Questions for Journalists, Politicians and Police Departments about Public Information Access

When Bradley Tech, a troubled Milwaukee public high school, had to be locked down and receive massive police support to stop a fight involving gang members and kids from other schools, the most important issue is not about the school, the 18 arrests, the gangs, the fight, or the police response. It’s about having no public information about the incident, which occurred on Nov. 30, until a statement was dragged out of the police department a week later, as rumors and questioned reached the press and political leaders.

For background:

Similar patterns of significant crimes that only come to light weeks after the fact have occurred since the Milwaukee Police Department’s encrypted radio system, OpenSky, went into full production use early in 2010. The problem is that, post-OpenSky, MPD has left no way for the media or anyone else to follow what squads are doing, within reasonable parameters, as used to be the case. Going from police scanners to nearly nothing was a major disruption to public information access and crucial information flows in and outside of the city government.

Now, when a major incident fails to attract immediate media notice and no MPD statement is forthcoming, victims, witnesses or second and third-hand sources tend to generate inquiries and exposes a week or two later, when the media and politicians get involved. This has become a repetitive and counterproductive cycle for the entire metropolitan community.

There are technological solutions possible, but none have been proposed until today, when MPD suggested that the 911 dispatch webpage with brief call type summaries on the MPD website is all the press needs. Is it really MPD’s position that this is all the press needs?

In other words, does a line of text that says “fight” with a location given like “4th and Bruce” do the job? This line of text appears only for a brief period of time and is not retrievable later. It appears somewhere within 5 screens of similar summaries. Is this really adequate public notice? Are journalists supposed to refresh their browsers all day watching these pages, instead of expecting a statement from MPS or MPD when many squads are called to stop a fight in a school and make arrests? On numerous occasions, the entire dispatch page has gone offline without warning, sometimes over long holiday weekends.

MPD claims that “All dispatched calls for police service are posted, with a 30-minute delay, on the Milwaukee Police Department Website under the Dispatched Calls for Police Service Tab.” In fact the dispatch page itself actually says the calls are those made by 911 dispatch operators and the delay is 30-90 minutes. Previously it has been stated by MPD that some calls may be withheld longer in special cases, and 911 dispatch operators are not the only source of calls for service. Squads can be sent to locations by non-emergency operators and probably other channels, so it’s unclear what is and is not being shown.

In the specific case of Bradley Tech on the 30th, was a 911 call made? Was a 911 call made that resulted in a dispatch? If a code red or lockdown is issued by a school, does this involve dispatch logs that go on the MPD website?

A national crime-mapping website,, harvests all data it is able to collect from MPD’s dispatch page and has no entries pertaining to Bradley Tech for the 30th. Usually it is a reliable, permanent record of what has been posted by MPD, but even it is a very limited solution to the void of timely information about police activity.

This was first posted at the RJI News Collaboratory and then Unfortunately, when I first asked these questions (in shorter form) on MPD’s Facebook page, they were deleted. The situation has reached a point where I think there is motivation now to independently create applications to provide the data and accessibility needed to really function in the public interest. I am interested in hearing from anyone who is aware of similar situations in other cities, and how they were dealt with.

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