By Alexandria Staubach
Milwaukee Police Department Chief Jeffrey Norman and Milwaukee County Sheriff Denita Ball identified trust and staffing as the top issues facing their respective departments. They stressed trust, community partnership, and internal department communication as keys to dampen any expected summer crime spike.
Norman and Ball discussed their departments’ challenges and their summer crime-prevention strategies at Marquette Law School on Thursday. Marquette Law School Lubar Center Director Derek Mosley facilitated the talk.
Norman acknowledged public mistrust of the MPD. He then delivered a passionate sermon about his department’s evolution and asked audience members to “trust that we are doing the right things at the right time for you all.” Norman said he hoped that the community would meet MPD halfway.
Both Ball and Norman cited staffing as critical issues in their departments. Ball said it was her No. 1 issue. An inability to attract and retain correction officers means deputies are pulled off the street to keep the Milwaukee County Jail staffed, Ball said.
Norman and Ball addressed security at summer events and said both agencies will use a combination of uniformed and plainclothes officers to identify and prevent crime at festivals, in addition to traffic barricades as proactive measures. Norman said that at many summer events in Milwaukee, his officers will seek to be a “backdrop” instead of a “frontdrop.” Both stressed that reactive law enforcement is information based, encouraging the community to say something if they see something. Norman highlighted that the community’s lack of trust in MPD plays a role in the department’s ability to be reactive.
On the city’s reckless driving problem, Ball said her department is working collaboratively with suburban police and state patrol officers to identify “high tide” zones and beef up law enforcement presence and intervention at peak times and areas.
Norman and Ball stressed that crime in Milwaukee is a community problem that will be solved only in tandem with citizens, community partners, the judicial branch, and the Legislature.
The audience challenged Norman and Ball with comments and criticisms about mental health arrests. Norman and Ball stressed that law enforcement alone will not be the answer. On mental health arrests, Norman said that law enforcement in Milwaukee has a mandate to “stay in their lane,” and community partners in the mental health space are essential to answering the city’s crime problem. He highlighted community partners in the room doing that work, including JusticePoint, whose municipal court contract with the city of Milwaukee was recently terminated. Norman further emphasized the many task units now active in Milwaukee, including MPD’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) and Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). While these task forces are not unique to Milwaukee, they are not yet common in cities and towns across Wisconsin. Norman said his department was “ahead of the curve with specialty groups to handle these challenges.” Both he and Ball said that the training required to implement these programs needs to be received by the right people and it, too, factors in hiring.
Norman expressed willingness to explore further collaboration but hesitated to say that Milwaukee is prepared for officers to stop responding to mental health crises and for his department to do only “sworn work.”
Several audience members expressed concern about the prevalence of guns and gun violence. Norman highlighted collaboration with firearm retailers to prevent purchases by those with felony convictions and identify straw man purchases. Norman also highlighted a recent campaign calling on citizens to lock up firearms and remove them from vehicles, which could then be stolen. Ultimately Ball stressed that law enforcement walks a fine line between keeping guns off the streets and respecting citizens’ rights. Both agreed that further restricting firearm possession and distribution was principally a legislative issue.
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