MILWAUKEE — Even before he steered his squad car out of the station garage, police officer Omarlo Phillips got stuck with the kind of strange domestic call he dreads: A guy was threatening to kill himself because his girlfriend wouldn’t bake him corn bread.
The dispatcher said the man had threatened violence in the past, so Phillips and his partner for the night, Kayeng Kue, made a beeline for a drab apartment complex in northwest Milwaukee.
What happened next helps explain why the homicide rate in this city has soared faster this year than almost anywhere else in the nation. While some have blamed the so-called Ferguson effect — the theory that police are shirking their duty to fight crime for fear of getting caught on camera — police in Milwaukee say the problem is far more complicated.
It took Phillips and Kue nearly 20 minutes to drive to the apartment of Brian Elsa, who had recently undergone gall bladder surgery and was not allowed to eat corn bread, which is why his girlfriend was refusing to make it. Apart from his appetite for forbidden treats, Elsa seemed fine: He had no weapons, made no threats, exhibited no crazy behavior.
But a routine name check conjured an outstanding traffic warrant in Missouri. That meant Elsa had to be arrested. And that meant Phillips and Kue would be taken off the streets for hours.
The officers soon had Elsa locked in a holding cell back at the District 7 station. Phillips and Kue sat nearby filling out reams of paperwork while 44 emergency calls went unanswered, including a report of a woman being punched and thrown against a wall.
By the time they were done, nearly a third of their 3:30 p.m.-to-midnight shift had been lost on a case they said was better suited for social workers.
“Honestly, I think this is what’s deterring us from going out and deterring violent crime,” Kue said.
Her partner sighed.
“A majority of our time,” Phillips said, “is spent on cases like this.”
In Milwaukee and a few other major cities, the homicide rate is soaring. Homicides in Milwaukee increased 75 percent between January and October compared with the same period in 2014, one of the biggest spikes in the nation.
In October, FBI Director James B. Comey said public demonstrations against police brutality and smartphone videos of police behavior are in part to blame. The scrutiny, he said “is a chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year, and that wind is surely changing behavior.”
Comey didn’t use the words “Ferguson effect,” but his message was clear. And although he acknowledged that no evidence exists to support the theory, others have endorsed it, including the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting chief, Chuck Rosenberg, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), who has described Chicago police as being “in a fetal position.”
“In today’s YouTube world,” Comey asked, “are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?”
In Milwaukee, at least, the answer is no, said Police Chief Edward Flynn.
Flynn said there’s no denying that anti-police protests and viral videos that emerged after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., have unnerved the rank and file.
“Our young men and women recently have felt that they are under a relentless assault,” Flynn said in an interview.
But that alone doesn’t explain the increase in violent crime, he said — certainly not in Milwaukee, where homicides and a few other violent crime categories started trending upward in 2013, well before the Ferguson shooting.
Instead, Flynn pointed to two more likely culprits: State budget cuts that reduced mental health services and other social programs, and a 2011 law that dramatically weakened the power of police to arrest people with guns.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is responsible for both developments. Flynn said the new gun law, which Walker said would make the state “safer for all responsible, law-abiding citizens,” has been particularly damaging.
For the first time in nearly 150 years, it is legal to carry a concealed weapon in Wisconsin. People are supposed to register for permits, but carrying a concealed gun without a permit is a misdemeanor if the carrier isn’t a convicted felon or mentally unstable. So police can do little more than confiscate unlicensed guns, even from an offender who is stopped multiple times.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick defended Walker’s record, saying he has recently increased mental health funding. As for the new gun law, Patrick said Walker will not apologize for being a strong supporter of gun rights. But the governor is also concerned about gun violence, she said, which is why he funded sensors last year that pinpoint gunfire and report the information to city police.
Flynn is unimpressed. He called the concealed-carry law “ludicrously weak” and said it has “undeniably increased crime in Milwaukee.”
“The ingredients of violence are here for so many reasons,” he said. “But the tools have been put into the hands of criminals by a foolish and ideological gun law.”
The origin of the term “Ferguson effect” is hazy. A search of digital news archives traces the first mention to a newspaper column by Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times on Sept. 18, 2014, a little more than a month after the shooting.
But Mitchell used the term to describe an increase in claims of abusive policing against black suspects, not a chilling effect on the force.
“Whether these accusations are a reflection of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that some have dubbed the ‘Ferguson Effect’ or something else, African-Americans are claiming with increased urgency that police are shooting ‘unarmed’ or ‘compliant’ suspects,” Mitchell wrote.
By the spring of 2015, however, the term had come to mean something else entirely. Police brass, union representatives, a few mayors and conservative television commentators began using it to refer to a siege mentality among police, arguing that it could explain increases in violent crime that were starting to show up in some cities.
“I think you’ll see . . . the rise in murders in 30 cities, that’s the so-called Ferguson effect where cops are less reluctant to engage in proactive policing,” former New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly said this fall.
Criminologists say the theory is no more than a gut feeling. In a recent report looking at 30 of the nation’s largest cities, the Brennan Center for Justice in New York projected that overall crime rates will be about the same in 2015 as they were last year — and may even decrease by about 2 percent.
Although the number of homicides is up by about 11 percent, “this increase is not as startling as it may first seem,” the report said. “Because the underlying rate of murders is already so low, a relatively small increase in the numbers can result in a large percentage increase.”
Moreover, most of the increase has occurred in five cities — St. Louis, a few miles from suburban Ferguson; Baltimore; Detroit; New Orleans; and Milwaukee. These cities “also have significantly lower incomes, higher poverty rates, higher unemployment, and falling populations than the national average,” the report said.
“In all but a few cities, those reports [of a spike in crime] are overblown, and have little statistical backing,” said Naren Daniel, a spokeswoman for the center.
The wind blew cold as Phillips stood outside his police post. At 6-foot-3, he was as big as a linebacker. An all-black uniform made him even more imposing.
Phillips patrols District 7, the city’s largest, with 110,000 residents packed into 13 square miles. It’s among the city’s deadliest police districts. For Phillips, 39, it’s also home. He was born and raised here, and he joined the police department in 2009, he said, after a mentor told him that he would “make a great police officer.”
It wasn’t long before people started pointing cellphone cameras at him as he made arrests.
“Doesn’t bother me,” Phillips said.
His partner, Kue, 28, is 5-foot-3. A Hmong American whose family emigrated from Southeast Asia, she joined the force so she could explain its purpose to a community that’s naturally suspicious of police.
Kue said she, too, had been captured in the glow of cellphone lights since joining the force in 2012.
“Uses of force are not going to look good,” Kue said. But “I don’t have a problem with it.”
In interviews during 20 hours of patrols over a recent weekend, other officers echoed that view. They said people were recording arrests with cellphones long before the Ferguson protests.
A connection between Ferguson, relaxed policing and an increase in violent crime is also hard to see in Milwaukee’s crime statistics. Months before the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, armed robbery was trending sharply upward in Milwaukee. After the shooting, the trend slowed, showing hardly any gain. Auto theft has followed a similar pattern.
Homicide is the only crime of violence that has surged dramatically in Milwaukee since the Ferguson shooting. The number of killings jumped from 86 in 2014 to 126 through Oct. 31.
Many of those shootings marked a violent end to heated arguments inside homes in the city’s most impoverished areas — private disputes that police say they have little power to stop.
For police in Milwaukee, the real Ferguson effect has been a sudden and harsh cold shoulder from the public.
“You have people blatantly doing things they wouldn’t do years ago. You have more people challenging cops. They say, ‘I know my rights.’ They say, ‘They can’t tell us what to do.’ Before, it wasn’t this bad,” Phillips said.
“For me, I’m not black enough because I’m black and arresting another black man,” he said. “Other black males have called me racist. I’ve been called the white man’s b----. Every time I arrest somebody, they make it a race issue.”
As Phillips spoke, Kue listened quietly in the passenger seat of their squad car. When she finally spoke up, she recalled the remarks of a sergeant during roll call at the start of their shift. The sergeant had warned officers to be on the lookout for a guy in a white Nissan who kept rushing to police traffic stops and urging the drivers to flee.
“When I first came on the job,” Kue said, “a vehicle wouldn’t pull close to your car and challenge a cop.”
The way Phillips sees it, protests and viral videos have not sparked a slowdown in policing but instead have fueled a disdain for police that may be even more damaging.
“Nowadays,” he said, “it’s difficult to do our jobs.”