IACP on Leadership Interview

Milwaukee's Police Chief on Staying in Command During Crisis Times

Today, police chiefs and their agencies are finding themselves under the media spotlight. With 24-hour news cycles and social media, almost any situation can quickly escalate and become a focal point for media and community concern. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chief of Police Edward A. Flynn has been in such situations, and he has some words of wisdom to share on how to navigate such events and maintain control of the narrative. "There will always be people out there who want to use a crisis for their own political advantage," he stated, during a recent telephone interview. "That's a given. From the media's point of view, when a crisis breaks, it's about generating heat and not light. They want oppositional characters. They want conflict.”

He urges every chief who makes a public statement about a crisis to issue a disclaimer before he or she shares any information. "First reports from the battlefield are always wrong," Chief Flynn remarked. "I try and tell the people something as soon as I can, because I know the rumors are going to beat the truth. As soon as I have an outline of the critical incident, I share what I have generally. But I start by saying, 'Everything I am about to tell you is subject to change with new information. It may end up being somewhat inaccurate, but this is our understanding generally of what's happened.' If you don't do that, then you have what happened in Ferguson. A demonstrator tells a reporter what happened, and that becomes the fact. We cannot let a vacuum exist; more importantly, we cannot let others fill the vacuum."

Flynn says that he has not let recent sensational events change his leadership style in any way. If anything, recent incidents have reminded him of the educational responsibilities of law enforcement chief executives. "We are frequently the most credible spokesperson of local government," he noted. "We're deeply embedded in the community providing an essential public service that people depend upon. We need to be thoughtful about what we say and communicate, even when that incident is not happening to us. What people who only get their news from conflict-oriented journalism don't understand is the reality of police interactions with the community generally, and then minority communities most particularly. They don't understand how rare uses of force are, and they don't understand how even rarer deadly uses of force are.”

When police chiefs find themselves dealing with crises, Flynn says to expect two phone calls for sure. One will be from the city attorney who will say, "Don't say anything because you're going to get sued." The other will be from the district attorney, who is going to call and say, "Don't say anything because this is a pending court case." What is the problem with not saying anything? The aforementioned vacuum will be created that is likely to be filled with mis-information.”

"So, you have to take a chance," Flynn pointed out. "You have to give the hard facts that you know, and then the soft facts that may be subject to correction later on. Know what you want to say and figure out a way to say it regardless of the questions you are asked. The media wants to ask you a series of questions based on false assumptions and false premises. If you accept the premise of the question, you end up going down a train of thought that's totally opposite from the message you want to communicate."

Flynn has learned to stay cool under fire thanks to a career that has repeatedly thrust him into truly pressure-cooker situations. For instance, from 1998 to 2003, he was chief of police in Arlington County, Va., where he was tasked with leading the local police department's response to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He was also in charge a year later during the infamous Beltway sniper shootings, a series of coordinated attacks over a three-week span perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo throughout the Virginia-Maryland-Washington, D.C. area.

"I learned something on 9/11, which I think has real resonance for dealing with homeland security issues," Flynn recalled. "As horrific as the Pentagon was, it was still fundamentally about the core missions of police and fire notwithstanding that it was international terrorism. A lot of the assumptions coming out of homeland security post-9/11 were that somehow police and fire had to learn new things about terrorism response. In my position and the position of the fire chief, we never did anything that wasn't part of our core mission. For the fire department, that terrorist attack was fundamentally a plane crash, a fire, and a building collapse. For my police department, the terrorist attack on the Pentagon was traffic control, crime scene management, crowd control, and potential sniper suppression using our tactical units to take the high ground and be available to possibly protect the site from possible follow-on attacks. Everything we did that day was because we knew our job. That's what everyone needs to know about these sudden, emerging crises whether it's a terrorist attack or a sniper spree or whatever. If we know our blocking and tackling, if we understand the fundamentals of incident command, and we have collaborative relationships with our usual partners in the metropolitan area, we'll get through these things okay."

Moving forward, Flynn believes the biggest challenge for police chiefs will be to contribute more usefully to the public policy discussion about how police power is used. In his view, police spend an extraordinary amount of time performing various forms of social work. "We are the agency of first resort for the poor for virtually everything," he said, "as well as the agency of first resort for every social problem that no one wants to spend money on anymore. I see the amount of mental health work that we do, but there are no facilities for [persons with mental illness]. I see the amount of work we do with the homeless, but there are insufficient facilities for the homeless. And I see the amount of work we do with people with substance abuse problems, but there are insufficient treatment centers for substance abuse. I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that society has decided there is no social problem so complicated that it can't be fixed by more training for the police. Because every time there is a terrible social problem, they don't say, 'Shouldn't we be investing in mental health facilities at the community level for low-income people who are off their meds?' No. They say, 'Give the police more training in mental health.' People freeze to death in the dark outside, do they say, 'Let's provide more homeless shelters or more transitional housing?' No. They say, 'Train the police better to deal with the homeless population!'"

He concluded, "Neither the left nor the right are providing practical solutions to the practical problems of people disadvantaged by poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, or a wide variety of other social ills. Instead, it's the police that are handling it and, in their spare time, fighting crime. We need as a profession to do a better job of getting people to understand what we really do and not let anyone else make us their poster boy for the latest fashionable cause to be against and to take to the streets on. Very few of those people wandering around the streets with signs and shaking their fists sign up for social work, take the police test, or volunteer at homeless shelters. We need to educate the broader society and the political class that some things are more important than ideology."

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