Stopping and questioning citizens is a routine police activity but it’s also controversial, especially in communities of color where frisking can quickly follow the questions, and the relationship between police and residents can be tense. Today, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee charging that the police department conducts a “vast stop-and-frisk program” that is unconstitutional and targets black and Latino people.
The lawsuit describes six black and Latino plaintiffs as innocent people who were doing nothing wrong — they were walking to a friend’s house, visiting family, pulling into a gas station and walking home from campus. It also states that at various times, each of the six was either stopped, or stopped and frisked, by police who offered little if any explanation about why they were being detained. The lawsuit alleges each plaintiff was subject to intrusive questioning, made to suffer the humiliation and indignity of being wrongfully branded a criminal suspect due to his or her ethnicity. One of the plaintiffs, a 16-year-old minor represented by his mother, was allegedly stopped once when he was in fifth grade, again in seventh grade, and also in high school.
The ACLU charges that’s not an unfamiliar situation for tens of thousands of people the Milwaukee police allegedly target without reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing — the legal requirement for a police stop — making the program unconstitutional. The ACLU claims racial profiling drives the practice with preliminary data showing significant disparities between police stop rates for white people compared to those for blacks and Latinos.
The ACLU says the combined number of Milwaukee traffic and pedestrian stops by police nearly tripled over an 8 year period to 196,000 in 2015.
ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Nusrat Choudhury notes, “In New York City, crime rates continued to fall even after it ended a similar program when a federal judge ruled it was unconstitutional.”
In a statement released today, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn says, “the Milwaukee Police Department has never used the practice of ‘stop and frisk,’ nor has there been a quota system for traffic stops.” Flynn adds, “traffic stops in high crime areas have been proven to reduce the number of non-fatal shootings, robberies and motor vehicle thefts.”
The Milwaukee Police Department recently released 2016 crime data that indicates 79 percent of the city’s homicide victims and 81 percent of homicide suspects were African-American. Flynn says no discussion about the Milwaukee police department’s crime tactics can occur without referring to the high rates of violent crime and the “hyper-victimization” of disadvantaged communities of color.
Flynn adds that during the last nine years, citizen complaints have been on a significant decline while favorable public opinion of the Milwaukee Police Department has been on the rise, despite the increase in “pro-active police activity.”
In December 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice began what’s called a “collaborative reform initiative” in Milwaukee to examine the use of force, stop and frisk and other issues. The report, due out soon, is more of an assessment of what the department can change voluntarily unlike other DOJ investigations where changes are mandated by a court. The ACLU says the recommendations that will come from that process don’t carry the force of law and their class action lawsuit, seeks more binding reforms. Those include improved training and discipline for officers and collecting data on stop and frisks that do occur to ensure there are no constitutional violations.