Milwaukee Residents Give Solid Marks to Police

Last week, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (of which I am a member) released the results of its first-ever survey of citizen attitudes toward the police.  Although the survey identified a few areas of concern, the overall tenor of citizen attitudes seems positive.

Conducted for the FPC by UWM’s Center for Urban Initiatives & Research last summer, the survey involved telephone interviews of 1,452 Milwaukee residents.  As detailed in the CUIR’s report, the survey respondents were reflective of the city’s diversity in racial composition and in other respects.

The report’s lead finding is that about three-quarters of Milwaukee residents report that they are at least somewhat satisfied with the Milwaukee Police Department, while only about nine percent said they were “not at all satisfied.”  These findings are notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that fully one-quarter of the respondents reported being stopped by the police in the past year.  One might suppose that this group would be predisposed to negative evaluations of the police.  However, the vast majority (71%) of those stopped felt that they were treated fairly.  The MPD has significantly increased its number of stops in recent years, but it does not appear that involuntary contact with the police normally leads to hard feelings by the person stopped.

Given recent racial tensions in Milwaukee and nationally regarding policing practices, it is especially important to note the racial patterns in survey responses.  

While about 83% of whites said they were at least somewhat satisfied with the police, only 62.5% of blacks shared this view.  Regression analysis by the CUIR researchers confirmed that race seems to play a statistically significant role in determining attitudes toward the police, even holding income, education, and other variables constant.  While this is troubling, it is also worth bearing in mind that a large majority of black respondents–close to two-thirds–still expressed some level of satisfaction with the police.

Interestingly, the CUIR researchers found that racial differences largely disappeared among residents who had recently called the police for assistance.  For these people–black and white–attitudes toward the police were largely determined by the quality of the assistance they received, not the color of their skin.  The numbers thus suggest that whites have very positive attitudes toward the police in the abstract, while blacks have somewhat less positive attitudes, but also that these stereotypes are not necessarily strongly held–attitudes, positive or negative, may be revised based on actual experiences with flesh-and-blood cops.  Police should regard this as hopeful–racial distrust can be overcome–but also as a challenge: the Department’s in-the-trenches members must consistently provide high-quality service if the Department wishes to maintain and add to its substantial reservoir of good will.

Although there is much good news for the Department in the survey responses, there is also clearly room for improvement.  For instance, it would be nice to see more respondents in the “very satisfied” category, as well as a general elevation of black attitudes to at least the same level as white.

It is my hope that the Common Council and the Police Department will support regular surveys like this on an annual or biannual basis, which will enable tracking of how new policies and practices are working and also permit more in-depth questioning on topics of particular concern.