Is Milwaukee Sliding Back into the Homicide Abyss?

Ringing in the New Year with a bang is, unfortunately, a tradition practiced in some of Milwaukee’s troubled -neighborhoods.  

I vividly recall the first 30 minutes of a recently ushered-in 1980s New Year, as my squad partner and I stood just outside of District Five.  Initially, some of the area’s residents celebrated with small arms fire.  Within a few minutes, the blasts grew increasingly louder, as if some sort of competition existed to see who had the largest caliber handgun. 

Nonetheless, this bizarre and extremely dangerous form of celebration is the impetus for annual reflection, especially when tallying the number of yearly homicides. 

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) confirm that homicide is the crime most often reported, which is why media outlets tend to focus on the number of bodies that turn-up at the local morgue.   Over the last 15 years, though, many law enforcement veterans believe that significant improvements in trauma care have skewed the homicide rate as a gage for violence.  Instead, some—like retired Milwaukee Police Department Captain Glenn Frankovis—believe the number of persons shot and/or involved in gunfights are a better barometer of violent crime trends.

Locally, how violent crime is measured will once again become a heated topic of debate.  In 2010, Milwaukee’s homicide rate jumped 31 percent—the largest single year increase since 2005, when homicides increased almost 39 percent. 

Optimists note that the 91 homicides committed in 2010 are still much lower that the all-time record of 168 in 1991, the year that Jeffrey Dahmer’s murderous rampage was uncovered.   

“We understand that the dynamics and motivation of some forms of homicide are susceptible to police tactics and some are not,” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  “We need to find out which are and which aren’t.”

Flynn blames the significant spike in homicides to multiple-victim cases.

Pessimists, however, believe that cuts to the overtime budget and changes in the detective bureau are beginning to hamper the MPD’s ability to clear violent crimes, which means offenders remain at large to victimize others. 

No doubt, journalists and politicians will likely scrutinize the MPD’s 2010 clearance rate for homicides and other serious offenses.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jesse Garza—a reporter in-charge of a homicide related blog—notes that a database maintained by that newspaper suggests 40 of Milwaukee’s homicides from 2010 remain unsolved—a clearance rate of just 56 percent.

With discourse concerning local crime numbers looming, it is imperative to juxtapose Milwaukee’s homicide statistics with other cities.

Unofficial numbers show Chicago homicides fell almost 3.5 percent from 2009 to 447.

In 2010, however, Chicago’s per capita homicide rate was slightly higher than Milwaukee’s.

News accounts from the west coast suggest Los Angeles is set to record fewer than 300 homicides “for the first time in four decades.”

If Los Angeles, a city of almost 3.9 million, had the same homicide rate as Milwaukee in 2010, the city of angles would have experienced 591 homicides.

In 2010, Philadelphia, a tough town with a reputation for violence, recorded 305 homicides.

With a population of almost 1.5 million, Philadelphia would have registered 85 fewer homicides if that city experienced the same per capita murder rate as Milwaukee.

These numbers suggest that Milwaukee’s per capita homicide rate is relatively high. More alarming, however, is the clearance rate, even though official numbers, as well as the methods used to ascertain these statistics, have yet to be reported.

No doubt, with 91 victims of homicide, Milwaukee is in need of a lead abatement program. If Los Angeles, home of the Bloods, the Crips, and Sur 13, can reduce its homicide rates to unprecedented levels, one would think a city of 600,000 could do the same.


Steve Spingola is a former Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective and the author of Predators on the Parkway: a Former Homicide Detective Explores the Colonial Parkway Murders.

Checkout Steve Spingola’s seminar, The Psychology of Homicide, by visiting

© Steven Spingola, Wales, WI, 2011

5 Responses

  1. Chief Flynn wants to reduce or eliminate the Detective Bureau through attrition. He just doesn’t get it. A 56% clearance rate? That would have been grounds for some transfers in my day. You want to know why the clearnace rate is so low? Uniform officers do not have the time, the resources, or the experience to properly investigate homicides. It takes a team of the best investigators in a full time, 24hr a day concentrated effort. It doesn’t stop at the end of their shift either.
    This is all the result of New England Type Police Tactics, that just plain don’t work in the Midwest.

    January 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  2. Glenn Frankovis

    Steve, as you well know I’ve long been an advocate of what I call preemptive policing. It’s really just my version of the “Broken Windows” policing strategy that you and I learned as coppers at #5 long before anyone thought to write books about it. Preemptive policing reduces violent crime by taking those who engage in violent crime, and potential victims who are often themselves petty criminals, out of the equation for a period of time. For example, when a summary arrest policing strategy is in place whereby any and all offenses (City Ordinance/State Statute) result in a summary arrest in which the violator is removed from the location of offense to a cell in a District station or the City Jail, the violator is no longer free to engage in any other criminal acts for the period of time we have him in custody. Likewise he is no longer in a position to become a shooting/homicide victim. Of course that also means he is no longer able to engage in robberies, burglaries or other crimes against people and/or property. Is he gone forever? No, but for that period of time we have him in jail the neighborhood from which we removed him is a little safer and the good people living there are a little happier. This also builds trust and confidence with those good people who then contact us to report other problems and problem people thereby allowing us to conduct surgical operations to get those thugs off the streets and out of the neighborhoods. Such preemptive policing strategies, coupled with proper deployment of Officers to include “strike teams” working almost around the clock, produced excellent results for us when I was at #3 during calendar 2002 and 2003. In 2002, we cut the number of homicides in District #3 by 50% from 2001. (I realize that HITDA’s impact in 2001 greatly reduced the criminal element responsible for the 2001 homicides as well, but the effect our ASP Officers had on #3 crime was nothing short of miraculous.) Our violent crime numbers and property crime numbers were also dramatically reduced. Although our homicides increased in 2003 over our 2002 numbers, we still had fewer homicides than 2001 and our other Part 1 crimes continued to go down from what they were in 2002. In fact, our 2003 robberies were down 22% from 2002 and our overall major crime was down 15.5% from 2002.
    I very much believe that we reduced crime in District #3 because our policing strategy and deployment stratgey created an inhospitable environment for the thugs to operate.

    As for clearance rates, I am firmly of the belief that Chief Ed Flynn has based his entire policing strategy since the start of his second year on the reduction of overtime and other costs to the Department. This is purely a politicial move and has resulted in his emasculation of the Detective Bureau. I have heard that Detectives no longer get sent to shootings unless the person has been shot in the torso. The first responding Officers handle all other shootings. I have also heard from very reliable sources that this policy and other policies have created great strains between Flynn and the District Attorney’s Office. Is it any wonder then that there are 40 unsolved homicides? Kind of reminds me of a term that was used by high level military and political types during the Vietnam era. That term was “acceptable casualty rate” and essentially was used to describe battlefield casualty rates in what some called a “war of attrition”. If our guys killed more of their guys, then whatever casualities our guys sustained was “acceptable” for that battle. Almost sounds today as though we have an “acceptable casualty rate” in Milwaukee when I hear about how many of these victims engaged in high risk criminal activities thereby placing themselves in situations where they ran the risk of getting killed. Don’t get me wrong here, I have absolutely no sympathy for thugs, but these ARE homicides and should be investigated with the sole purpose of locking up the shooter so that he won’t have another opportunity to shoot or kill some decent human being. Seems like Flynn is just looking to make thug on thug killing something other than a homicide for statistical purposes.

    January 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  3. Steve Spingola

    Dave and Glenn, thanks for the thoughtful and insightful feedback. Crime is going to be a big issue in the next 15 months, as Common Council President Willie Hines ventures into the mayoral race against Tom Barrett. Many of the concerns that have remained on the backburner will soon find their way into the light of day. It appears that some media outlets, leery of government numbers, are now keeping their own databases.

    January 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  4. “I am firmly of the belief that Chief Ed Flynn has based his entire policing strategy since the start of his second year on the reduction of overtime and other costs to the Department. This is purely a politicial move and has resulted in his emasculation of the Detective Bureau.”

    I wonder if that is Flynn’s initiative, or on orders from Mayor Barrett.

    January 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm

  5. Donald Stone

    Chief Flynn’s strategies make no sense when you look at everything he’s doing in the big picture. Since he took over, he made a big push to put more uniform officers on the street. He took officers from specialty units and put them back at the districts with the stated goal of higher visibility and preventing crime. OK…not necessarily a bad strategy.

    BUT, then you completely change the way detectives do business. You come up with stupid unofficial rules like “if they’re shot in a limb or extremity, officers will handle. If they’re shot in the head or torso, detectives will come out.” Other than that, detectives only seem to get sent to homicides.

    Initially, sexual assaults were being poo-pooed until the department took too much heat from some high profile cases and now Sensitive Crimes responds to a lot more, yet their staffing is still thin…especially on the Late Shift where they often have no one working.

    As for robberies, there is no rhyme or reason as to which ones get detectives to respond and which ones don’t. More often than not, it’s the officers getting stuck with it.

    So with officers being saddled with all this investigation, how much time do they have to increase their visibility in high crime areas? Not much more than before…maybe even less.

    Unfortunately, the media is either incapable or unwilling to ask the tough questions. Flynn wants to tout lower numbers of reported crimes. A good reporter should be asking…how many of the crimes being reported are cleared? Homicide clearance rates, as you’ve pointed out, are way down. I guarantee you they are down in most other areas as well.

    Why? There is no longer a unified mission like there was in the CIB. Instead of one x7302, there are three numbers…one for each “sector.” You think trying to track down info on a case was hard before, try having to triple your search. Then add in Metro and Homicide.

    Another reason clearances are down is the fact that detectives no longer handle crime scenes. Some officers out there do a good job, but most are being taught to do the bare minimum and move on. Detectives only get the follow up, which translated basically means they have to re-investigate the matter 24-48 hours (or more) later when witnesses and physical evidence have disappeared.

    How does Chief Flynn respond to criticism like this? Clearance rates aren’t important. The crime that has occurred is already a loss according to him. It is more important to prevent the next crime. That’s a nifty talking point, but it ignores the reality of how crime occurs and who are our criminals. Anyone with any experience and/or schooling in criminal justice will tell you that a relatively small percentage of our populace commits these more serious UCR type crimes. Most of them are repeat offenders. It then stands to reason that if you don’t clear a crime (i.e. arrest the bad guy and remove him from the street), he will re-offend. Clearance rates have a direct influence on future crime rates. If his motives are crime reduction, how can Flynn ignore this basic reality?

    I don’t think Flynn is a stupid man. But more and more, I do think he is just something akin to a dishonest used car salesman. When he says crap like, “Homicides are not as preventable as other types of crime”…it leaves me scratching my head saying “WTF?!?” Think about what he’s saying.

    I go out and commit two shootings…one victim dies, the other lives. Based on the outcome alone, how is one crime more preventable than the other? I think it’s the politician in him that makes him say things like that…but, hey, what else can you say when you’ve got 30 more bodies on the street than you did last year?

    I agree with Glenn in his assessment that Flynn’s reorganization and policy changes are more geared towards cutting costs than to providing better service to Milwaukee. To me, it would have made more sense to beef up the districts, give the district commanders the freedom to run them as they see fit while holding those commanders accountable for getting results. At the same time, the CIB worked pretty well. It did need to be streamlined and modernized…but hobbling them as Flynn has does a disservice to Milwaukee.

    I would take Glenn’s analysis a step further. Their outlook being as penny-wise and pound-foolish as it was suggests that neither Flynn nor Tom Barrett expected to still be working for Milwaukee in 2011. As MPA President Michael Crivello once said, the citizens of Milwaukee will pay for the whims of a transient Chief more interested in padding his resume than making Milwaukee a better place to live. I think Crivello was right.

    January 4, 2011 at 5:01 am

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