Perspectives
June 16, 2021 | By Dan O’Donnell
Policy Issues
Crime & Safety

Downtown Milwaukee At A Crossroads

After a wave of extreme violence at the Water Street bar district over the weekend, Dan O’Donnell writes that Milwaukee can either crack down on lawlessness or surrender every part of the city.

Remember RiverSplash? For 20 years, the annual three-day summer festival drew more than 150,000 people to downtown Milwaukee for the unofficial kickoff to summer. By the early 2000s, though, it gained a reputation as a hotbed of violence, and in 2008 a man was shot and the unruly crowd began throwing beer bottles at police officers. RiverSplash was canceled the following year.

12 years later, Milwaukee would be wise to remember the lessons of RiverSplash lest Water Street suffer the same fate. For the past two weekends, the popular bar district in downtown Milwaukee has descended into chaos that culminated in a murder, a double shooting that left two Racine men injured, and an incident in which a suspect opened fire inside a crowded bar.

“It was like the movie ‘The Purge,’” said one man who was out on Water Street Saturday night. “Cars driving the wrong way on the street, cars constantly swerving between lanes, people sitting on their windowsills driving their cars, passenger sitting on the windowsills, cars getting broken into, fireworks being set off in the middle of the street.”

It seems that out-of-control behavior on Water Street, like RiverSplash before it, is now the unofficial kickoff to summer.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has long crowed about the success of his thriving downtown; even as his city’s north side sets homicide record after homicide record and its south side spirals further into drugs and prostitution. For nearly two decades, those neighborhoods were almost totally neglected as Barrett focused his attention on downtown—a shining beacon that would distract the eye from the rot just a few blocks away.

Unsurprisingly, that rot has found its way to the bar district and now Barrett and the Common Council must find a way to keep Water Street from becoming RiverSplash: A fond memory that no one ever dared to actually visit in its final few years.

It’s not like Milwaukee’s leaders haven’t been warned. Sources indicate that the command staff who runs the Milwaukee Police Department’s District 1 (which includes the downtown area) have been begging for a larger officer presence for months as the crowds have gotten progressively larger and more difficult to manage.

District 1 is typically lightly staffed on weekdays, and on weekends officers are brought in from other districts under an overtime plan called “Code Red.” Downtown businesses—especially the bars on Water and Brady Streets—help to defray the cost of the officer overtime needed to patrol the area late at night.

For the most part, this has been highly successful, but a problem has arisen over the past few months: Officers aren’t signing up for the overtime shifts.

“This is officer fatigue,” a law enforcement source said. “The officers who sign up for Code Red first work a shift at their assigned districts and then go downtown for a few hours of overtime. The problem is those officers haven’t showed up because they have been pulled to secure shooting scenes that extend them way beyond their shifts.”

Because Milwaukee has seen a record spike in both fatal and nonfatal shootings over the past year, officers who would normally take overtime to help secure downtown on Friday and Saturday nights are too busy with shootings elsewhere.

With no appreciable police presence to serve as a deterrent and no fear of the slap on the wrist sentence in the unlikely event of a conviction, the bad actors have grown so brazen that they’re calling the nightly chaos “Club Water Street.”

A month ago, similar anarchy at “Club Midtown” resulted in 300 rounds being fired into a mall parking lot packed to the brim with cars and people. Miraculously, only two people were injured.

Rather than crack down on large gatherings and rowdy behavior by flooding the city with police officers during the late-night hours, Milwaukee seems content to let the party keep moving.

Now, though, it’s reached downtown—the crown jewel of Barrett’s failed empire—and one wonders whether he will finally be motivated to crack down on the lawlessness that has engulfed the rest of his city.

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