Milwaukee police chief threatens major cuts without staffing increase

Milwaukee Finance Committee will vote on federal funding for police department Friday

The words "Milwaukee Police" on the side of a building are illuminated by a line of light at nighttime
Lights shine on the outside of the Milwaukee Police Department on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Angela Major/WPR

Milwaukee’s acting Police Chief Jeffrey Norman says there will be major cuts, including ending the traffic safety unit and closing the downtown station, if the city doesn’t use $6 million in federal funds for officer staffing.

These threats and others, come at a time when Milwaukee is experiencing an unprecedented number of non-fatal shootings, homicides and a rise in reckless driving.

Norman sent a letter to Milwaukee Common Council members late Thursday afternoon, which was obtained by WPR.

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The council’s Finance and Personnel Committee will meet Friday morning to review American Rescue Plan Act, or APRA, proposals including spending about $6 million next year to swear in and train 195 new police officers in three police recruit classes.

The Milwaukee Police Department has lost about 180 officers through city budget cuts and attrition over the last two years. There are 1,686 sworn officers this year. The department hopes to replace lost positions with the 195 new recruits.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers announced that $45 million of the state’s ARPA allocation would be spent on violence prevention programs. Of that, Milwaukee would receive $8 million.

Norman said he was “elated” to hear about the allocation to help with violence prevention. But increased staffing is needed to keep up with the crime rate in Milwaukee.

“I will reiterate what I have repeatedly stated, that police staffing is not the sole factor in crime rate,” Norman wrote. “I fully accept that COVID-19 has substantially impacted human behavior, police legitimacy has greatly been impacted by national and local calls for reform and there are a myriad of social service matters outside the reach of law enforcement that have driven criminal behavior.”

Still, Norman said reducing staff has continued to limit the resources the department can provide.

If the department has to lose an additional 195 officers, Norman said he is exploring the following:

  • Elimination of Police District 1 in the Public Safety Building downtown. Doing so would mean the surrounding districts, 2, 3 and 5 would absorb a share of the officers and calls for service. District 1 currently has 101 employees including one captain; three lieutenants; 14 sergeants and 78 officers.
  • Eliminating the Traffic Safety Unit. The department created the Traffic Safety Unit in February to target reckless driving. Since then, about 15,000 tickets have been issued. Of those, 58 percent were for speeding.
  • Eliminating the office of Community Outreach and Education, which focuses on schools. This would free up four officers to respond to violent crime.
  • Eliminate the Horse Patrol unit.
  • Reduce police presence at the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Fusion Center and Specialized Investigations Divisions.

Norman wrote that he understands the Common Council is facing a difficult decision in the ARPA and budget process, but said he is too.

Members of the council couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“Even if I implement every option above, the total amount of officers made available from these reductions is still fewer than the proposed reduction of 195 officers,” Norman wrote. “I anticipate we will still experience a continued decrease in clearance rates, particularly for homicides, non-fatal shootings and auto thefts.”