Sunshine is the best disinfectant and it just got a little cloudier at MPD
Back in the day, there was a guy who practically lived at the Milwaukee Police department downtown. His last name was Pitroff and he worked for WOKY radio. He camped in the press room, where he was known for his ability to smoke a cigarette down to the nub and then flick the spent butt clear across the room into a toilet.
He also was really, really good at getting stories.
It was also a time when reporters, including this fresh-faced cub who'd just come to town from Stevens Point, could call the department's Criminal Investigation Bureau before dawn to get a rundown of what detectives had dealt with overnight. The guys told their stories with great panache and occasional colorful language. Some were more forthcoming than others. A few are buds of mine to this day.
Mr. Pitroff is long gone. And, calls to the CIB are no longer welcome, replaced by department-issued e-mails. Times are changing, but not in a good way for people on this side of the thin blue line.
Chief Edward Flynn is ending daily morning briefing. In it's place we get "The Source", a department-managed web site. It says, "We created The Source to give you the genuine, unfiltered information from us – from the latest crime stats to a hard hitting story about an officer’s work that you won’t see anywhere else. We’ll correct the news stories that got it wrong, and we’ll highlight the ones that got it right. Most importantly, we’ll create our own content so you can see what the Milwaukee Police Department is really accomplishing in the community."
Media folk--good ones--don't like reading news releases verbatim. They like to ask questions of live bodies. And, in a democracy, any right-thinking institution knows accountability is part of the deal, that the relationship with the press has to be adversarial, with both sides sporting a healthy degree of skepticism about the other.
The end of the briefings and the shift to the web comes after MPD went digital with it's radio dispatch system. Open Sky wasn't Flynn's idea but it was left to him to either ashcan it or implement it, despite questions about it's reliability. Flynn said that too much money had been committed to it and that the right thing to do was to go through with Open Sky. It's what the department now uses, and we don't know if it works or not because we can't hear it. Open Sky rendered traditional newsroom police scanners useless. The department has the option of sharing the frequencies with media outlets. The Chief chooses not to. Coincidence, or convenience?
The Journal/Sentinel's editor, Marty Kaiser, came out against "The Source" and a member of his editorial board did an op/ed piece Friday morning, taking Flynn to task.for having a "bunker mentality." He also asks the question at the top of my list: where is Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council amid these changes? Is any member of the Fire and Police Commission on board with this? Shouldn't they be advocating transparency? Or, will they be inspired to emulate Flynn's approach and send reporters to the web for a sanitized, one-sided version of "the news", no questions asked?
Will the Chief still be accessible when stuff hits the fan? Will his officers at crime scenes avail themselves to reporters on-site, or will they deflect questions to "The Source"? To the site's credit, it currently is running the story about two officers who are up on drunk driving allegations, certainly not a public relations bonanza for any police department.
We'll see what happens to the media/police relationship in light of Flynn's changes. Hopefully, there'll still be some sort of dialog. And, it would be nice if the Mayor, aldermen and the Commission weighed in, too. Maybe they're fine with this. Their silence speaks volumes and can only be taken as a tacit agreement that MPD is serving the public by operating with less and less outside scrutiny/accountability.
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