Valedictory essay

It feels a little crazy to even be talking about the fact that I’ll be graduating in a week or so. These past five to six years have been full of ups and downs, but as surreal as it feels, it’s almost a reality. When I was coming out of high school, the only thing that really interested me was crime and learning about the law. My mom is a teacher and has always preached that school should come first over everything. When I was in high school I had the exact opposite mindset, and I wanted to attend a two year school before I went to a university. That resulted in a lot of arguments and my argument always was that I truly didn’t know what I wanted to do yet.

Well, my mom had the last laugh, and I ended up going to UW-Whitewater for my first year. During that first year, I struggled heavily, still not really in the right mindset and was too distracted by things that didn’t really need attention. In other words, I didn’t have my priorities
straight. After that first year I transferred to UW-Milwaukee and switched my major to social work. I was living at home and working part-time as well, which didn’t go too well either. I basically failed out and honestly never thought I’d even go back to college. I started to look for
other options and stumbled upon UW-Rock County and enrolled in a couple classes online and one in person to try and get back on my feet. At this point my mom felt somewhat guilty because she realized maybe I wasn’t as ready as she thought I was.

However, when I got to UW-Rock County, everything started to change. I was at a new college alone with none of my friends and that forced me to prioritize school and only school. I had this one professor who was so engaged in the material he taught and his mindset really motivated me to try and put forth more effort. Eventually I got my two-year degree from there and transferred back to UW-Whitewater. I ended up having Dr. Zukas in my first semester back and everything just kind of made sense to commit to journalism. I’ve always been into reading articles and gathering information on my own, and it seemed very interesting. I’ve always been very skeptical about the things I read and with the world in general, so this path is very fitting.

I think these past two years, even on top of covid have really changed me as a person. I feel I’m a lot more aware of everything around me. I’m extremely knowledgeable on finding information and I feel like I’m a better person which makes me feel very good. The most
important thing I’ve learned regarding journalism is the concept of ethics. That’s a broad term,
but journalism and ethics go hand in hand. Dr. Wachanga’s media ethics class I think will be the class I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. I’ve always had this odd feeling that news outlets
and our own government have a tendency to fabricate things or even lie to us. His course educated me on things like this, in a way I would’ve never experienced if I never declared for this major. I feel like Wachanga is such a perfect person to teach that course because he isn’t
from here originally. The masses of people don’t want to cross that psychological barrier that we can be fed lies and have been for some time. Since Wachanga isn’t from here, it’s easy for him to preach this ideology because he hasn’t been spoon fed like most of us have by most news outlets and things of that nature. I will always value ethics and I’d say that’s my biggest/most important takeaway from school here.

Another takeaway that still blows my mind everyday, is how shady and biased journalism/reporting can be. It’s unreal to me how a profession that should pride itself on ethics, we see so often people visibly not following the code of ethics in their reporting. I don’t know if it comes down to the publications or the journalists individually, but there are so many examples I’ve found (especially within politics) of people inserting their own opinions into their writing which should never be done. I feel our job as writers is to educate people and then allow them to
form their own opinions, but it seems that isn’t really the case even though it should be.

I wouldn’t say the reality of college was different because I really didn’t know what to expect. If I could go back I guess I would say I wish I started with journalism from the start, but other than that I’m pretty happy with the progress I’ve made, and I’m extremely excited to see what the future has in store.

Crime, Coronavirus and Law enforcement in milwaukee

Crime, Coronavirus and Law Enforcement in Milwaukee 

It’s fair to assume that due to the pandemic and people being forced to stay in their homes, this would somewhat decrease the overall crime rate, but in reality, the trend has been the exact opposite. There has been an increase in homicides, civil unrest and drug related crime since the pandemic began.

“It’s unfortunately a perfect storm,” said Terri deRoon-Cassini, a trauma and health psychologist at Froedtert Hospital. “I think one of the biggest challenges we are faced with right now is the overlay of these two epidemics. They’re feeding each other.”

One of the biggest factors in the consistent increase of drug related crime is fentanyl. The drug problem in Milwaukee continues to be a massive issue, and has slid somewhat under the radar due to the protests, pandemic and homicides.

“The pandemic has made the issue worse because it’s increased social isolation, caused people to lose their jobs, which causes added stress,” said Reporter Edgar Mendez from Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. “Stress and isolation, those are triggers for drug use so people that maybe they were trying to quit went back to drug use and then people already using drugs, it accelerated their drug use.”

“Although people might be staying home, they’re still going out and getting their drugs,” said Luke Warnke, Forensic Investigator at Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Fentanyl is a lot cheaper than heroin and when compounded with other substances it’s actually not classified as a schedule one or two drug in court. Most of the deaths they’ve seen haven’t come from fentanyl by itself, but loads of them have been some sort of compound with fentanyl in it. 

“If you change a compound in fentanyl, the drug isn’t classified as a schedule one or two drug. If you’re a producer of this and mix in different compounds and get taken to court, there’s some leverage in the fact that it’s not fentanyl by itself. An attorney will argue that this drug isn’t listed in the schedule, and they’re going to be right,” said Warnke. 

It’s in the process of being classified as a schedule one or two drug regardless of the compounds it’s mixed with, but for now this continues to be a problem with no sign of the rates slowing down. 

“Our caseload has continued to go up. Last year was a record homicide year and drug related deaths for Milwaukee County, and the numbers are on pace again this year” said Warnke. 

Domestic violence and homicide rates are also at an all time high since the pandemic began, and both continue to rise at alarming rates. Throughout the city of Milwaukee, these patterns and trends remain steady, and Black men continue to be disproportionately victimized. 

In January, February and March of 2020, Milwaukee averaged about 11 homicides and 46 nonfatal shootings per month, according to data from the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. That compares to nine homicides and about 49 nonfatal shootings monthly so far in 2021, according to data from the Milwaukee Police Department.

In the past two years, the average homicide rate has gone up more than three per month since 2016-2019. 

When looking at why these homicides are occurring, roughly 23% of all homicides in Milwaukee have been related to intimate partner-related or domestic violence since the pandemic began. 

“People haven’t been able to leave their homes, which is putting many on edge,” said Warnke. “These are toxic environments where many aren’t afraid to use their firearms, and when you put those things together, you see why there have been more and more disputes on a day to day basis.”

“We’ve all been encouraged or instructed to be at home as much as possible, and for many, that’s not a safer place,” said Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern.

“The hardest-hit areas of the city for both homicides and nonfatal shootings remain highly disadvantaged ones,” said Constance Kostelac, director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission.

In many of these disadvantaged areas, there is a surplus of illegally obtained firearms, which is another issue prevalent in Milwaukee. Many detectives have noted that there has been a rise in disputes that escalate due to people’s willingness to use them without remorse. 

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, officers seized more than 2,600 firearms so far this year, up 23% compared with the same time last year. 

“As more people go armed, the chance for petty disputes to end in lethal violence rises,” said Milwaukee Police Capt. Thomas Casper, who leads the homicide division.

Law enforcement has also been impacted by quarantine restrictions, forcing police to respond to fewer incidents and less cases being cleared. 

“The pandemic forced violence prevention programs and other social service agencies to retool their approach. Many switched to virtual formats or paused services,” said Lovern.

Activists like Tory Lowe, who helps homicide victims’ families raise money for funerals and push for justice, have also had to slow their line of work. 

“Now that COVID-19 is out here, a lot of these people are not in the streets that would normally be out here, like myself,” Lowe said. He added that he’s only provided assistance in about 20 cases this year, where typically he’d be up to 60 to 70 by now.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Milwaukee has had a historically low homicide clearance rate since the pandemic, currently at 54 percent instead of its usual 75 percent or higher range in recent years. Fewer cases being solved can lead to more violence.”

The Journal Sentinel is tracking homicides and the rate at which charges are filed in Milwaukee to memorialize the victims and better understand deadly violence.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spent six months gathering and analyzing data from police, prosecutors and the court system, tracking homicides in Milwaukee from the time they occurred through the court process. The analysis focused on 594 homicides that occurred from 2014 to 2018. Here’s what it found: 

  • In 62 percent of cases, either someone was arrested in connection with the homicide or the main suspect died, usually of suicide.
  • In 58 percent, someone was charged with a crime. Most of those charges, about 64 percent, were filed within two weeks of when the homicide occurred.

This massive downward trend to cases not being cleared compared to 2014-2018, can be attributed to the limitations caused by the impact of the ongoing pandemic.

“With COVID, the justice system isn’t hitting on all cylinders,” Casper said. “That revolving door is just spinning, putting these people right back onto the street.”

“This is all happening at a time when multiple forces — all inter-related —are destroying any semblance of normalcy: the coronavirus pandemic; the economic downturn; the heightened levels of racial tension, particularly involving police; and several bouts of civil unrest,” Sophie Carson of the Journal Sentinel reported. 

If someone that gets away with a murder, that damages the trust between a community and the police department. It’s essentially a cycle that is feeding itself; the trust the community has in law enforcement continues to decline, which leads to more witnesses holding back and allows for more crime to occur. 

When you add this all of this on top of the recent protests on the back of Geogre’s Floyd’s death, it’s left the community with having little to no faith in Milwaukee’s law enforcement.

While many officers agree with the Black Lives Matter movement, and sympathize with everything in relation to it, they’re often caught in this grey area between it all. 

“Our way of life is built off of what’s reasonable, and that’s how I operate in those grey areas of the law, which is how it should be,” said an officer identified as J.

Since these protests started and have continued to take place, many officers have noticed a change in the public’s attitudes towards them, and some may argue rightfully so. There’s a  growing notion of an “anti-police rhetoric” that is very prevalent in Milwaukee County. 

Regardless of one’s opinion on either side is beside the point. Numerous officers that agree with what the protests and movements represent, a lot of people are going about it wrongly; which takes the focus away from what the movements should be about, and affects an officer’s ability to perform.  

There is a rise in people getting extremely comfortable with trying to catch officers that are acting out of line electronically. There are countless examples of videos and clips being taken out of context purposefully, which is a recurring theme in this day and age regardless of the scenario. 

People are made aware of every single thing that happens nowadays due to social media. If there is an incident that may arise or escalate, it’s the norm for one to whip out their phone and record it. 

“I’ve noticed in the past year that there’s been a huge climb in individuals shoving phones in my face, which doesn’t bother me because I’m recorded all the time regardless. What bothers me is people trying to antagonize us simply for doing our job. We’re humans too and we all have boiling points, and nowadays, more and more people are trying to normalize arguing and attempting to antagonize officers, which is counterproductive for everyone and gets us all nowhere,” said Officer J.

Should there be a line that gets drawn?  It is one’s right to do what they please with electronics, but if there isn’t a line that gets drawn, how far will this continue to go, and what will it lead to?

Times are changing and due to this changing rhetoric, many that work in law enforcement have been choosing to keep their identities hidden, regardless of the topic. 

“It goes to show you that we fear attaching our names to statements because we don’t know how it will be interpreted; even if it’s something we shouldn’t be scared to say,” said another officer who wishes to remain anonymous. 

People in law enforcement are held to a higher standard (rightfully so), but the question many are asking is, where (or what) is the professional standard for the average citizen? 

When law enforcement has to deal with the exterior distractions of people going out of their way to try and antagonize them, it impacts their ability to do their job. They’re limited on time and cases they can respond to, so when you have people going out of their way to essentially troll them, it’s understandable why officers deem that counterproductive. 

It’s not something that can be measured by statistics, but it’s a fair question to ask––Is this new trend playing a factor and impacting Milwaukee’s crime rate? 

On the flip side, there are people who truly feel that police aren’t being held accountable and seek more justice and accountability from the task force to simply be better at their job. 

There is a common skepticism of legal cynicism taking place within Milwaukee’s law enforcement and a belief that law enforcement uses the pandemic as a “cop-out.” 

Many attribute the rise in unsolved homicides cases and the steady increase in Milwaukee’s crime rates to this, and don’t accept “the pandemic” as a valid excuse or reason.

Black citizens continue to be academically, financially and systematically oppressed, and the protests and civil unrest goes deeper than most realize. 

Psychologist Josh, a Milwaukee resident who actively participated in many of these protests said, “We are people that are a reaction of our own past experiences, and those who came before us. Frustration, desperation, you name it, we’ve felt and experienced it to the highest degree. We just want them (law enforcement) to do better.”

In terms of a plan moving forward to help combat crime rates and rebuilding the relationship between the community and law enforcement, it’s at a bit of a stalemate at this point in time. 

“Our department is distracted with politics, inquiries, demonstrations, everything you can imagine except serving the neighborhoods we come to work to serve,” Inspector Terrance Gordon said. “I grew up during the crack wars in Milwaukee, but there is a wildness out there that I have not experienced in my city before. I really think that if the city got back to doing what we’re elected and appointed to do, we could get a handle on this. I don’t think we need a new strategy. I just think we need time to do our jobs.”