POLITIFACT dumps on Jim Sullivan | WisCommunity

POLITIFACT dumps on Jim Sullivan

Again today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politifact operation takes a rather un-nuanced view of a politician's public statements. This time the politician is former State Sen. Jim Sullivan, a Democrat running for Milwaukee County Executive. As the newspaper summed up in its article, 

Sullivan said delays in admitting people to the Mental Health Complex for crisis care can be so long that police officers spend up to an entire shift with patients waiting for them to receive treatment. Hours-long delays were a problem some years ago. But the four largest police agencies in the county now say waits are short.   

Perhaps there are isolated cases today in which officers waits for hours, but at minimum Sullivan’s claim is clearly dated.

So, Sullivan gets a "false." But Politifact, which only looked at third-party studies and apparently didn't do any eyeball reporting, misses the forest for the trees, here.

First, the paper's own more conventional investigative reporting has documented huge problems at the Mental Health Complex. Second, the Politifact article dumping on Sullivan admits to "isolated cases" of cops waiting long periods of time at the complex with patients. But what's "isolated" mean?

I and several acquaintances have had the opportunity in the past several years to spend a considerable amount of time at the complex's in-take office, and we've had time to observe how things work there. These are eyeball observations, not conducted round-the-clock or with a stopwatch, but at least we were actually there, like news reporters used to try to do, when they had the resources. And what we have seen, right up through recent weeks, is this:

* Police cars from various municipalities and sheriff's squads bringing prospective patients to the in-take office jam the parking spaces and traffic circle at the entrance to the in-take office. There sometimes is no room for non-law-enforcement vehicles to park.

* The caseload remains high, even if cops no longer spend "entire shifts" waiting at the complex.

* The in-take area is at times almost a cattle pen, with people (including law enforcement) sometimes waiting hours just to be seen, especially in the evening hours.

Cops used to (and may sometimes still) spend "entire shifts" waiting at the district attorney's office while a determination is being made to charge someone the officers have brought into custody. Video conferencing and other measures may have reduced this need at the courthouse, but the truth is that wait times remain problematic because staff is minimal while cases remain at a high level. Also, police -- as is only human nature -- sometimes have taken advantage of this process to pull some light duty, hanging around as long as possible. Law enforcement administrators know this and have taken steps to reduce "down time" -- that is, legitimate work time that is not spent patrolling the streets or actually investigating crimes or accidents -- but it still happens.

And that's also the case at the Mental Health Complex. The TROUBLED Mental Health Complex. Let's stipulate that police wait times at the in-take facility are on average down, even down considerably, from years ago. Does that mean more progress cannot be made? Does that mean there no longer is any extended or unwarranted waiting? Does that mean Sullivan's general concern about overall problems at the complex -- illustrated in one occasion by one specific statement employed by Politifact for its review -- should be discounted or ignored in favor of the newspaper feature's monomania and "gotcha" tactics?

No, it doesn't.

By Politifact's arbitrary standards, the possibility (left actually unreported) that Sullivan's one-time, isolated assertion may actually remain true "on occasion" does not permit him the rating of "barely" or "half" true. Nope, his statement is rated completely and totally false. Which is odd, since the paper bases that rating on potentially self-serving statements by law enforcement agencies and one study that tend to make government look pretty good. Which, in turn, you'd expect government to try to make itself look. Which, further, is why the Journal Sentinel's regular investigative reporters took a different approach than the navel gazers at Politfact and actually ferreted out the many problems at the understaffed, underequpped complex.

So there you have it: When the paper itself reports problems at the complex, you'd better believe it. But when a politician notes those problems and mentions one particular example in a meeting with Journal Sentinel editors, don't you believe a word of it. Because the paper told you so.


February 10, 2011 - 9:34am