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ACLU Sues Over MPD’s Racially Biased Traffic Stop Policy

Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be stopped than whites

Feb. 28, 2017
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Imagine parking your car along Water Street so you can take a walk Downtown. As you approach the fountain at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, police officers stop you, question you, obtain your driver’s license and run a warrant search, then let you go. You did nothing illegal. You were merely walking down the street. You’d been stopped two times in the previous two years while driving, but you were never charged with a violation.


Now imagine you’re a 67-year-old military veteran driving home on Atkinson Avenue with your wife after visiting your son. A police car pulls up behind you and pulls you over. You hand the officer your driver’s license and the officer sees you have a concealed carry permit. The officer asks if you have a gun in the car. You don’t and tell him so. The officer runs a warrant search with your license and gives it back to you, letting you go without a citation or warning. You did nothing illegal. You were merely driving home with your wife.


Imagine you’re 11 years old and you’re on your friend’s porch, waiting for him to come to the door. An officer pulls up in the alley next to your friend’s house, beckons you over, puts his arm around your shoulders and escorts you to the patrol car, where he questions you and takes away your cell phone. The officer then pats you down from your chest to your legs, pats down your arms, and tells you to put your hands on the hood of the police car. You do so. You’re in the fifth grade. Your friend’s dad comes out and asks the officer why he’s searching you, a little kid. The officer tells him that he was trying to be cautious.

Your mom later talks to a sergeant at the district station to get some answers. He tells her that the Milwaukee Police Department has “a policy to stop young men walking through alleys.” The sergeant tells her she can file a complaint, but she doesn’t because the MPD had been so uncooperative up until then. Her son, who was merely standing on his friend’s porch, did nothing illegal.

You’re stopped by police again two years later, while walking home from a friend’s house, and one more time three years after that, when you are walking to the bus stop to go to school. The police never ticket you.


Imagine you’re a grad student at UW-Milwaukee, walking home after studying for a final. Two officers on bikes circle you, then as you walk past them, an officer says, “We didn’t smell any marijuana until we passed you. Do you have any weed on you?” You don’t, and tell them so. The officer then asks you if you’ve got anything in your backpack or on you. You say no, that you don’t smoke marijuana. The officers leave without ticketing you. You did nothing illegal. You were merely walking home from campus. You call the district to complain that you’d been stopped and questioned based on no reasonable suspicion of criminality. You later realize that your complaint was never investigated by the police or its oversight body, the Fire and Police Commission.


Imagine you’re an 18-year-old college student driving your friends and cousin home after seeing a concert at Summerfest. As you’re driving a minivan on West Hampton Avenue, two patrol cars make a U-turn, activate their emergency lights and pull you over in front of your cousin’s house. Four officers approach the car, raise their flashlights and draw their guns. The officers ask you and the male passengers to hand over your IDs and ask where you’re coming from and whether there are weapons or alcohol in the minivan. There isn’t. One officer makes your cousin get out of the van, frisks him, handcuffs him and makes him sit on the curb in front of his own house.

The passengers ask why they’ve been stopped. One officer says the van’s registration was faulty. Another said he thought your cousin had reached for something on the floor or under the seat. A third officer said your cousin wasn’t wearing a seatbelt before they were pulled over, even though the back seat isn’t visible from the outside because of tinted side rear windows. The officers return the ID cards to you and your passengers and let you go without being ticketed. You did nothing illegal. You were merely driving home from Summerfest.


Imagine you’re driving home from your son’s house with your 4-year-old granddaughter in the back seat. As you’re driving through Bay View, an MPD patrol car’s emergency lights activate and it pulls up behind you. The officers get out and ask you for your driver’s license. You’ve accidentally left it at home in your purse. The officers aggressively question you and make you so nervous you misstate your age when asked.

The officers force you to get out and shine a flashlight into the car, where your granddaughter is crying. The police follow you home so you can show them your driver’s license. Without asking your permission, they enter your home with you and one of them grabs your purse and dumps the contents on your dining table. You and your granddaughter are crying.

The officer asks if you know that you’ve been in an area known for drugs, and produces a small piece of foil with burn marks on it, which he says he found in your car. He says it’s heroin. You don’t have anything to do with drugs. The officers leave without charging you.

The next day you call the district to complain. The officer says you were stopped because you failed to stop at a traffic light. But there is no traffic light at the intersection on Kinnickinnic Avenue where the officers stopped you. You fill out a citizen’s complaint form and submit it to the Fire and Police Commission. As far as you know, the officers were never held accountable for pulling you over for no reason, searching your car and entering your home. You did nothing illegal. You were merely driving home with your granddaughter.


High Volume of Stops

If you’re a white Milwaukeean, it would be hard to imagine going about your daily routine and being stopped by a police officer merely for driving home, walking around Downtown, or being a kid standing on your friend’s front porch or walking to school. If it happened to you, you’d be outraged.

But if you’re an African American or Latino Milwaukeean, you probably don’t have to imagine these encounters. It’s far more likely that this is your reality. 

In fact, these stories are the reality of six African American and Latino Milwaukeeans who shared their experiences with attorneys from the ACLU of Wisconsin, the national ACLU and the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Covington & Burling, who filed a federal class-action suit last week on behalf of the six plaintiffs alleging that these police encounters, which are far more likely to happen to black and brown Milwaukeeans, violate the Fourth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The defendants are the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission and MPD Chief Edward Flynn. 

In Collins et al. v. The City of Milwaukee et al., they argue that since 2008, MPD Chief Flynn has implemented a “saturation patrol” strategy and directs officers to increase the number of traffic and pedestrian stops, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These stops often lack the constitutionally required reasonable suspicion for police encounters and violate the Fourth Amendment, the attorneys say.

Under Flynn’s leadership, these stops have skyrocketed. According to MPD data presented in the lawsuit, MPD traffic and pedestrian stops tripled from 66,657 in 2007, before Flynn’s directive, to 196,434 in 2015. The number may be higher, since officers may not be reporting every encounter, the suit states.

They attorneys also say that the traffic and pedestrian stops lack the reasonable suspicion officers need to contact a member of the public. Looking at MPD’s data, they found that 42% of the 34,920 stops between 2010 and 2012 “lack any identified reason that could plausibly show that an MPD officer had individualized, objective and articulable reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the stop.” Reasons cited by officers included “null,” “suspicious circumstances,” “suspicious person” or “suspicious vehicle.”


Targeting Black and Latino Milwaukeeans

The suit also alleges that the police target African Americans and Latinos, which violates the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. According to the ACLU’s analysis of MPD data, black Milwaukeeans were the targets of 72% of the officers’ traffic stops from 2010 through 2012, even though they make up 34% of the city’s population. They point to a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis showing that MPD officers were seven times more likely to stop a black driver than a white driver, and five times more likely to stop a Latino driver than a white driver.

In a feisty press conference after the ACLU announced their suit, Chief Flynn asserted that “our strategy is firmly grounded in evidence-based policing practices and constitutional practices,” saying that officers are targeting hot spots in disadvantaged neighborhoods because that’s where the data show the crime is.

While Flynn is robustly defending his policy as a data-driven policing strategy, the attorneys argue that not only are the MPD’s suspicionless stops unconstitutional, they erode the trust between the department and the minority communities they are supposed to protect and serve.

Even worse, perhaps, is the toll these stops take on Milwaukee’s African American and Latino residents. The frequent stops are inconvenient and disruptive, make drivers late for work, create unnecessary stress and produce near-constant anxiety about being targeted by the police and treated like a criminal suspect for simply driving home or walking down a Downtown street.

“Since I’ve been living in Wisconsin I’ve gotten to a point where I’m always looking over my shoulder,” said Charles Collins, the lead plaintiff in the case, the 67-year-old military veteran who was stopped by the MPD for no apparent reason while he was driving home with his wife. “There’s an anxiety when I go out and take a ride down the street. My eyes are always poised to see if there is a police man in my vicinity…. I worry about that a lot. That’s my experience with that. That’s my experience as a black man in Milwaukee.”

The ACLU is collecting stories of those who’ve been affected by the MPD’s policy. To fill out the ACLU’s police harassment questionnaire, go to http://bit.ly/mkepolice.


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