The website’s splash page emphasizes a single, bold story that stands for how the police affect the community.

The site is also filled with stats that show the department’s community impact.

A refresh of one of the main focuses of any police department, the Most Wanted List.

Another page, showing the stories of the officers, with photography that shows the police directly engaged with the reader.

In an age of budget cutbacks, it seems like a canny strategy to be so forthright about branding your force as vitally necessary.

A Radical Police Rebranding That Starts With A Superb Website

Milwaukee PD’s clever new branding initiatives and stunning new site show how good design can be a smart investment, even for government agencies.

If the DMV is the physical manifestation of an inefficient and needlessly bureaucratic government, the websites of most government agencies do a fine job of bringing that frustration into the digital world. The overwhelming majority of them are disorganized, unsightly, and bursting at the seams with sections, sub-sections, buttons and links (often times in underlined blue text, betraying how hopelessly dated the pages really are). But the new website for the Milwaukee Police Department is different. It has a striking design, with vivid background images that stretch across the screen. A parallax scrolling effect makes photographs of officers and squad cars slide dynamically into place. And in perhaps the most radical departure from a typically labyrinthine police department site, Milwaukee Police News has only five different sections, and you don’t have to click any buttons or links to get to them.

The website shows the faces of real officers, and focuses on their community impact.

The project began about a year ago, when Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn visited the local office of design agency Cramer-Krasselt to talk about building a new site for the force. The idea was to create a destination for accurate, up-to-date information about the work his officers were doing in the community. "The police department—" explained Chris Jacobs, a senior vice president at Cramer-Krasselt, "they’re in stuff every day. Bad stuff usually. Some of it very good stuff. But the public out there only really sees it in quick clips or snippets on the news, and they don’t really get the whole story. So there were a lot of facts and things that weren’t being told correctly. Yet, when the police department puts up the real interview or the real facts, it’s usually in locations and places that nobody’s going to see." On the most basic level, the site had to provide police news in a clear and coherent way, whether the user was a concerned citizen or a member of the press making sure he had the facts right.

To figure out what he was trying to avoid, Jacobs and his team printed out the entire online existence for the NYPD, LAPD, and Boston PD, including their sprawling websites, Facebook and Twitter accounts. "We put that whole world up on a wall," he said. "It was pretty awful." The sites were not only deficient aesthetically, but organizationally, too. They all suffered from the problem I mentioned above: too many buttons; too many pages.

The website redesign started a process of rethinking police advertising.

The new site’s answer to these problems is "The Source," a direct feed from the department to the community. As it’s described on the site, it offers "genuine, unfiltered information" about what officers are up to. "We’ll correct the news stories that got it wrong," the section’s description reads, "and we’ll highlight the ones that got it right. Most importantly, we’ll create our own content, so you can see what the Milwaukee Police Department is really accomplishing in the community." Such a feed is undoubtedly a valuable resource, but the danger is creating a system that’s too ambitious to be updated consistently and accurately by an already overburdened police force. Their solution is a clever one: Any time Anne Schwartz, the department’s communications director, updates the agency’s official Twitter or Facebook pages, The Source is automatically updated with that new information.

Scrolling down from The Source reveals the other four sections of the site (you can use a hovering menu to jump to your desired area, but the entirety of the site is arranged in one continuous column). There’s a section that displays some departmental statistics in nice big type, a section dedicated to publicizing Milwaukee’s Most Wanted, another highlighting the heroic acts of the officers on the force, and a final page providing some relevant links for common concerns like how to pay a parking ticket or how to get an accident report.

What it all amounts to is a police department site that’s as informative as it is eye-catching. And that latter aspect—the idea that the site serves as a way to extend the department’s visual brand—is certainly not lost on Jacobs or Chief Flynn. In fact, Jacobs told me, Flynn has been mindful of his force’s design details from the moment he took the job. One of the first things he did when he arrived in town to head the department was to change the look of the police cars, repainting them in a handsome black and white and hand-picking a new typeface for the text on their doors. When he first saw those redesigned cars around four years ago, Jacobs told me, they looked so good he thought it had to be accidental. "It’s rare to run into a police car and say, 'Damn, that type has taste.'"

The incoming chief immediately changed the design of the police car livery.

But soon thereafter, the new chief paid a visit to Jacobs’s agency to talk about how they might be able to enhance the department’s visual presence in the city. During the conversation, Flynn explained that the police cars’ new look was, in fact, entirely deliberate, and it was then that Jacobs realized what good fortune he’d had: He was living in a major metropolitan city in which the guy in charge of keeping people safe was enthusiastic about the possibility of good design to help him do so. What followed was a campaign of flyers and television commercials that greatly increased the department’s visibility in the community. The new site, which was designed pro-bono by Cramer-Krasselt and developed by LISS Interactive in New York, is only the latest product of this relationship.

Of course, a police department with a flair for design might find its detractors. Jacobs pointed out to me that beautiful design can create a sense of premium, and "tax payers don’t like premium-looking government things." Schwartz, the communication director, presented the new site at a recent conference for chiefs of police in San Diego, and if other cities want to follow the MPD’s lead and create their own swanky digital destinations, the premium issue is something they’ll have to keep in mind. In this case, the citizens of Milwaukee didn’t have to pay a dime for their new website, and, as far as other cities go, Jacobs is convinced that departments would find their own local designers willing to help out, if only they’d ask.

Even the caution tape has been rethought as a branding device for the police.

So far, the new site’s traffic is up 2,000%, though a good deal of that can probably be attributed to the buzz the site’s been getting amongst designers around the world. Still, Jacobs says overall the reaction from the community, from citizens and reporters to the officers themselves, has been very positive. His hope is that the site will eventually develop into a place where information flows not only out of the department but into it as well—an online hub where police and citizens can interact more fluidly. "If this site can eventually become not just informative but an actionable tool to help the police do their work, that’s huge," he said. But even as it exists now, Milwaukee Police News shows how good design can be a sound investment, even for government agencies. At a time when police departments across the nation are suffering from budget cuts and struggling to recruit qualified new officers, a stronger visual brand, online or otherwise, will only help amplify their presence in their communities. And when you consider how central technology is to crime fighting today, a functional website hardly seems frivolous. In addition to helping citizens find the information they’re looking for, such a site can go a long way to making the public familiar with their protectors and confident in their abilities. I’d take a force with a premium site over one with blue hyperlinks any day.

Take a look at Milwaukee Police News here.

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27 Comments

  • Laurent Bourscheidt

    Ah! the multi-layer vertical scrolling site that fits on one page...it always please.
    Next step bring in a fashion designer to restyle these awful non ironed, oversized uniforms. 

  • Mickey

    Interesting to note that Milwaukee has a long history of progressive initiatives and innovation as it relates to their police departments and policing. Their efforts often seem to be a step ahead of the crowd. Other city's police departments will probably make similar changes in the near future.

  • Diami Virgilio

    Interesting design aesthetic, but this is a prime example of style over substance. It reinforces an idea of what the police do and who they are, but to whom? Certainly not the people and neighborhoods most affected by crime. It makes the police seem like militarist video game characters as some others have said rather than how their image should be focused: As community resources.

    The idea of the officer as enforcer is not helpful to altering the public image of policing. The officer is a public servant and that's the ideal that should inform the imagery. 

  • Enough

    The new scheme normalizes the paramilitary approach to policing when the police need to move more towards humanity and keeping the peace. Jumping out of vans with mp5s and ballistic helmets is an image for the military, not the former "peace officers" turned "law enforcers."

  • Mister mister

    The site is great; people need to understand that this is a branding device that attempts to get people identified with the ENFORCERS (maybe that is the reason for a more approachable branding, to stop people looking at police with a bad connotation). I understand the opinions of developers who complain about the heavy js, but where are in 2012, trying to make it work without it is going back to awful table-based websites.

  • $6393360

    Looks good, but the interface is confusing (to me, and I'm a web developer) and slow (on a six-core CPU in Chrome, FF and IE) and doesn't work at all without Javascript. I think the designer got carried away, and that whatever points the site scores on design, it loses everywhere else.

  • krzystoff_oz

    a stunning result, I hope it inspires many more examples of this standard of web diesng -- the only issue I have is the criminals may see their mugshot on this Most Wanted List as a huge status symbol.

  • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

    the logo placement is a sore thumb. what a great site, but the logo in a box? could have look sweet in white strokes. maybe too lazy to recreate it or it was legal to touch (and retouch) everything else but the logo?

  • jonsenc

    I like the idea/concept of the site, but I really do not like the pictures. Why? Because it looks like a bunch of actors/models posting for an advertisement. Also, the photo retouch is wayyy over the top. The photos make the police look too stylized and glamourous.

    I'd perfer actual photos of the police doing something reason (and less retouched). Things such as, talking to a eye-witness at the scene of the crime; police arresting someone; police conforming someone; police on street patrol. That would make me feel that the police are real people and less magazine models. 

  • krzystoff_oz

    reading between the lines you seem uncomfortable with change and fresh thinking.  this is an ultra-contemporary style for websites, along the lines of contemporary TV being made in a cinematic way with movie directors.  typically it costs a great deal more (than website templates with stock photos), it may not have the same level of function but the result is more visually exciting, memorable and helps to focus the readers' attention on the intended subject matter.

  • Kim D'Alton

    Great website, I like the simplicity especially when compared to the offering of of my local police here in Western Australia. Photo treatment is very interesting, in away it reminds me some of the material the makers of "Call of Duty" or "Battlefied 3" put out for their game promotions my eldest son is so keen on. Perhaps with the trust that Cramer-Krasselt has built with the Milwaukee PD Chief Jacob might give them a go at rebranding the entire organisation. Why do the Police Forces of the US generally need to look so intimidating? To me it really projects a siege mentality. Have a look at the Dutch Politie (google search - Politie images) these guys look cool.
    Kim D'Alton, Tangelo Creative

  • Bob Jacobson

    The police in the US are increasingly paramilitary. The Homeland Security Department -- a paean to militarism -- gave local police $14 billion in military ware including space-age antiriot heat rays and drones galore. The website's merely a reflection of policing as a videogame, an interesting recursion as best-selling videogames have been portraying Crime vs. Law and Order as a shooter fantasy for years. Note the real-life worst thieves, the bankers who stole trillions are never targets. Their crimes don't make for cool visuals or animations.

  • Numa

    The can put all the lipstick, high heels and fancy pants they like on the Police, the fact of the matter is that they are still enforcers for the corporate fascists that run the  open prison called the United states company head quartered in Washington DC, To them its a job, to all who are awake they are instruments used to implement the destruction of the US constitution. The USA is a corporation not a country, For details google the statement

  • Ccreativegroup

    Amazing work! I come across many boring sites when it comes to government or public works and this is by far very impactful as it is insightful and informative.

  • Trinity Alps

    Beautiful, but putting a pretty face on cops, creeps me out, just as do the military ads. Is glamorizing a deadly force a good thing?

  • jacob

    I applaud the effort and site certainly looks nice, especially the magazine-style photos. It makes the officers look heroic, and I'm sure many of them are, so that's good. It seems like a perfect recruiting brochure. But for an random citizen just looking for basic info I think the glamour actually hides/confuses what could be the real functions of the website. Like, How do I pay a parking ticket? That info is kinda buried.

  • Lars

    Totally agree - I want to pay a parking ticket, I want to find a police report, I want to file a police report, I want to find out where my car was towed, I want to actually contact the police, I want to contact a certain person at the police department,  I want to reach my local precinct, I want to talk to their community outreach . . . these things aren't really represented.