officers have reported 2.4 use-of-force incidents so far in 2013 for every incident in 2012, Milwaukee police chief Ed Flynn says.
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