Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and a law firm filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Milwaukee Police department of operating a “vast and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program” that targeted African-Americans and Latinos. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six plaintiffs who had been stopped, sometimes multiple times, by officers with no reasonable suspicion that they were involved in criminal behavior.
Former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn denies that the department engaged in racially motivated stop-and-frisk practices. He acknowledged that the department had a policy of concentrating traffic stops in high-crime areas.
Milwaukee, however, has long been scrutinized for its treatment of African-Americans. Recently, Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown accused the police of excessive force when they used a stun gun on him after an alleged parking violation. Last year, Milwaukee paid $2.3 million to the family of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot to death by police in 2014.
NPR reported in 2013 that over half of all African-American Milwaukeeans in their 30s and 40s have been incarcerated. Nearly two thirds of them reside in the city’s six poorest zip codes.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that African-Americans were the targets of 72 percent of police stops between 2010 and 2012. At the time, they made up merely 34 percent of the City of Milwaukee’s population. African Americans were seven times more likely to be stopped by police than whites, and Hispanics were five times more likely.
According to the ACLU and ACLU of Wisconsin, between 2010 and 2017, Milwaukee police made over 350,000 unlawful stops. Between 2007 and 2015, they nearly tripled their traffic and pedestrian stops. That appears to correspond with the launch of the stop-and-frisk program in 2008.
One of the plaintiffs is an African-American military veteran who has lived in Milwaukee for over 55 years. “If I’m going out, I’m always looking over my shoulder even though I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said when the suit was filed.
That’s no way to live, and it is evidence of unlawful policing. Under the Fourth Amendment, police must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before they can pull over a car or stop and frisk a pedestrian. A person’s race and the location of their residence do not provide reasonable suspicion, even if they live in a high-crime area.
Despite the former police chief’s denial, the city council has approved a $3.4 million settlement. The settlement also requires the department to release data to the public about all their traffic and pedestrian stops. In addition, it requires officers to be trained on how to avoid racial profiling and subjects the department to independent oversight.