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ACLU: Milwaukee's own data shows illegal race-based police stops

Two criminal justice experts have cast serious doubt on the legality of many police activities in Milwaukee. Just as many African-Americans and Latinos have claimed for years, the evidence shows that they and their neighborhoods are being unfairly targeted for police stops and pat-down searches -- often with no legal basis.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and a law firm filed a civil rights lawsuit against Milwaukee for its stop-and-frisk program. The number of pedestrian and traffic stops under the program tripled between 2007 and 2015, from about 66,000 annually to 196,000 each year.

Yet the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires each and every police stop to be based on objectively reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Did that vast increase in stop-and-frisk activity represent police objectively observing three times the amount of criminal activity?

No. A former sheriff with more than 40 years of experience recently analyzed Milwaukee's own records of over 350,000 police stops of vehicles and pedestrians that occurred between 2010 and 2017. In almost half of those stops there was no evidence the police acted on reasonable suspicion. Even an observed traffic or vehicle equipment violation would have been acceptable, but it just wasn't there.

A law, economics and public policy expert from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and The Wharton School performed an analysis of Milwaukee's police stops. Even after controlling for non-race factors such as local crime rates, he found that African-Americans are stopped six times more often than whites -- even in areas that are predominantly white.

Has the explosion in stop-and-frisk activity caught many criminals or prevented crimes?

No. The professor also found that drugs and weapons were found in less than 1 percent of searches during traffic stops.

Does targeting African-Americans and Latinos actually catch more criminals?

No. According to the professor's analysis, searches of African-American and Latino drivers were over 20-percent less likely to uncover drugs than searches of white drivers. This was true even after controlling for factors not directly related to ethnicity or race.

Would stopping these police practices start a crime wave?

No. A federal court ordered New York to bring its stop-and-frisk program into line with the Fourth Amendment's requirements. That brought about a 98 percent drop in police stops between 2012 and 2016. Instead of a crime wave, New York has decreased to its lowest levels since the 1960s.

Milwaukee is not the only major metropolitan area with this problem. Expert analyses of police department data have found similar evidence of racial profiling in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia so far. Other departments, including others in Wisconsin, may also be engaging in these pointless and illegal practices. 

Race-based police stops have backfired, and it's time to put an end to them. Police damage their relationship with the very communities they seek to protect.  The results cause a distrust in the criminal justice system and an unwillingness to cooperate with police investigations. Lavigne Fontaine & Swivedi, "How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police," Urban Institute (Feb. 2017). 

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