Kurtis Lee, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2021
Milwaukee is in the grip of the worst violence in its modern history. There were 189 killings here last year, a 93% increase from 2019 and the most ever recorded.
The jump reflects a nationwide trend. In one study, researchers from the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice looked at 34 cities and found that 29 had more homicides last year than in 2019. The overall rise was 30%, though in most places killings remained below their peaks in the 1990s.
Among the 19 cities with more than half a million people — including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago — none saw a bigger surge than Milwaukee. With 127 killings through the first half of September, the city is nearly on pace to match last year’s record. Hughes was the 78th person killed this year.
The uniformity of the nationwide rise has launched multiple theories about what is driving it. Nearly all center on the pandemic — which has caused enormous hardships — and the mass movement against police brutality and racism, which changed policing and the relationship between law enforcement and communities where violence has long been concentrated.
The violence in Milwaukee follows familiar patterns, according to the city’s Homicide Review Commission.
In a city that is 40%, most victims are Black men, as are the perpetrators, who usually kill with handguns.
Most of the homicides last year — 54% — occurred in a roughly 30-block radius on the north side, a predominantly Black area where deep-rooted racism has led to neglect and poverty.
What’s different now is that many more people are dying.
Inside a conference room in the homicide unit of the Milwaukee Police Department in July, notes scrawled in green marker on a whiteboard offered details about a recent north side slaying.
“GSWs” — gunshot wounds — “mid-lower back, testicle, right foot, right knee. Casings: 5.”
It was among dozens of active cases.
“It’s been draining,” said Det. Mike Washington, 46. “And it’s almost nonstop.”
Washington was born in Chicago but moved to Milwaukee when he was 12. His family lived on the northwest side, another area that has suffered neglect. His mother was a nurse and his stepfather supervised janitors.
He was in his early 20s and working at a bank when a friend mentioned that the Police Department, which was facing political pressure to diversify, was looking for Black recruits. He signed up on a whim, part of a hiring spree that rapidly transformed the force into a racial mirror of the city.
After five years on patrol and several more as a detective assigned to vice and violent crime, Washington joined the homicide unit in 2014. That year, the team of 36 detectives investigated 87 homicides.
“It was manageable,” he said.
As much as he disliked delivering tragic news to families, Washington found his work deeply meaningful.
Then, in 2017, it became deeply personal. His sister, Sherida, was murdered by her husband, a fellow police officer, who then turned the gun on himself.
From then on, Washington began counting down the days until July 29, 2021, when he would be eligible for retirement.
The pandemic year became his final test.
Like much of his unit, he eventually got COVID-19 — and then recovered. Then there were coronavirus precautions, such as the elimination of live lineups from which witnesses identify suspects, making it harder to clear cases.
More significantly, the rising caseload began to overwhelm the unit.
In 2019, there was an average of eight homicides a month. The first sign of an uptick in 2020 came in February — before most people were paying any attention to the coronavirus — when there were 18 killings.
But the upward trend didn’t become clear until July, amid nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As in many cities, that summer and fall in Milwaukee grew much more deadly.
Washington and the unit were stumped about the causes, though they noticed that more killings seemed to involve people under 18. Twenty-seven victims and 13 suspects last year were minors, up from eight and four in 2019.
That aligned with schools being shut down. Still, it could only account for a small portion of the overall rise in homicides.
Much clearer was that more people were carrying guns. Milwaukee police confiscated more than 3,000 last year during traffic stops and domestic dispute calls — an 18% increase from 2019 — and officers have continued to recover guns at the same pace this year.
“People have little patience with one another,” Washington said. “There’s a fight and automatically a gun comes out.”
Another possible factor was the protests. Milwaukee was no stranger to police violence — many people were still angry that an officer who killed an unarmed Black man in 2014 was never charged with a crime — and the national reckoning seemed to worsen tensions between police and the communities they were sworn to protect.
Washington noticed a slight drop-off in calls from his contacts on the north side.
One of four Black detectives in the homicide unit, Washington would listen as some of his white colleagues complained about the demonstrators.
“Some would gripe about, ‘Where are these protesters when people get killed daily here in the city?'” he said.
Washington understood how they felt — he believed most police were honorable — but he also believed some lacked empathy. Black officers now make up 18% of the force, which has downsized considerably over the last two decades and become much less diverse. The homicide unit has shrunk to two dozen detectives.
At times, Washington felt wedged between two worlds. He was a veteran cop. But he was also a Black man from the community, which helped him defuse tense situations at homicide scenes, where investigation protocols meant that bodies sometimes remained in the street for hours, even if it upset families.
Milwaukee police have solved 58% of the homicides committed last year, down from 68% in 2019. The rate so far this year is 34%.
The Milwaukee Bucks had just won the 2021 NBA championship on July 20 when the pager Tonia Liddell wears on a lanyard around her neck beeped three times.
Female, 19 years old.
Male, 22 years old.
Male, 32 years old.
All had been wounded near a downtown corner in a pair of shootings after midnight during the victory celebration. They were being rushed to Froedtert Hospital.
Liddell, 46, is what’s known as a “violence interrupter.” Her job is to counsel gunshot victims and their families in hopes of heading off retaliation killings.
She got into the work in 2005 after her 16-year-old godson was shot and killed while he and his girlfriend were sitting in his car on a north side corner.
Programs like 414LIFE — Liddell’s employer — are widely credited with reducing homicides. Liddell learned over the years that success depends on making connections in the first few days after a shooting, when emotions are highest.
That often means knocking on the doors of grieving families and friends or visiting shooting victims in hospital beds. She connects them with mental health services or jobs programs, or just sits with them to pray.
At least that’s how it all worked before the pandemic. When the shutdowns began — just as Liddell lost her mother to COVID-19 — her job went virtual.
Those in-person meetings became FaceTime conversations facilitated by hospital staff.
“It didn’t matter how we did it, we just need to be sure we were making connections,” she said.
But at times she felt the separation wasn’t cutting it. Too often families were declining her calls.
Before long, the video of Floyd’s murder was playing across the country and the lockdowns entered their third month. People were growing increasingly exhausted and began leaving their homes.
“What we saw was a lot of built-up frustration. Stress from the pandemic, anger and a deeper distrust of police,” Liddell said. “It all exploded in the streets.”
Her pager wouldn’t stop buzzing. Milwaukee saw 752 nonfatal shooting victims last year — a 69% increase from 2019 — and 586 more in the first eight months of this year.
Liddell sometimes wondered which killings she might have prevented had she been able to track down people in person.