Liberate MKE argues for a smaller Milwaukee Police Department
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, whose murder sparked mass protests across the country. Although the marches that filled city streets have died down since last spring, the calls for change haven't. And increasingly, organizers are calling not only for police reform, but for a fundamental reconsideration of the role that police play in society. They argue that at least some of the money allocated toward police would be better spent on social services and community resources.
Those arguments have particular resonance in Milwaukee, which funds its police department disproportionately compared to demographically similar cities. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel study found that the city dedicated 46.6% of its 2020 general fund to police, far more than Cleveland (32.5%), Atlanta (30.3%) and Baltimore (28%), and also more than regional neighbors Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit. Milwaukee spends more than 20 times on police than it does on health, which is also greater than any comparable city. Baltimore spends just three times more on police than health.
And these disparities are only growing, argues Liberate MKE, a coalition organized by Milwaukee’s African American Roundtable in 2019 that’s been leading calls to trim the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD). The police department's budget has increased by more than 25% over the last five years, according to Devin Anderson, African American Roundtable’s membership and coalition manager.
Liberate MKE is calling for a $75 million divestment from MPD, about 25% of the department’s budget. Under the campaign's proposal, $50 million of that money would be redirected to the health department for services like mental health and violence prevention programs and $25 million would go toward housing initiatives and cooperatives.
“Milwaukee police get close to $300 million every year, and the health department gets $14 million, or 12% of the budget,” Anderson says. “Housing initiatives are grossly underfunded as well.”
Milwaukee's police spending comes at the direct expense of its communities, argues Anderson, who says his hope is police could one day be defunded entirely. “Because we've seen this grossly disproportionate spending on police, we're not able to build the communities and neighborhoods like our people deserve,” he says. “It creates this chicken and egg scenario. People will say, 'well, crime is going up.' Yeah, crime is going up because we're not funding anything that prevents crime. We're not funding anything that builds community. We're not funding any other social safety net that our folks need. We're only funding police.”
Anderson argues the police have taken on responsibilities for which they aren't qualified. “They're the dullest Swiss army knife there is, because they're tasked with responding to so much and they don't do any of it well,” Anderson says. “We have examples of them not doing any of it well. We have examples of folks with mental health problems or issues who are disproportionately killed by the police. So we know they're tasked with responding to mental health, and they don't do it well. Because they're killing our people.”
So what would Milwaukee look like with a smaller police department? Anderson says it would be less of a change than people might imagine. In the popular imagination, Anderson says, police are first responders. But a survey of MPD's top calls for service shows that very few are for violent crimes. More often, Anderson says, the police are ticketing or conducting business or welfare checks.
“You think about all the places you see police, how many places could police go away tomorrow and you wouldn't feel the difference?” Anderson says. “If the police weren't at the McDonald's tomorrow, I wouldn't feel the difference. If the police weren't at the neighborhood Walmart tomorrow, I wouldn't feel the difference. Life would go on.”
Divestment and diversion
The police see things differently.
Nick DeSiato, MPD's chief of staff, says a sudden 25% cut to the department's budget would be felt immediately, since most of the department's budget is dedicated to personnel. He estimates MPD would have to let go of roughly a third of its staff.
“That would be devastating to a police department from one year to the next,” DeSiato says. “And it would really mean we have to reevaluate how that police department did business. Would you be eliminating shifts? Would you just not be taking calls at certain times? Would you be eliminating your special units?”
The department's traffic safety unit, which responds to reckless driving, would likely have to be cut, he says. So too would police-community relations initiatives. And the cuts would come amid a surge in violent crime – including a 96% spike in homicides last year.
And yet despite the philosophical disagreement over the necessity of police, there's one enormous island of common ground between the police department and Liberate MKE’s organizers: They agree some police responsibilities should be handed off.
DeSiato says MPD has taken on the responsibility of responding to drug overdoses, domestic violence and mental health crises – areas traditionally beyond the purview of police that “nobody from a police department that I know of would say should remain.” He says these calls should be handled by entities better equipped to handle them.
“Right now the police are the chef when it comes to dispersing calls for service,” DeSiato says. “We're the ones you call and we send people out. But what really needs to happen is we need to be a menu item.”
DeSiato says MPD is taking steps toward fixing that problem. This year it created a Diversion Task Force to examine which other services might better handle some of the calls it receives. DeSiato also points to the partnerships MPD already has in place with the Behavioral Health Division, the Office of Violence Prevention and the Benedict Center, whose Sisters Program provides resources to sex workers.
But until a proven framework is in place for diverting calls for service to the right recipients, DeSiato says, “there's still going to be this incredible demand for police.”
“At the end of the day, we just want the best resources,” DeSiato says. “Is the solution just overnight taking 25% of the police department's budget without a solution at hand? Absolutely not. I think that's frankly irresponsible.”
In truth, a 25% reduction of the police budget seems unlikely any time soon. Last summer the Milwaukee Common Council endorsed a 10% cut to the police budget, but those cuts weren’t included in the 2021 budget it adopted last fall. Still, Liberate MKE’s organizers say the conversation has to begin somewhere.
“The police didn't build power overnight,” Anderson says. “They built it after years and years of legislation and years and years of backing, and we're trying our hardest to build power, even if it's not overnight.
“What we're super proud of is we moved the conversation forward,” Anderson continues. “While that always hasn't led to these huge cuts to the police department, we've allowed people a glimpse into our political vision and hopefully to see themselves within that vision. That's hard work, just moving people from saying 'we need the police' – because a lot of folks inherently see police as guardians of public safety – and opening them up to, 'okay, we can take a little bit more money from the police.'”