It’s been more than a week since the removal of Arnitta Holliman as director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, or OVP, and questions about why she was ousted still remain.
At the time, Jim Bohl, chief of staff for Mayor Cavalier Johnson, cited a need for “increasing the office’s responsiveness to changing demands and expectations in public safety.”
Yet, a more specific rationale from the mayor’s office for her removal has been vague.
Jeff Fleming, Johnson’s spokesperson, wrote in an email to NNS that “there are ethical and legal restrictions on what we can say about personnel actions.”
He added: “The mayor wants the department to be maximally effective in preventing violence.”
Milwaukee is on pace to surpass its homicide record for a third straight year. Some tie the increase in murders to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused increased economic hardship and social isolation, which disconnected some from support systems and resulted in increased stress and partner violence, experts say.
Several leaders in the community have spoken out against Holliman’s removal. Jeanne Geraci, executive director of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit that serves women, said she was surprised by the decision.
“Arnitta Holliman is a strong leader who built strong community ties and understands the underlying trauma of violence so critical in this work,” Geraci said. Holliman previously served as the director of the Sisters Program at the Benedict Center, which helps women ensnared in street-based sex work.
Geraci said she has concerns about the city’s support of the Office of Violence Prevention, which is part of the Milwaukee Health Department. She worries that it will be set up to fail by being held to standards beyond its scope or resources.
“So much of the violence we experience as a city requires systemic changes,” she said. The Office of Violence Prevention’s “success will require strong support and coordination from the mayor’s office and the Common Council.”
Melissa Ugland is a public health consultant who advised the Office of Violence Prevention in 2010. She said back then, the demands of the office were minimal compared to now.
“The current OVP deploys people into known dangerous situations to mediate conflicts between people, provides support to families who have experienced gun violence by making hospital visits, stays in touch routinely with community leaders and attends events on behalf of OVP and a lot more,” Ugland said.
She added that all are evidence-based practices successfully implemented elsewhere. Ugland said when she heard that the Common Council was requesting data related to outcomes, she wondered what its members wanted to see.
“When you are dealing with evidence-based interventions, the activities are often what drives the most successful outcomes,” she said. “Violence reduction takes consistent relationship building, gaining community trust, and lots of time spent doing the work few people are willing to do.”
Ugland was referring to calls from Aldermen Michael Murphy and Mark Borkowski, among other Common Council members, for Holliman’s office to produce data and other metrics that proved its effectiveness and justified its $5.6 million budget, which will increase in 2022 and 2023 due to an influx of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
‘Starving for information’
“Right now we’re starving for information,” Borkowski said. “I would like to see a sign that we’re making progress.”
In June, Holliman, who didn’t respond to an interview request, said her office was unfairly being held accountable for the city’s spike in violence.
“What’s not fair is OVP being held solely accountable for either a spike or a reduction in crime in the city when we are one portion of the solution or the response,” Holliman told the Public Safety and Health Committee that month.
Holliman was appointed director of the OVP by former Mayor Tom Barrett in May 2021. She replaced Reggie Moore, who resigned and became the director of Violence Prevention Policy and Engagement for the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Injury Center. Calls for data proving the OVP’s effectiveness began as early as September of that year.
Borkowski said Holliman had become increasingly defensive in recent months over the criticisms of her office.
“We scrutinize a lot of people, including the police department,” he said.
Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, issued a statement to NNS echoing similar concerns, including some related to the OVP’s efforts on the South Side of Milwaukee.
“Although it is always unfortunate to have to see individuals leave, every city agency must be responsive when it comes to requests and to communication with the mayor, Common Council members, commissioners and the like,” she wrote. “I can tell you that for me it is paramount to see some sincere commitment by OVP to Milwaukee’s near south side. I have felt that my advocacy, in particular, for the Clarke Square neighborhood – that (Council) President Pérez and I share – has fallen on deaf ears.”
According to Fleming, members of the Common Council provided input or received notice of the decision to remove Holliman. Borkowski said he was not involved in the decision, and other council members have also stated that they were not included.
According to Fleming, Johnson has already identified some candidates.
“The process of bringing on a new director has advanced significantly,” he wrote. “The same process that was used to bring on the past two OVP directors will be replicated this time.”
He said that although not all council members have been involved in that process, there have been discussions and there will be more. He reiterated that the position is not subject to confirmation by the Common Council and said the new director would guide any changes in the operation of the OVP.
Both Zamarripa and Borkowski indicated that they still hope to be involved in the process, and that metrics demonstrating what impact OVP is having should be a vital component of the office’s work.
Ugland said she wants to know how the city will ensure that the next leader of the OVP is chosen by the community and is supportive of the community.
“Very few people have the skill set that Reggie Moore had, or Arnitta Holliman had, to step into these roles,” she said. “Even fewer people have the stomach to attend more children’s funerals, prayer vigils or other heart-wrenching events that have come to be daily events.”