In the 1990s, many police departments began using the broken-windows theory: arrest the bad guys for minor offenses, and they wouldn’t be around to commit more serious ones, says Time magazine. This zero-tolerance approach–combined with more cops on the street, a strong economy, and a demographic change that reduced the population of young men who typically cause the most trouble–lowered the rates of murder, robbery, and rape for 10 consecutive years. Last year, crime began to rise, and the most violent crimes led the trend. Like residents of dozens of other crime-afflicted midsize cities, people in Milwaukee are trying to figure out why their town has suddenly become so dangerous. Most cities counted on the Justice Department’s COPS program to help pay for officers, but $1.9 billion, or 45 percent, of the funding disappeared after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks. Midsize cities have nearly 25 percent fewer officers than in 2001, and the White House budget proposal for next year could cancel an additional $1.5 billion.
In Milwaukee, COPS hiring funds dropped from more than $1 million in 2002 to zero last year. That has left more than 200 police vacancies out of a force less than 2,000. The city is hard pressed to fill the gap; the police budget eats up nearly the entire Milwaukee tax levy of $213 million. Mayor Tom Barrett hopes the feds will start pitching in again. “We’ve spent five years on homeland security,” Barrett says. “Now we need to focus on a little hometown security.” U.S. prisons release 630,000 inmates each year, and that number will rise for the foreseeable future as more and more sentences run out. Considering a recidivism rate of 67 percent for released state inmates, it’s clear that more crimes are being committed because there are more criminals around to commit them. Says Milwaukee district attorney E. Michael McCann: “We’re charging the same guys who came through our doors 10 or 20 years ago.” A commission studying the city’s worst homicides found that half of both perpetrators and victims in 2005 had been previously arrested. One in five was on probation or parole at the time of the slaying. “It’s shocking to see the criminal histories of the people in these cases,” says University of Wisconsin professor Steve Brandl. “They seem destined for a life of imprisonment.”