New chief in town

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Joel McNally
Monday, November 19, 2007
— When the five finalists for Milwaukee police chief endured a marathon five-hour public grilling from citizens, the performance of Police Commissioner Edward Flynn from Springfield, Mass., was clearly head-and-heels above that of the other candidates.

Rather than quoting Flynn’s thoughtful, articulate responses, however, the local media took an oddly dismissive tone referring to Flynn’s presentation as “slick” and “smooth.”

Only in Milwaukee would an applicant for a position get points taken off for expressing himself well in a job interview. Much of this reflects small-minded parochialism. Flynn was one of two outside candidates for a job with a history of promoting from within.

The other outsider, a retired police chief from Ypsilanti, Mich., apparently didn’t come off as so “polished,” another adjective attached to Flynn in news stories as if it were a bad quality.

Both outside candidates, however, were far more steeped in current best practices in police departments around the country than the three local Milwaukee candidates, who came off as, well, local candidates. A reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote several stories claiming Capt. James Harpole, the local candidate with the least experience, was the other leading candidate for the job, even though Harpole hadn’t performed particularly well in the public interview session.

Neighborhood leaders in Harpole’s police district did, in fact, praise Harpole’s ability to work with community groups. But there was another group overwhelmingly supporting Harpole that, for some curious reason, was not mentioned by the media. Harpole was the candidate pushed by the Milwaukee Police Association, the union dominated by old-line, rank-and-file officers who have fought every effort by recent chiefs to reform the department.

Despite the strong prejudice against outside candidates—only Philip Arreola, Milwaukee’s only Latino police chief in the ’90s, was ever hired from the outside—the Fire and Police Commission voted unanimously 5-0 to hire Flynn.

Milwaukee usually waits at least a couple of years before it begins tearing down its police chiefs, but the process seems to have begun for Flynn even before he’s arrived in town.

The latest suspicion being circulated about Flynn goes like this: There’s got to be something wrong with the guy because he’s taking a pay cut from a $155,000-a-year job in Springfield to come here.

Since no department head is permitted to make more than the mayor in the city of Milwaukee, Flynn’s salary will be a few dollars less than Mayor Tom Barrett’s current salary of $143,883. It’s only a temporary cut, however. With recent pay increases in the city budget, the mayor’s salary will increase annually to $158,665 by the end of Flynn’s first term in 2011.

Besides, why do we continue to hold ourselves in such low esteem? Why should it be surprising that any police chief would leave one of the anonymous Springfields across the country—isn’t that where the Simpsons live?—to head an urban police department in a major American city?

The guy obviously enjoys challenges. And, boy, is reforming the Milwaukee Police Department going to be a challenge. All department insiders were compromised by either their active or passive collaboration in the racially charged Frank Jude case.

In October, 2004, a mob of more than a dozen drunken, off-duty, white police officers beat and tortured Jude and another African-American. Officers sworn to uphold the law and protect public safety watched and either refused to testify or testified falsely about the crime they witnessed.

In the public hearing, Flynn directly addressed the challenge of breaking the blue code of silence. He said the way to change police culture was to empower good officers to stop tolerating behavior they would never engage in themselves.

Flynn also strongly advocated more community-oriented policing to keep officers closely involved with neighborhoods to break down distrust between citizens and the police. It’s a proven strategy that has been successful elsewhere.

Come to think of it, the last really strong advocate for community policing in Milwaukee was Arreola, the only other chief from the outside.

Last updated: 10:34 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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