Homicide review commission: Milwaukee, WI

Results and accomplishments

52%

Monthly homicides decreased by 52 percent in the three treatment police districts where the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC) operated in its pilot phase, compared to 9.2 percent for the four police districts that served as the control group. The decrease in homicides in the treatment group was statistically significant, while the decrease in the control group was not.

42%

Annual homicides decreased from 136 when MHRC launched in 2005 to 77 by 2009 -- when the program reached peak engagement from stakeholders.

33%

Combined firearm homicides and shootings decreased in Milwaukee from 698 in 2006 to 468 by 2010, a 33-percent decrease.

28%

During MHRC’s peak between 2006-2009, the Milwaukee Police Department’s homicide clearance rate was an average of 28 points higher than comparable cities. By 2014, as MHRC activities declined, the city’s clearance rate converged with that of comparable cities to roughly 60 percent.


  • Creating a national model: The Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office awarded the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC) two grants (one in 2010 and another in 2013) to develop training on how to replicate the homicide review commission model. Cities across the country, including New Orleans, Wilmington, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh have received technical assistance from MHRC to launch their own review commissions. In October 2021, the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Service provided an updated manual for MHRC replication.
  • Reducing violent crime: From 2005-2007, an independent evaluation from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that monthly homicides decreased by 52 percent in Milwaukee treatment districts, compared to 9.2 percent in control districts. Despite this progress, as MHRC lost resources and participants in the early 2010s, violent crime again steadily rose in Milwaukee, nearly doubling between 2010 and 2015.
  • Clearing nearly all homicides: As the MHRC approach took hold across law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee, MPD homicide clearance rates (the percentage of cases solved) climbed from 71 percent in 2006 to 93 percent by 2008 -- nearly 40 points higher than comparable cities.
  • Cultivating culture change in law enforcement: Participants from a range of agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, reported that MHRC’s systems-focused, data-informed, collaborative approach to violence prevention led to a fundamental shift in some operations. This included increased agency investments in data collection and prioritization of cross-agency collaboration when investigating or prosecuting cases.
  • Securing grants for participants: Several agencies received significant support from MHRC, including data analysis and proposal writing, to secure major grants. For instance, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office was awarded a series of grants as a result of its collaboration with MHRC, including from the U.S. Department of Justice Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Bader Foundation, Miller-Coors, and Harley Davidson. Similarly, MHRC’s Founding Director, Dr. Mallory O’Brien worked closely with the MPD to secure a nearly $300,000 grant in 2015 from Project Safe Neighborhoods to support gun violence prevention.

Overview

Summary

  • After a decade of declining violent crime, Milwaukee experienced 122 homicides in 2005, 34 more than in the previous year. This made the city’s homicide rate the fifth highest in the country. At the time, Milwaukee primarily addressed violent crime reactively and rarely sought to address the underlying conditions leading to recurrent violence. Additionally, as violent crime rose, federal, state, and local law enforcement increased operations in the city but did not collaborate effectively.

  • With support from the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC) launched in 2005. Led by Dr. Mallory O’Brien, MHRC convened law enforcement and civic leaders to identify underlying causes of violence and develop solutions to address those root causes. Between 2005 and 2007, violent crime fell by 52 percent in the neighborhoods targeted by MHRC, compared to a decline of only 9.2 percent in control districts.

  • Keys to the program’s success included convening a range of agency leaders, which allowed MHRC to develop effective cross-agency strategies; using data to inform action, which enabled agency leaders to make the case for changes within their organizations; focusing on systems-wide changes that would help agencies proactively combat violent crime; and cultivating buy-in from police, the district attorney’s office, and corrections staff, who provided key data and staff resources.

  • The primary challenges faced by MHRC were high turn-over in MPD leadership, restrictions on in-person meetings due to COVID-19, and the rise in crime associated with the pandemic.

What was the challenge?

  • A rise in violent crime: In 2005, after a decade of declining homicides, Milwaukee experienced a sudden uptick in violent crime. That year, the city experienced 122 homicides, up from 88 in 2004, along with 2,067 aggravated assaults and 241 rapes. Milwaukee’s homicide rate climbed to the fifth highest in the country (17.7 per 100,000 residents), along with the sixth highest violent crime rate (1,324.9 per 100,000 residents).
  • Reacting to, not preventing, violence: Milwaukee, like most jurisdictions, was approaching violent crime reactively. When a homicide occurred, Milwaukee law enforcement officials conducted investigations but rarely sought to address the underlying conditions and systems contributing to recurring homicides in the same areas. Furthermore, few agencies used data-informed strategies to predict or prevent violence.
  • Siloed law enforcement: As federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies expanded operations in Milwaukee in response to rising violent crime, perpetrators of violence often interacted with officers from multiple agencies. Because these agencies were not communicating or sharing data, officers were forced to address cases from scratch, rather than building off of existing intelligence or identifying synergies to help prevent violence.

What was the solution?

  • Convening violence prevention leaders: The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission brought together leaders from nearly all organizations involved in local violence prevention for monthly convenings. The goal of the convenings was to diagnose underlying causes of violence and to develop and implement solutions that address these root causes. With support from a working group of mid-level staffers, agency leaders identified concrete modifications to violence prevention strategies, such as an increased police presence around taverns, formalized data sharing processes after police field interviews, and increased investments in witness protection.
  • Breaking down silos: MHRC had two governing bodies: a working group, composed of mid-level staffers from participating agencies who analyzed and developed recommendations for implementation, and an Executive Committee, which included agency leaders who reviewed and committed to those policy and process recommendations. Participants in MHRC included representatives from the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the FBI, the ATF, and more. Staff from the Milwaukee Mayor’s Office, public health officials, faith-based leaders, and victim advocacy groups also participated.
  • Reviewing gun violence, case-by-case: During the convenings, MHRC’s full-time staff members, with support from the MPD Homicide Unit, prepared and presented data (such as the suspects and victims, the location, the weapon, and more), photos, and analysis on every homicide and the most significant cases of gun violence. Participants then discussed each case in detail, focusing on concrete steps they could take to prevent the cycle of violence from continuing in the future. At the end of each review, which typically lasted several hours, MHRC’s Executive Director, Dr. Mallory O'Brien, assigned “follow-up” to participants, such as preparing data on a suspect for the next meeting or initial work on a recommendation.
  • Prioritizing systemic recommendations: Ultimately, MHRC was a forum for Milwaukee stakeholders to propose and commit to actions that would reduce violence. To do so requires a system-wide view that considers agency-specific gaps and weaknesses that contribute to the conditions that foster violence. For instance, when several agencies reported that they were struggling to convince witnesses to testify, MHRC recommended increased security for each agency’s witness protection program. Impacted agencies then developed implementation plans to boost witness protection and presented those plans back to MHRC participants.
  • Contributing resources to MHRC: The most active members of MHRC, such as the MPD, District Attorney’s Office, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, played an outsized role in contributing data and other resources, such as staff power (at its peak, MPD committed an officer full-time to supporting MHRC’s work). Nearly all participants contributed some form of data regularly to help inform MHRC staff’s analysis and presentations at convenings. When MPD's willingness to participate waned in 2014, MHRC activities decreased significantly.

What factors drove success?

  • Convening agency leaders in a shared space: The homicide review commission model relies on all stakeholders involved in violence prevention meeting regularly, sharing data, and collectively identifying gaps that could reduce violence. By including leaders from each stakeholder group and facilitating the development of cross-agency relationships, MHRC cultivated a deeper sense of buy-in from leaders. This, in turn, led to more extensive contributions of agency resources (such as staff hours), more effective problem solving, and a stronger commitment to implementing recommendations.
  • Sharing data to inform action: Almost every partner in MHRC proactively collected and shared data to help inform the larger group’s understanding of the challenges and potential solutions of the violent crime landscape in Milwaukee. By proposing solutions grounded in robust data analysis and strong evidence, MHRC enabled agency leaders to clearly present recommendations and implement change within their organizations.
  • Focusing recommendations on systems-wide change: MHRC worked to develop policy and process recommendations that addressed systems of violence. By focusing on system-wide gaps and recommendations, such as enhanced witness protection, MHRC contributed to a proactive, forward-looking violence prevention strategy that also boosted aw enforcement capacity to solve crimes.
  • Cultivating buy-in from police, district attorney, corrections: Staff from the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (Region 3 - Milwaukee County) participated in every aspect of the review process, were represented on all committees, and helped draft policy recommendations. By prioritizing their involvement, MHRC cultivated buy-in from these agencies, each of which provided access to crucial data streams and whose staff members were ultimately responsible for implementing the bulk of MHRC’s recommendations.

What were the major obstacles?

  • MPD shifts away from collaborative approach: MHRC’s convenings have produced fewer impactful recommendations in recent years as MPD shifted strategies to deemphasize collaboration. As MHRC lost resources and participants in the early 2010s, violent crime again steadily rose, nearly doubling between 2010 and 2015. Meanwhile, homicide clearance rates dropped down to 60 percent by 2014 -- roughly on par with comparable cities.
  • Police chief turnover leads to diminished buy-in, fewer reviews: While Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has remained in office since 2004, predating MHRC, several key agencies in the Review Commission have experienced significant leadership turnover. Most notably, Milwaukee has had five different police chiefs since MHRC launched (including three since 2018), requiring MHRC staff to cultivate buy-in and start the relationship-building process over each time. Each new leader has had varying familiarity with the frequency and intensity of MHRC’s collaboration, along with the importance of MPD’s regular stream of data inputs. As a result, several key agency leaders have reduced their commitments of staff members and other resources, including data, to the program.
  • Executive director departs: After 15 years leading MHRC, Dr. Mallory O’Brien transitioned to a support role in 2019. Her departure, combined with the COVID pandemic and law enforcement turnover, resulted in fewer strong relationships within MHRC, and ultimately, a limited capacity to implement evidence-based violence prevention strategies within partner agencies.
  • COVID halts in-person reviews: The homicide review model is reliant on individual relationships across agencies and disciplines. In Milwaukee, informal interactions, like meetings over coffee, helped to deepen trust among partners. This facilitated a smoother review process, which often included identifying which agencies and individuals needed to reform specific processes. With COVID limiting in-person interaction, participants report losing that trust-building capacity, which in turn has limited the impact of the review process.
  • Urban crime rises during COVID: Similar to many cities across the country, Milwaukee has experienced a significant increase in violent crime since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, Milwaukee recorded 941 victims of violent crimes, compared to 542 in 2019 and 569 in 2018. As law enforcement agencies in the area increasingly respond directly to individual cases, MHRC’s system-wide review approach has been deprioritized among many agency leaders.

Timeline

Implementation process

How did leaders confront the problem?

  • Rising violent crime exposes law enforcement gaps: Violent crime in Milwaukee rises as Mayor Tom Barrett takes office. Despite significant local, state, and federal law enforcement presences in the area, efforts to reduce violent crime are reactive, fragmented, and limited in their effectiveness.
  • Milwaukee leaders commit to change: Mayor Barrett prioritizes gun violence prevention and seeks a city-wide strategy. He solicits counsel from gun violence prevention and public health expert Dr. Mallory O’Brien, who had previously advised Mayor Barrett on the issue when he was a U.S. Representative. Dr. O’Brien proposes a homicide review commission, which requires significant buy-in from the Mayor and law enforcement agencies.
  • Recruiting partners: Dr. O’Brien leverages her network, expertise, and experience working with the Milwaukee Police Department to secure commitments to the review process from a range of law enforcement agencies. Key partners include the Milwaukee Police Department, which provides the majority of data necessary to conduct the reviews, as well as the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. As more law enforcement agencies begin to participate, faith-based organizations, victim’s advocacy groups, and others sign on as well.
  • Evaluating the model: A month after MHRC’s launch, Dr. O’Brien secures a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, which commissions researchers at the Harvard School of Public health to conduct an independent evaluation of MHRC.

How was the strategy designed?

  • Breaking down silos to prevent violence: Recognizing the need to break down silos between law enforcement agencies, local government departments, and community-based organizations, Milwaukee leaders created MHRC to establish a structured forum for collaboration between violence prevention stakeholders.
  • Sharing data and perspectives: Prior to MHRC’s launch, there was little data-sharing among law enforcement agencies, leading to duplicative efforts in some instances and incomplete investigations in others. The homicide review model requires participating agencies to share all pertinent data related to instances of gun violence, enabling each partner to understand the landscape of violent crime more comprehensively.
  • A dedicated team to manage reviews: To ensure sufficient capacity to analyze data, convene leaders, and drive collaboration, MHRC was staffed by four full-time employees at its peak. This included an Executive Director, who ran the weekly meetings and assigned next steps to participants; an associate researcher, responsible for collecting and evaluating data shared from each participating agency; an administrative assistant; and a Milwaukee Police Department officer, who facilitated data sharing and other police-facing administrative needs. The Mayor’s Office also provided a dedicated liaison through the Health Department’s Office of Violence Prevention.
  • Two-tiered structure to ensure accountability: MHRC operated two governing bodies that met monthly to ensure agencies took actionable steps toward implementing recommendations. The Working Group was composed of 15 mid-level representatives from stakeholder organizations. They were responsible for the bulk of analysis and recommendation development. The Executive Committee, which was composed of 25 senior-level representatives from participating agencies, reviewed, revised, and ultimately, oversaw implementation of proposed recommendations from the Working Group.
  • Criminal justice and community service reviews: MHRC held two types of monthly reviews run by front-line personnel, supervisors, and agency leaders. One review, focused on criminal justice, included representatives from most law enforcement agencies with a presence in the area, public health officials, and others who could legally engage with sensitive data. Another review, focused on community stakeholders, included numerous community-based organizations, who offered insights and recommendations. Members of the Working Group participated in both reviews.
  • Holding frequent, extensive convenings: A fundamental element of the homicide review commission model was physically convening agency leaders and staff. Doing so led to increased accountability and openness to recommendations, including significant changes to an agency’s operations (such as overhauling the MPD’s field interview process). These meetings also provided executives with a dedicated time and space to commit to solutions and provide updates on implementation.

How was the approach funded?

  • Launching the project: Initially, Dr. O’Brien sought to launch MHRC through a series of grants. The Wisconsin Partnership Fund for a Healthy Future provided $400,000 in startup funding, which was administered through the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; the U.S. Department of Justice’s Project Safe Neighborhoods provided $80,000 and was administered through the U.S. Attorneys Office; and MHRC received $70,000 from the Violence Against Women Act, which was allocated via the Wisconsin Office of Justice Statistics.
  • Funding MHRC operations: Ongoing administrative costs, software, and four full-time staff salaries and benefits were funded by a series of multi-year grants, such as a $300,000 award from Project Safe Neighborhoods in 2015. MHRC operated on roughly $225,000 annually, with the majority of those costs going towards salaries and benefits. The Commission’s data management system, a crucial component of the program, cost roughly $10,000 to develop. Dr. O’Brien managed each grant proposal and the budgeting process.
  • Federal funding to independently evaluate MHRC: In February 2005, the National Institute of Justice (an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice) granted funds to the Harvard School of Public Health to conduct an independent evaluation of MHRC. NIJ awarded Harvard University roughly $220,000 to conduct the two-year evaluation.
  • Curriculum development and training: MHRC received two U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services Community Policing Development program grants. The grants went toward MHRC’s development of training manuals and delivery of implementation assistance in cities across the country. The first grant, in 2010, was for approximately $437,000, and the second, in 2013, was for approximately $241,000.

How was the plan implemented?

  • Staffing the Commission: With support from the Mayor, the District Attorney, and Chief of Police, Dr. O’Brien served as MHRC’s founding Executive Director. After securing grant funding, she hired three full-time staff members: a data analyst, a police officer dedicated to MHRC, and a city government administrator. Dr. O’Brien also actively sought analytical and administrative support from interns, most of whom were university students in the Milwaukee area.
  • Building out review committees: After hiring support staff, Dr. O’Brien expanded the Commission’s scope throughout its first year of operation. First, she leveraged her contacts within the law enforcement community, building on commitments from the Milwaukee Police Department and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office to secure participants at the state and federal levels, such as from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the FBI, and the ATF. For the first 36 months, MHRC conducted reviews within three of Milwaukee’s seven police districts.
  • Issuing and implementing recommendations: Once MHRC was established, it began holding regular convenings (ranging from weekly to monthly, depending on the caseload) to review homicides, share data and relevant leads, and identify gaps in systems and processes that allowed for violence to occur. Between meetings, participants worked to develop actionable recommendations for proposal at the following meeting.
  • Expanding across the city: With the two-year Harvard evaluation of the program indicating strong results, the Milwaukee Police Department requested MHRC’s expansion citywide in 2008. Quickly, Dr. O’Brien and other participants began recruiting more partners, including community-based organizations and faith-based groups. At its peak, roughly 25 senior-level agency representatives served on the Executive Committee to approve and implement recommendations. Meanwhile, 15 mid-level staff members made up the Working Group, which was responsible for data collection and coordination, individual homicide reviews, and developing recommendations for approval from the Executive Committee.

How was the approach measured and refined?

  • Data-driven crime prevention strategies: MHRC was created to produce actionable recommendations based on concrete data and patterns. The goal was to refine its participants’ approaches to violence prevention and intervention to more closely align with what the data showed. With sufficient leadership buy-in, this new premium on data analysis resulted in substantial changes to crime prevention tactics. For instance, after a homicide review revealed that state parole and probation officers were not aware of their clients’ interactions with Milwaukee Police officers, the MPD changed its field interview process to ensure that external stakeholders -- such as those parole officers -- would be automatically notified.
  • Developing a new approach to data management: Prior to MHRC’s launch, law enforcement agencies in the area rarely shared data and had no formal process for doing so. To address this, MHRC built a new data management system to track homicides and nonfatal shootings within city limits. During its peak operations, the system compiled data inputs from many of its participants (such as the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County DA’s Office, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and the FBI). To maximize its potential to secure federal funding, MHRC based its system on the National Violent Death Reporting System guidelines, aligning with federal standards.
  • Refining replication training: In 2010, the Department of Justice commissioned MHRC to develop a homicide review training manual and to provide other cities with replication assistance. As part of this process, MHRC collected feedback and carefully tracked outcomes for replication partners. For instance, after a survey indicated jurisdictions needed more guidance on how to engage with juvenile justice agencies, MHRC revised its training, securing a second DOJ COPS grant to do so. In October 2021, MHRC published its latest training and replication guide.
  • Diminished contributions from key participants: Despite MHRC's significant impact on violent crime in Milwaukee, leaders from key law enforcement agencies began to reduce resources (such as data sharing and personnel hours dedicated to MHRC tasks) in 2014. This change limited MHRC’s capacity to conduct effective reviews, given its reliance on partner data inputs, especially from the Milwaukee Police Department. As a result, MHRC convened less frequently and reduced its recommendation output. In 2017, MHRC released its last annual report. Today, MHRC manages an interactive dashboard of the data instead of annual reports, though that data no longer goes through a formal, independent verification process.
  • Expanding to sexual assaults and sex trafficking: For most of its first decade of operations, MHRC focused specifically on homicides (especially domestic violence homicides) and gun violence. However, the review process revealed that a high share of gun violence in Milwaukee was perpetrated by or overlapped with suspects in sexual assaults and sex trafficking cases. This led MHRC participants and leadership to replicate the homicide review process for sexual assaults, convening the appropriate stakeholders. MHRC has released several reports on sex trafficking.
Acknowledgments

Results for America would like to thank Dr. Mallory O’Brien of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission for her help in completing this case study. Results for America also thanks a number of current and former MHRC participants from contributing law enforcement and public health agencies.