Criminal Justice

ACLU To File Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Milwaukee Over Stop-and-Frisk

A class-action federal civil rights lawsuit argues the Milwaukee Police Department's suspicionless stop-and-frisk practices are unconstitutional.

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Charles Collins // Joshua Lott/ACLU

One spring evening in 2014, Charles Collins, a 67-year-old black Milwaukee resident, was driving back home with his wife. They had just dropped off their grandchild at their son's house after a day of babysitting.

"We were returning home, driving along, talking, just having a great interaction. You know, wife and husband, kicking it," Collins recalls. "Out of nowhere a policeman pulled up behind us with lights on."

When the Milwaukee police officer approached Collins and asked for his license, Collins handed it over and asked if there was any problem with his car of if he'd been speeding.

"We're not the ticket police," the officer replied, according to Collins.

The officer noticed Collin's concealed handgun license and asked him if he had any weapons in the car. When Collins said no, the officer went back to his cruiser, returned a short while later, handed Collins' license back, and let them go. The officer never said why he pulled Collins over.

The husband and wife drove away, stunned and confused. Although not too confused. The same thing had happened to Collins several times over the years, just as it had to his son and many of his friends, both young and old.

"As a brother or black man living in Milwaukee, it's not an unusual thing," Collin says. "When I leave my home, I leave with apprehension. Not that it's in your face, but it's there. I feel there's a good possibility that I'll get shot or pulled over. It's in me, you know what I'm saying? I can feel it."

Now Collins is one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union is filing against the Milwaukee Police Department for operating what it says is an unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk program.

The ACLU lawsuit, to be filed early Wednesday morning, alleges the Milwaukee Police Department subjects city residents like Collins to high-volume, suspicionless stops and searches as part of a quota system, violating their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

"The named plaintiffs' experiences of being stopped, frisked, and searched by MPD officers without legal justification are far from isolated incidents," the lawsuit says, according to a copy obtained by Reason. "They are the result of the MPD's high-volume, suspicionless stop-andfrisk program, which violates both the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures and the prohibition against racial and ethnic profiling under the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act."

While police officers have the authority to pull someone over if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, "the problem arises when officers are stopping someone for no good reason, which is exactly what's happening in many instances in Milwaukee," ACLU attorney Jason Williamson says in an interview. "All the plaintiffs in this case were going about their daily lives, visiting friends, driving home from a relative's house. To have that life disrupted by the police for no good reason is traumatic and illegal."

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, who has led the department since 2008, is a steadfast disciple of the "broken windows" theory of policing—the idea that heavy police presence in a community, combined with proactive enforcement of low-level nuisance crimes, will deter more serious crimes. The theory gained prominence, and notoriety, in New York City in the early '90s, where it was embraced by city officials and loathed in many of the minority communities subjected to it.

Flynn has also adopted New York City's CompStat model, which relies on sophisticated technology and statistics to monitor crime trends and measure individual officers' performance.

Under Flynn, the combined number of Milwaukee police traffic and pedestrian stops nearly tripled between 2007 and 2015, rising from 66,657 in 2007 to 196,434 in 2015, according to the lawsuit. The ACLU says CompStat's devotion to numbers turned these stops into a both formal and informal quota system for officers.

And digging into those numbers revealed minorities bore the brunt of this police saturation. A 2011 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found black drivers were seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as white drivers, and twice as likely to be searched by police.

However, Flynn has defended the strategy, saying it logically focuses on neighborhoods where crime occurs most.

"Here's what's disproportionate to me," Flynn said in a 2013 interview. "With about 40 percent of Milwaukee's population, African-Americans represent 80 percent of our homicide victims. They represent 60 percent of our robbery victims and 80 percent of our aggravated assault victims."

Flynn had his work cut out for him when he took over the Milwaukee Police Department in 2008. It was a troubled department in one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., already suffering from poor community relations, and while he was devoted to improving police work—he rewrote the code of conduct and transferred hundreds of officers out of their cruisers and put them on foot patrols so they could interact with residents—his department continued to be plagued by problem officers and several high profile police shootings.

In 2014, shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of police, a Milwaukee police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old man with a history of mental illness, during an altercation. Hamilton had been sleeping on a park bench when the officer confronted him and tried to pat him down. The officer was fired, but the incident sparked protests and calls for major reforms in the city's police force.

"We were in touch with our local affiliate in Milwaukee," Willamson says of the ACLU's involvement shortly after Hamilton's death, "and it was clear to us that there was a long history in the city of contentious relations between the Milwaukee Police Department and communities of color, and that there was a serious lack of trust that had developed because people in black and latino communities didn't feel like they were being treated fairly by police just on a day-to-day basis. The more we dug into it and more people we spoke to the more we realized this was something we needed to try and address."

Over the past several years, dozens of Milwaukee residents have filed lawsuits against the Milwaukee Police Department for unconstitutional stops. In 2016, the city paid out $5 million to 74 black residents who said they were illegally strip searched. However, Wednesday's suit is only the third in the U.S. challenge the practice at an institutional level in a large U.S. city.

Other major cities have fared poorly defending stop-and-frisk policies. Philadelphia entered into a consent decree in 2011 as a result of a lawsuit. In 2013, a federal judge ruled the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Investigations by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found similar patterns of unconstitutional stops and searches in Baltimore and Chicago.

Flynn has continued to defend stop-and-frisk tactics overall, although he said the NYPD's policy continued long after drops in crime should have led to its end, creating resentment within New York City minority communities. "There's no question it worked," Flynn said of New York's stop-and-frisk program last year. "Going from 2,200 homicides to under 300 homicides."

However, the NYPD Inspector General released a report last year that found no correlation between the NYPD's enforcement of low-level crimes and drops in more serious crime. And after the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk essentially ended, crime in New York City continued to drop.

One of the other plaintiffs in the ACLU suit, a juvenile identified only as D.A., was stopped three times by Milwaukee police, according to the lawsuit: once when he was in fifth grade on a friend's porch; again in 7th grade, while cutting through an alley on the way to a friend's house; and again in high school, while walking to school. In every instance, the lawsuit says, he had done nothing.

"Yes, of course, we are going to stop lots of innocent people," Flynn said in his defense of his department in 2011. "The point is, do folks understand what their role is as a cooperative citizen in having a safe environment. That level of inconvenience, if it's coupled with respectful treatment, is something communities will accept to be safe."

But that argument holds little legal water for Williamson.

"There's been some suggestion in Milwaukee and other parts of the country that, if you are a resident in a neighborhood that has a crime problem, you should be willing to forgo some of your rights for the safety of your community, and is it too much to ask to stop you for a minute or two to make sure everyone is safe?" he said. "It can't be underestimated how humiliating and degrading these sorts of interactions are, to be treated like a criminal suspect, I don't care how long the encounter lasts. It is not a small price to pay for people who are living in these communities to have to deal with this, and it's not an unreasonable request for people to want to have their communities protected without ceding their constitutional rights in exchange."

It makes even less sense for Collins, whose experience as a data point in the Milwaukee Police Department's CompStat program left him feeling no safer.

"I'm cruising along, not speeding, my wife and I having a conversation," he says. "We're not doing anything. It's a nice evening. Sun's going down. Stopping me, how's that helping anything? I understand crime, but how's that going to help me?"

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  1. Oh, man. I can’t figure out what happened.

  2. Police Chief Flynn: “There’s no question it worked.” There you have it – the one and only criterion for judging the worthiness of a program is whether it reduces crime. Sadly, most Americans would agree.

  3. Are you black?

  4. “Here’s what’s disproportionate to me,” Flynn said in a 2013 interview. “With about 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, African-Americans represent 80 percent of our homicide victims. They represent 60 percent of our robbery victims and 80 percent of our aggravated assault victims.”

    87.5% of Milwaukee’s constitutional abuse victims?

  5. “There’s been some suggestion in Milwaukee and other parts of the country that, if you are a resident in a neighborhood that has a crime problem, you should be willing to forgo some of your rights for the safety of your community, and is it too much to ask to stop you for a minute or two to make sure everyone is safe?” he said. “It can’t be underestimated how humiliating and degrading these sorts of interactions are, to be treated like a criminal suspect, I don’t care how long the encounter lasts.

    Probably not as humiliating as dying in a puddle of blood in the street.

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  8. I saw cotton and I saw black
    Tall white mansions and little shacks.
    Southern man when will you pay them back?
    I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking
    How long? How long?

    I don’t know why all the blacks don’t move up North where they don’t get all this racist bullshit like they do in Southern cities like Milwaukee and Chicago and New York and Boston.

    1. I still recall getting a democratic fund-raisng letter in the 80s (I think it was signed by George McGovern) that used the beyond-a-cliche verbal image of a white southern sheriff pulling over a black man to try to get me to send a check.

      1. I love the scene in the Wire when McNulty and Kima head to VA, and McNulty tries to ingratiate himself with the big old fat white Southern sheriff with some racist comments, and it turns out Sheriff Billy Bob has a black wife, and thinks McNulty is a piece of shit.

      2. I love the scene in the Wire when McNulty and Kima head to VA, and McNulty tries to ingratiate himself with the big old fat white Southern sheriff with some racist comments, and it turns out Sheriff Billy Bob has a black wife, and thinks McNulty is a piece of shit.

      3. A white southern sheriff pulled over a black man to try to get you to send a check?

  9. But WOD

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  11. This type of harassment happens to whites too. I used to live in Ormond Beach, FL and I enjoyed walking. That activity was frowned upon in my neighborhood and I was continually stopped by the police who wanted ID and wanted to know where I lived and what I was doing. Sucks to be profiled but I chalk it up to the collateral damage of crime.

  12. If you are going to write a story about stop-n-frisk, wouldn’t it be a good idea if your lead in character was actually frisked? I read it carefully and not only does Charles not mention being frisked, the officer saw he had a CCW permit, asked if a gun was in the car, and when Charles said no, the officer accepted that and let him go. Yes/No?

    Expected better writing at Reason.

  13. While something as completely unprovoked as what happened to this guy is unacceptable… I do think the general concept of “jump on top of problems extra hard” in bad neighborhoods seems to be a generally sound idea.

    Let’s be honest here… Several kids hanging out at a park in the suburbs at 9PM after school on a weeknight are 99% likely to not be doing anything too horrible. If you’re talking about a group of kids in an extra sketchy neighborhood in Chicago maybe it’s only 95% likely they’re not up to anything horrible.

    So I would say it’s reasonable to have more cops patrolling that sketchy neighborhood, and if they see something that ACTUALLY looks sketchy (not absolutely nothing fishy like with this guy) to then go in for a closer look. If they see something bad going down deal with it.

    That seems to me that it would piss people off some, but also deter crime. It think the key thing would be to maybe “take a closer look,” but not necessarily go immediately into interaction if everything looks good. They may be mad about getting the stink eye, but that seems less bad than actually having the cop talk to you/ask for ID etc.

    I hate cops to a large degree on principle (LOL), but they are a necessary evil. If I lived in a bad neighborhood I feel like I would dislike the cops less than I do now since they might actually be useful to my day to day life more, but I dunno…

  14. The old saying is true: If you want respect, show respect. Since the goal is a neighborhood that appreciates others and respects the law, showing respect is the best start. An effective police presence can be positive and respectful. A cop doesn’t have to pull people over, show disrespect, etc. in order to reduce problem behaviour. I have seen examples in the past but don’t have references. Hopefully some of you do.

    My personal experience is much milder. My wife, daughter, and I strove to be the most respectful, inviting, and joyful people in our old neighborhood. I would smile and wave to everyone I met. The neighborhood was mixed and virtually all recent imagrants, so it took a while to catch on. We taught the neighborhood kids how to carve a Halloween pumpkin, play limbo, paint a t-shirt, make a gingerbread house, etc. A small number rejected this, but on the whole that neighborhood is now very friendly, and we get lots of smiles and invitations whenever stop by. I shared my philosophy with several:
    ? If I am inviting and respectful to all, if I look closely at everyone and try to see who they really are, the people who deserve it will feel welcome.
    ? People who are casing the neighborhood or looking for trouble, tend to pursue trouble elsewhere.

  15. I looked at the check for $8628 , I didnt believe that…my… father in law was like actualie taking home money in there spare time on there computar. . there sisters roommate haz done this for under 17 months and just cleard the morgage on there apartment and got a gorgeous Chevrolet Corvette . go to websit========= http://www.net.pro70.com

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