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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

MPD Chief Flynn and Aldermen Strike Back at 'Journal Sentinel'

Violent crime dropped 2.4% last year, contradicting reporting

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"We have been reporting our crime data honorably," Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn told the Public Safety Committee of the Milwaukee Common Council last Thursday.

The chief and his advisers explained as plainly and simply as possible why some of its reporting of crime statistics is being questioned in a series of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel articles—and that they've been aware of the problem for some time.

Based on its review of Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) reports, the Journal Sentinel has asserted that violent crime increased 1% from 2010 to 2011, and implied that data were being fudged because Flynn's contract was up for renewal or because the MPD wanted to provide a more favorable picture about the city's crime rate.

But Flynn and his advisers contradicted the Journal Sentinel's findings and criticized the paper's sensationalized coverage of the MPD's data reporting. 

Flynn: 'I Am Indignant'

In contrast to the Journal Sentinel's repeated assertions that its investigation shows that violent crime has increased 1% from 2010 to 2011, an internal MPD targeted audit presented to the Common Council showed that violent crime decreased 2.4% from 2010 to 2011, slightly more than the 2.3% drop earlier reported by the MPD.

In addition, the MPD reported that from 2006 to 2011:

  • Total crime has decreased 21%
  • Aggravated assaults have decreased 29%
  • Murders have dropped 17%
  • Crimes against children have decreased 28%


"I am indignant about the implication that the work of my officers does not matter," Flynn said. "I am indignant about the implication that there is somehow a vast conspiracy afoot at MPD that created any miscoding mistakes. And I am indignant about the implication that crime has not decreased in the past four years."

Bohl: Accusations 'A Lead Balloon'

Flynn also testified that while errors in reporting crime statistics have under-counted the number of violent crimes, the errors have also over-reported crimes as well, and that the problem was even worse before he was hired in 2008. Flynn stressed that the errors don't affect investigations or how the district attorney charges the offender.

The committee members seemed supportive of Flynn and openly critical of the Journal Sentinel's reports of MPD's crime data errors.

"I'd be really curious to see either later tonight or tomorrow what the press reports," Alderman Jim Bohl said, calling the Journal Sentinel's "so-called smoking gun" a "lead balloon that dropped to the floor."

Alderman Robert Puente, a former MPD officer, said Flynn was more transparent than the five chiefs he had worked under and questioned the timing of the Journal Sentinel's reports, published two weeks before the recall of Gov. Scott Walker against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

"I have questions [about] the author of this article, coming out when it did, during the recall election," Puente said. "That, to me, put a big question mark and a big doubt into why all of a sudden, right now, during a recall election, this comes out. The next day they had an advertisement about this against the opponent."

Within hours of Flynn's testimony, the Journal Sentinel reported on the meeting with a story headlined "Department Misreported More than 5,300 Violent Assaults."

On Friday, nine Milwaukee aldermen sent out a joint statement criticizing the Journal Sentinel's reporting.

"We will not speculate as to why the paper of record in this town has spent weeks misleading the public," the aldermen wrote. "But the facts are that it has, and the public should know."

Problematic Database

So why have the MPD's crime statistics become so controversial? And are they reliable?

MPD spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz didn't respond to the Shepherd's repeated requests to clarify the MPD's data reports and the department's credibility problems with the press.

But Flynn testified that when he became MPD chief in 2008, he had inherited a database by software company Tiburon that wasn't producing usable data—something Flynn, with his data-driven policing strategy, needed for daily meetings. Flynn turned to the private sector in the form of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which helped to get Tiburon to address the problems.

"They got the thing at least jump-started," Flynn said.

Kansas City Police Capt. Greg Volker testified that his department also had problems with the Tiburon database, saying, "We paid $7 million for a system that didn't work."

Flynn said that the department is looking into replacing the Tiburon system but that it would remain in place for at least four or five more years.

Aldermen also questioned Assistant City Attorney Melanie Swank over the MPD's decision to charge the Journal Sentinel an estimated $10,000 to cover an open records request for 828 reports. But the department has estimated that at 16 minutes per record, it would take at least 220 hours, or five and a half weeks of one employee's time, to pull, review, redact personal information from and copy the requested records.

Puente pointed out that according to state statutes, a public entity may charge the actual, necessary and direct cost of an open records request that exceeds $50.

"We're trying to be reasonable," Swank said.