Milwaukee activist Annia Leonard wants a safe community without police, and she draws from experience when imagining that: like the time a conflict at her grandmother’s house ended peacefully in a garden — without anyone in handcuffs.

When an argument escalated earlier this summer, one person called Milwaukee police, Leonard said, and someone else called 414LIFE — a team of community “violence interrupters” who are trained to intervene.

Leonard said she was already in “fight mode” when the officers arrived, and their response antagonized those involved in the dispute. But the violence interrupters quickly dissolved that tension.

“They talked to everyone individually. They were just making sure that everyone in the space was good,” said Leonard, who aims to uplift Milwaukee’s Black residents in her own organizing work.

“It just made it clear, this is why we don’t need police officers in our communities.”

Calls to “defund the police” have grown louder in Milwaukee and elsewhere after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis fueled nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. 

Floyd’s death came as Milwaukee grieved the loss of Joel Acevedo, who died days after Michael Mattioli, an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, acknowledged putting him in a 10-minute chokehold during an April fight. Mattioli was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, and his department suspended him with pay. 

Some defunding advocates say the aim is to reroute police funds towards public health, housing and other programs to alleviate conditions that spark crime. But many advocates eye a more ambitious goal: to abolish the criminal justice system over time, replacing it with neighborhood-based public safety models. 

Milwaukee’s movement comes as city officials set next year’s budget and a pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy, promising to slash revenue available for all services. 

“Even if the tragic death of George Floyd and nationwide protests had not occurred, there was very good reason for citizens and policymakers to take a look at the Milwaukee Police Department budget,” said Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, who noted that Milwaukee faced “tremendous economic stress” even before the pandemic.

‘We didn’t get here overnight.’

Law enforcement in 2018 accounted for nearly 22% of Milwaukee’s $1.4 billion in total expenditures — the largest budget category, according to Wisconsin Department of Revenue data. That hovers above law enforcement’s 20% share of municipal spending statewide, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum analysis of state data. 

MPD is requesting nearly $316 million for next year as Milwaukee wades into the country’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. That proposed $18.5 million increase from last year is 20 times the Milwaukee Health Department’s request.

The health department houses the $2.1 million Office of Violence Prevention, which encompasses the 414LIFE team, a small-scale example of policing alternatives.

Neighborhood residents trust the team, said Derrick Rogers, 414LIFE program director. The  group practices an evidence-based “Cure Violence” model that sees violence as a treatable epidemic and aims to stabilize the lives of people deemed at high risk of committing violence. 

When Rogers responded to the dispute at Leonard’s grandmother’s house, he helped one person pull weeds in a garden. They talked through frustrations and constructed plans to avoid another conflict. 

But Milwaukee each year spends roughly $504 per resident on policing compared to less than $4 per resident on direct violence prevention.

“We didn’t get here overnight,” Reggie Moore, director of the Office of Violence Prevention, said this month during an online Wisconsin Police Forum event. “These were generations of decisions and policymaking and investment where unfortunately a lot of cities and counties responded to situations of community crisis with greater investment in law enforcement.” 

Calls to shift funding grow

The Common Council on June 16 approved a resolution to study a 10% cut to the MPD budget — about $30 million. The Milwaukee School Board two days later resolved to remove police officers from public school grounds.

That’s not enough for advocates such as Devin Anderson, lead organizer for LiberateMKE, a coalition calling for a $75 million cut to MPD’s budget that would shift $50 million to public health and $25 million to housing cooperatives.

“We believe a world without police is possible,” Anderson said. “Defund is the goal, and divestment is the process.”

MPD spokeswoman Sgt. Sheronda Grant directed Wisconsin Watch to Chief Alfonso Morales’ op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which warned that a $30 million budget cut could eliminate about 375 officers, increasing response times and narrowing the types of calls officers could handle.

“We must have real discussions of what ‘defunding the police’ means,” Morales wrote in July. “I understand budget cuts, and I understand investing in our community. However, I do not understand how defunding improves the underlying issues of social injustices and police brutality.”

MPD wants more funds after leaving 60 officer positions unfilled this year — trimming ranks to 1,804. The department cut the third shift of its Sensitive Crimes Division, which investigates sexual assaults and child abuse, Morales told Wisconsin Public Radio in June. 

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will begin holding budget hearings in August and plans to present his budget to the Common Council in September. 

“Our upcoming budget process is an opportunity to take a comprehensive look at how city government views public safety,” he said in a June statement. 

Crime surges following decline

The conversation unfolds as homicides in Milwaukee surge to levels unseen since the 1990s following a four-year decline — a nationwide trend. Violent crime does not necessarily correlate with a need for police officers, the Wisconsin Policy Forum noted in a 2019 report showing how Milwaukee and some other Wisconsin cities are boosting police spending even as they cut officers.

“Defund” advocates say many factors outside of law enforcement affect crime rates and safety, and Milwaukee has never invested to scale in strategies to keep people safe without police. 

“By investing so much in a system that was never meant to keep us safe, that’s leaving no space and no room for the other investments, and it’s hurting us. In some cases, it’s literally killing us,” Anderson said.

Monique Liston, chief strategist at Ubuntu Research and Evaluation, a Black women-led policy and advocacy firm, underscored that societies haven’t always relied on police, and many American police systems were created to control Black people and protect the interests of the wealthy.

“Policing was built around protecting stolen property and protecting stolen people,” she said. “One of the big disservices we’ve done in history is to act like police are a natural part of organizations. It’s so ingrained in people that police have to be there.”

Some residents and advocates say they are tired of waiting on piecemeal reforms.

Milwaukee police officers have for years been the subject of reform debates and criminal and civil proceedings, including after the police killings of Dontre Hamilton in 2014, Sylville Smith in 2016 and Acevedo.

Recommendations have followed — from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017 and the city-convened Collaborative Community Committee in 2019. But the city has yet to implement many such proposals. Barrett in June announced yet another reform commission, which some activists viewed as déjà vu.

Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission, a civilian oversight board with the power to change policy and investigate complaints, this week issued a set of directives to Morales demanding changes. The commission itself faces allegations that it acts slowly and lacks transparency.

“We’re constantly being put where we’re in the position for these tough conversations needing to hold cops accountable,” Leonard said. “I’m not trying to demand reform from them anymore. The whole system needs to be abolished." 

Stop-and-frisk persists

In 2018, Milwaukee’s Common Council approved a $3.4 million legal settlement after the American Civil Liberties Union accused officers of unjustified stops and racial profiling in their stop and frisk program. 

In a June monitoring report, the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute found that officers undercounted frisks and failed to properly justify 81% of documented frisks during the second half of 2019, showing no improvement on those measures from earlier in the year. 

The report also showed that officers stopped and searched Black people at disproportionately high rates. Black residents make up roughly 39% of Milwaukee’s population but faced nearly 60% of police encounters and 80% of frisks.

“They’re not really living up to their end of the bargain,” said Molly Collins, associate director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. 

Said Grant, the MPD spokeswoman: “Our members continue to receive training, and MPD continues to make progress in our compliance efforts.” 

‘The community knows what keeps them safe’

Grassroots organizers have spent years helping Milwaukee residents envision such an approach in a city that last year declared racism a public health crisis and saw annual eviction rates of up to 15% of households in some neighborhoods — even before the pandemic left thousands jobless and waiting on rent assistance.

LiberateMKE has surveyed more than 1,100 residents about how the city should use their tax dollars, Anderson said. Last year’s participants recommended rerouting $25 million from MPD to community-based violence prevention programs. They also called for bigger investments in opportunities for young people and better housing.

Many of those recommendations referenced the Office of Violence Prevention’s 2017 Blueprint for Peace, a set of community-driven goals and recommendations that spurred the creation of  414LIFE and other investments in youth programming, mental health and domestic violence prevention.

“We understand that when we look at the production of public safety in our city, it really takes beyond policing and the criminal justice industry, and I think that’s really what this movement and moment is challenging us to think about,” said Moore, the Office of Violence Prevention director.

The pandemic has loudended calls for change as the virus disproportionately infects and kills Milwaukee’s people of color and worsens economic hardship. But the crisis is also spurring more grassroots efforts to provide food, financial help, child care — proving that residents can take care of each other, Anderson said.

“Those are people on the ground making sure that people’s needs are met by offering support to their neighbors. The community knows what keeps them safe,” he said.

Allison Dikanovic is an engagement reporting fellow for Wisconsin Watch, which is partnering with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Outlier Media on News414, a news-by-text project. Dikanovic’s fellowship is funded in part by the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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