Background

Established in 1885 by the Wisconsin Legislature, the Milwaukee Fire & Police Commission (FPC) is the oldest police commission in the United States. While originally founded to bring civil service reform to the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), over the years the Commission has also been authorized to exercise broad oversight over the Department.  At the time of the report, the FPC had the power to hire the Chief of Police, evaluate the Chief’s performance, review any policy of the Department, approve all the MPD’s rules, accept complaints from civilians about police misconduct and conduct trials on those complaints, and hear appeals from serious discipline imposed by the Chief.

Despite its broad powers, many community members in Milwaukee viewed the Commission as weak and ineffective. On the other hand, many officers perceived it as harsh and unfair. In the wake of high-profile events that increased tensions in police-community relations, the City sought an independent assessment of the Commission.

Scope of Work

The City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin retained the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) to evaluate the structure, procedures, and practices of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (FPC), and to make recommendations for improvement.

Among numerous other areas, PARC was tasked with examining:

  • The structure and composition of the FPC and its oversight authority;

  • Policies and procedures for addressing citizen complaints and disciplinary appeal hearings;

  • The Commission's efforts to review police policies and practices; and

  • The community’s perceptions and knowledge of the Commission’s roles, responsibilities, and responsiveness. 

Approach

Concrete, Practical Recommendations. Although some community stakeholders advocated for the wholesale disbanding and replacement of the Commission, PARC made concrete, practical recommendations to improve the Commission’s operations, including legislative recommendations. 

Best Practices. In conducting the review, PARC examined best practices in comparable jurisdictions to guide recommendations for improving the Commission’s work – situating action items in terms of the real-world experiences of other jurisdictions and oversight commissions. 

Collaboration. PARC worked closely with the FPC Commissioners and staff, past Commissioners, the Mayor of Milwaukee, members of the Common Council, members of the state Legislature, the Director of Employee Relations, the City Attorney, the District Attorney, members of the MPD, and numerous community stakeholders to determine their views on the effectiveness of the Commission’s structure and processes, their perceptions of the accountability fostered by the process, areas of accomplishment, areas that need improvement, and recommendations for changes.

Results

Roadmap for Reform. PARC's recommendations provided policymakers with a clear and pragmatic roadmap for reform of the Commission.

Clear Results.  At PARC's recommendation, the commission expanded in size – from five to seven civilian seats. Investigators and analysts were hired to conduct more meaningful investigations.  The executive director began to take on more of an independent monitor-type role.

Community Engagement. The process of participating in the PARC assessment was cited by several stakeholders as an encouraging step toward ongoing engagement with the community on issues of structural reform.

 

PROJECT OBJECTIVE

Evaluate the structure, procedures, and practices of the oldest police commission in the U.S. and make recommendations for improvement.

KEY ISSUES ADDRESSED

Models of Police Oversight
Citizen's Complaints
Policy
Community Engagement
Community Policing
Discipline

KEY RESOURCES

Promoting Police Accountability in Milwaukee: Strengthening the Fire & Police Commission (June 2006)

MEDIA

"Challenges await new Fire and Police Commission director," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Oct. 25, 2014)

"Fire and Police Commission has power but hasn't initiated any misconduct probes," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Apr. 7, 2013)