Mallory O'Brien, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute at Duke University, describes how the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, which she helped found and now directs, brings together a range of law enforcement, public health and other partners to solve individual homicides and support crime prevention.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m speaking with Mallory O’Brien who’s the founding director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. She’s also a researcher in the Public Policy Institute at Duke University. Thanks, Mallory, for taking the time to talk with me.
MALLORY O’BRIEN: Thanks for having me.
WOLF: Today we are in Los Angeles and we’ve just concluded a day-long executive session that brought together public health experts and law enforcement representatives, including several police chiefs from around the country for a conversation about what public health can teach law enforcement. This is sponsored by the Community Oriented Policing Services Office at the U.S. Department of Justice and The California Endowment, who hosted the session, and the Center for Court Innovation.
First off, I thought you could just describe what exactly is in Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, maybe give a little of its history and how it came about.
O’BRIEN: I’m trained as a public health professional. I’m an epidemiologist. I have been working in the field of violent injury for the last 15 years—started out creating a local system to track firearm injuries, went to the national level and worked with the Harvard Injury Control Research Center on developing the National Violent Injury Statistics System, which is a surveillance system on how you track violent injury and death, worked with CDC on the development of the National Violent Death Reporting System.
While I was doing all of this, I lived in Milwaukee; I’ve always lived in Milwaukee. My husband is actually a prosecutor. So when the city was interested in figuring out how we deal with homicides, they asked me if I would sit down and help them think through a process. So we met in 2004 with the mayor, the police chief, and the district attorney—kind of hashed through a process. I relied on all the experience I’ve had over the last few years figuring out how do you develop a national surveillance system, and how do you make it real time, and how do you really apply it to a local community, and came up with this review process that we have in place now in Milwaukee. That’s basically a four-level process and it’s multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, so that we get a real detailed picture of homicide, what’s going on in homicides in the city, and through that analysis we can determine risk factors, and we can then focus the limited resources that we have from a law enforcement perspective, as well as from a social service provider on violence prevention, we can really focus those on identifiable risks. So we created this process where you had the immediate response by law enforcement to do the investigation, but we’ve also included a referral mechanism so that there are services offered to the family immediately, the victim’s family. The second level of the process is really to pull together the entire criminal justice community to really look at the homicides. So we meet once a month. We talk about the prior month’s cases. We do a really detailed analysis of what’s going on.
WOLF: And let me just interrupt you there. Who’s at the table at these monthly meetings?
O’BRIEN: So we have the cop that may have responded to the incident. We have the community prosecutors, corrections, ATF, FBI, U.S. attorney, city attorney, juvenile corrections, public schools, ICE, the housing authority—anybody that you define to be in the criminal justice world is at the table for those discussions. So at the end of the discussion, we oftentimes come up with recommendations for change. They might be recommendations that revolve around a particular case and it’s follow-up that needs to be done. It might be a recommendation on a policy change that the Department of Corrections should be implementing. It might actually be a policy-level change that needs to be done by the legislature. So we run the gamut from an individual to a real population-based policy change.
WOLF: So to be clear, you’re talking about a specific case and you may brainstorm among this whole group of people from these diverse agencies. And will they share information and actually try to make suggestions about how further the investigation of a particular case? Is that also one of the by-products?
O’BRIEN: That is one of the by-products. So not only is it developing prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies, but it’s also helping to clear a particular case. So for example, we may have a witness in a homicide who we learn at the Homicide Review is actually on paper with Corrections. Well, the Corrections agent can then leverage that witness to be more cooperative with the law enforcement. So that’s it, a case-specific example.
WOLF: And so, then, to the point of prevention which is a key, I think, component of any public health approach, emphasizing prevention, as you say, you also collectively try to come up with broader policy recommendations or changes. I wonder if you could give any examples of those that might illuminate how this collaboration can maybe come up with a creative solution that no one on their own, no individual agency might have come up with.
O’BRIEN: Well, I think what these reviews do is they actually create a forum not only for information sharing but strategy development. And this didn’t happen overnight. And we had to develop trust among all of the agencies to start sharing the information because it’s not a public meeting but we’re all in a room together and we’re all sharing some of our faults. So that took a while, but once we got to the point where we had developed that trust, that’s when these discussions start to develop. So before we get to me answering your question, let me just make—let me tell you the rest of the process and then I’ll get to your—
WOLF: Sure. Absolutely.
O’BRIEN: So we do the criminal justice review once a month, but we also do a community service provider review. And we do that review every other month, and there we pull together the community service providers in the neighborhoods. We pull together the community liaison officers, the community prosecutors, the faith community—specific agencies that might have touched the victim, the suspect or even the location that the event occurred. So when we talk about creating a really in-depth picture of the homicide, we’re talking about criminal histories. We’re talking about, do we know anything about their attendance at school?; do we know anything about the property?; were their calls serviced?; did the Department of Neighborhood Services respond?; were their license premise violations ?—all of those kinds of things to try and develop different types of strategies so that we’re not just focusing on a purely law enforcement response but a collaborate response. So to answer your question, let me give you an example. One thing that I did a couple of years ago is I pulled together a sub-committee where we were focusing specifically on gun violence reduction. So, at those meetings I have the U.S. attorney—no, not the U.S. attorney but a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, ATF, district attorney—
WOLF: Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms?
O’BRIEN: Sorry. Yes. The prosecutors, the city attorney’s office, the office of violent prevention, the health department; corrections is also there. We brainstorm about different things each agency could be doing themselves and collaboratively. While we were analyzing some of the data that is available through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives that relates to firearms—and who were the individuals that purchased the firearms?; how long did it take for the gun to be purchased and then end up in crime?; who were the associates involved?; what kind of crime?; was the firearm recovered—those kinds of things. We were analyzing that information and I was looking at firearms with the short time-to-crime. ATF uses a definition of two years or less. I use a definition of one year or less. So I was really looking at those guns that made it into the hands of criminals in a very short period of time. And what I noticed when I was doing the analysis was that there was a disproportionate number of young black females that were purchasing firearms and then they were ending up in crime. Now because we had the health department at the table for those discussions, they came up with an initiative, an education campaign to target women, specifically women of color, and they went to the beauty parlors. They developed a campaign and it was implemented at the beauty parlors, trying to reach the women that they felt were most likely to purchase a firearm for their man. And the message was, “Don’t buy for your guy.”
WOLF: So that’s an interesting example of bringing in a health department or public health expertise in the area of public education. And you’re using them to deliver a message that serves both the public health by lowering violence but also a criminal justice end because obviously violence generally is connected to criminal behavior as well. So that’s a great example. Was there a measureable impact? Were you able in any way to evaluate it?
O’BRIEN: Well, I haven’t looked at the data, but that was done relatively recently.
WOLF: I’m speaking with Mallory O’Brien who is the founding director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. I wanted to ask you really one other question because I think you have a very unique position where you’re a public health expert who is a consultant working very closely with law enforcement, in this case the Milwaukee Police Department. And I wonder when you bring your public health eyes and your academic background as a researcher in Duke University to this sort of paramilitary organization that, you know, perhaps operates very differently, what are you seeing? What have you learned and what lessons can you offer about creating successful collaborations between public health and police agencies or law enforcement agencies?
O’BRIEN: One of the things early on was finding the right people within the organizations that you’re trying to work with because law enforcement and public health don’t seem like, on face value, don’t seem like logical partners. And part of it is that law enforcement, in my experience, has been—they have been skeptical about sharing their detailed information on what goes on in their cases, especially open cases. So, what I found to be one of the keys was finding the right people in the agencies that I needed to deal with and developing a relationship, developing trust so they felt as like they could trust me, that I wasn’t going to harm their agency in any way, that I was there to be a neutral convener to assist all of the agencies in developing strategies. So when I look at success, I think the reason why we have been successful, not only in initiating the Homicide Review Commission, but in sustaining it over time is that we have developed these trusting relationships. We have been able to move strategies forward, so if we develop a strategy, we actually do something with it. And then, we can say, hey, this worked or it didn’t work, because we’ve been collecting all this information for so many years that we’re in a position to assisting and evaluating the outcomes.
WOLF: Well, it’s been fascinating talking with you, and I wish you continued luck in your work. I’ve been talking with Mallory O’Brien who’s the founding director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. She’s also a researcher in the Public Policy Institute at Duke University. And we’ve been speaking just outside of the meeting room where we spent the day at The California Endowment here in Los Angeles, where leaders in public health and in law enforcement were meeting to discuss basically what they could learn from each other. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.