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Milwaukee On Pace To Break Homicide Record

Homicide Rate Coincides With Coronavirus Pandemic, Captain Says

Milwaukee Police Department Squad Car
Gretchen Brown/WPR

Milwaukee is on track to have one of its most violent years since the 1990s.

The city of Milwaukee Homicide Division investigated a potential homicide every day for the first 22 days of September.

As of Monday, there were 138 homicides in the city, compared to 66 by the same time last year.

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Capt. Thomas Casper is the commander of the Milwaukee Police Department Homicide Division. After graduating from Marquette University, he was hired by the department in 1991, the same year serial killer Jeffery Dahmer’s murders were discovered — 13 total — boosting the total homicide rate in Milwaukee to 165.

In 2015, the city hit a 22-year high in its murder rate with 147 homicides.

Casper said 2015 was a bad year for cities across the country, and he’s not sure why.

“Sometimes it’s like a wave in the ocean,” he said.

Following the surge in 2015, the department implemented the Shoot Review Model and began using data and help from community partners to analyze every shooting. It worked, and homicides declined dramatically until this year.

Casper said while 2015 was a fluke, the violence in 2020 is more explainable.

Coronavirus To Blame

“The justice system isn’t hitting on all cylinders,” Casper said, adding he believes there are several pandemic-related reasons why homicides are so high in Milwaukee and across the country.

The New York Times looked at crime in the country’s 25 largest cities and found murder was up 16 percent during the first six months of the year.

Before the pandemic, people arrested for minor offenses, such as carrying a concealed weapon or felony possession of a firearm, would have been held in jail. Now, they are let out on bond, Casper said, which means more guns on the street.

“Minor disputes are resulting in gunfire rather than settled verbally or with fists,” Casper said. “Our gun seizures are up 21 percent.”

About 30 percent of the homicides are the result of an argument; 15 percent domestic violence; 7 percent robbery or drug related; and 35 percent are unknown because the family or witnesses won’t cooperate, Casper said.

About 60 percent of homicides in Milwaukee are solved.

“With COVID, schools are out, organized activities are canceled, and people have more time on their hands,” Casper said. “People are using that time to use more alcohol or drugs and minor disputes and traffic accidents are being settled with gunfire rather than talking.”

In the early 1990s, the Milwaukee Police Department went on a five-year hiring binge adding up to four recruitment classes a year. Those classes are now eligible for retirement.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposed 2021 budget includes reducing the department by 120 officers next year, which would happen through attrition and by not holding new police academy classes next year.

The only new recruits would be 30 officers funded by a federal grant.

During his budget address last week, Barrett said the cuts would do little to offset the increased costs for salaries, health care and other personnel-related expenses related to the police department. Barrett also acknowledged that people would want to see more department reductions.

Activists across the country are calling for police departments to be “defunded” and to allocate more money to social programs.

Under the budget proposal, Milwaukee would have about 1,680 sworn officers by the end of 2021, about 200 fewer than four years ago.

For safety reasons, Casper did not want to say how many officers are in the homicide division.

Racial Reckoning

Meghan Stroshine teaches criminology at Marquette University. She said she thinks the pandemic does have a lot to do with the increase in homicides nationwide. But she believes the racial reckoning that has taken place since George Floyd was killed earlier this summer also has something to do with it.

“When people don’t trust the police, when people don’t have confidence in the police, they don’t call the police,” Stroshine said. “When people don’t call the police when they have conflicts, those conflicts get dealt with in other ways. The relationship between the police and the public are playing into these numbers.”

Stroshine thinks there is hope, but it is going to take time.

“There is a lot that needs to be changed and reformed,” Stroshine said. “The culture of policing is pretty entrenched. And until that cultural change can happen… it will take some time.”

Casper disagreed.

He said in Milwaukee, 80 percent of homicide victims are Black and the Black community helps police solve many of those crimes.

“We couldn’t do our job without cooperation,” Casper said. “It starts with family and then witnesses. Fortunately, we haven’t seen that cooperation decrease with recent events in the news.”