A new federal lawsuit accuses the Milwaukee Police Department of carrying out an “unconstitutional” stop-and-frisk program that disproportionately targets minority residents in the city.
The lawsuit, which the American Civil Liberties Union said it plans to file Wednesday, states that the program “has created and deepened public fear of and alienation from the MPD, particularly among black and Latino residents.” The plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit are black or Latino people who were stopped while walking or driving at least once — and some more often — and say they were detained and questioned.
“No matter where they are in the city, black and Latino people face the constant fear that they and their children may be subjected to police harassment even if they are doing nothing wrong,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit points to a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of traffic stops, which found that police were much more likely to pull over black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers. In an interview with the newspaper at the time, Edward Flynn, the city’s police chief, acknowledged racial disparities in responding to high-crime areas because he said those locations tend to have larger populations of minority residents.
“Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people,” Flynn said. “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.”
On Wednesday, Flynn pushed back against the lawsuit and denied its premise, saying that the Milwaukee police use “ethical and constitutional anti-crime strategies.”
“The Milwaukee Police Department has never used the practice of ‘stop and frisk,’ nor has there ever been a quota for traffic stops,” Flynn, who is named in the complaint, said in a written statement provided through a police spokesman. “However, traffic stops in high crime areas have been proven to reduce the number of non-fatal shootings, robberies, and motor vehicle thefts.”
Flynn continued by describing “the hyper-victimization of disadvantaged communities of color by high rates of violent crime” and added that the Milwaukee police department “considers it our moral duty to confront violence where it occurs.” He also said that during the last nine years, citizen complaints against his department have declined.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Tom Barrett (D) said that office did not comment on pending litigation. The city’s Fire and Police Commission, named in the ACLU complaint, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.
The “stop-and-frisk” policing tactic gained prominence in part because of its use in New York City, and critics have long said it overwhelmingly focused on minority communities. The tactic factored into national news headlines last year during the presidential campaign, as President Trump was a strong proponent of it and credited stop-and-frisk with driving down the crime rate in New York. (He also falsely claimed New York’s use of the policy was not ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.)
After proposing an expansion of stop-and-frisk nationwide, Trump later said he only meant to propose its adoption in Chicago, a city ravaged by gun violence that Trump has repeatedly mentioned during speeches, interviews and tweets.
According to the new lawsuit, the Milwaukee Police Department’s combined number of traffic and pedestrian stops surged to more than 196,000 in 2015, up from more than 66,000 in 2007. Most of the police interactions were traffic stops, the lawsuit states. The complaint accuses officers of stopping people without any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to help them appear productive, rather than for any law enforcement purposes, and says police have a “policy, practice and custom of targeting people” who have prior criminal records.
The lawsuit also alleges that targeting people with prior criminal records further focuses energy on minority residents, “because these groups are more likely to have past involvement with the criminal justice system due, in no small part, to saturation policing of their neighborhood and consequent citations for low-level offenses.”
The legal action comes just months after Milwaukee became the latest American city to experience violent public anger following a police officer fatally shooting a young black man. The unrest that came after a police officer fatally shot 23-year-old Sylville Smith in August following a traffic stop quickly led to gunshots fired through the night and numerous businesses being set on fire. The incident, in a city home to sharply segregated neighborhoods, exposed decades of simmering tension.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former Milwaukee officer who shot and killed Smith, was charged with homicide in the case in December. The Milwaukee police department had already fired him after he was arrested and charged with sexual assault and prostitution stemming from accusations made amid the violent demonstrations that followed Smith’s death.
Smith’s death is listed in the new lawsuit, along with the 2014 death of Dontre Hamilton, a man with mental health issues who Milwaukee police officer shot and killed. Christopher Manney, the officer who shot Hamilton, said that he had approached Hamilton, who was sleeping in a park in downtown Milwaukee, after a Starbucks employee contacted police about him. Manney said he tried to pat down Hamilton before the man began trying to punch him, a physical confrontation that ended with the officer firing 14 shots at Hamilton. Milwaukee’s district attorney and the Justice Department both said they would not charge Manney, who was fired for not following departmental policies.
The complaint also details allegations from plaintiffs who recount being stopped for what they describe as no reason. One man, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he was walking when two city police officers on bicycles stopped and questioned him about an odor of marijuana; another described being stopped while driving home at dusk and then allowed to leave without any charge or citation.
A woman driving her four-year-old granddaughter recalled being “aggressively questioned … in a threatening manner,” the lawsuit says, making her “extremely nervous” while the child cried in the back seat. After the woman told the officers she left her driver’s license at home, the complaint says, they followed her home and then “into the house without asking her permission” and dumped out the contents of her purse.
An officer also accused her of being “in an area known for drugs” and of having heroin-related materials in her car, the complaint says, though the woman told the officers “she did not know anything about heroin.” Police ultimately left. She then filed a complaint with the police department and was told that she had been stopped for going through a traffic light, even though the lawsuit states there is no traffic light where police first stopped her.
The ACLU says the lawsuit will be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
This story, first published Wednesday morning, has been updated to include the responses from the police chief and mayor’s office.