The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two black pastors wanted help with a flat tire. A sheriff’s deputy asked if they had guns or drugs.

Now a community group is investigating the sheriff’s department for racial bias.

Pastors Demetrius Williams of Community Baptist Church in Milwaukee (left) and John K. Patterson of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Milwaukee, (with microphone), speak at a news conference with Common Ground, a community organization. (Common Ground)

They were stuck on the side of a suburban highway, waiting for assistance. Instead, what they got was a jarring question from a sheriff’s deputy and a background check.

On the way home from a fishing trip in May, Demetrius Williams and John Patterson — both pastors at Baptist churches in Milwaukee — got a flat tire on their boat trailer. They pulled to the edge of the bustling interstate and called an insurance company. As they waited for a tow truck to help with a spare tire, a Waukesha County Sheriff’s car pulled up behind them, lights flashing.

A deputy, Erik Michalsen, approached the two pastors in the Chevrolet Silverado. After the men explained they were awaiting assistance for the flat, Michalsen, the men say, asked them if they had any drugs, guns or alcohol in the truck.

“Sir, we’re both pastors,” Williams remembers explaining. “We wouldn’t have anything like that.”

When the deputy asked for both men’s licenses, Williams felt himself growing agitated, confused at why they were being treated like criminals when they hadn’t even been pulled over and should have gotten help. Stay calm, he thought to himself. There’s no telling what might happen. When he asked the deputy why it was necessary see their licenses, the deputy said it was standard procedure.

Deputy Michalsen returned the licenses 10 minutes later and smacked an orange sticker — used to mark abandoned vehicles — on the side of the boat, even though the men had explained they were staying with the boat and waiting for service. The pastors were rattled.

“This isn’t right,” Williams said. “We’re sitting here waiting for roadside assistance, and this man is treating us like we’re criminals.”

By now, this story probably is not surprising. It is just the latest in a series of cautionary tales about doing ordinary things while black in America: going to Starbucks, mowing the lawn, eating at Subway, staying in an Airbnb, golfing. These stories do not end in death or great tragedy, but they are not without consequence. They are evidence of fear and tension tangled up in racially-charged encounters that unfold every day.

The nation is embroiled in a debate about the disparate treatment of black people after several incidents of apparent “overpolicing” across the U.S. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

That is why Common Ground, a community organization working on social issues in southeastern Wisconsin, has pressed the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department about the deputy’s process and is mounting an investigation on possible racial profiling by the department. The organization wants to see how bias might be shaping policing in its community and show there is still a fallout, even in the absence of violence.

“These kinds of cases get swept under the rug,” said Keisha Krumm, executive director of Common Ground. “This goes way beyond these two men. There’s a whole community of people affected by this every day.”

Since May, Common Ground has been trying to get an audience with the Waukesha County Sheriff to discuss the incident with the pastors and explore policing procedures. After months without success, they submitted written questions: Why hadn’t the deputy asked if they needed help, why did he ask about weapons and drugs, why did check both pastor’s licenses and why did sticker the boat even though they were waiting with it.

The department conducted an investigation without speaking to either Williams or Patterson. It explained Michalsen asks every driver he approaches about weapons and drugs and justified the rest with procedures for traffic stops, even though the pastors had not committed a moving violation and were not pulled over.

Sheriff Severson's findings

Now Common Ground is requesting records of Michalsen’s past 45 days of narratives from traffic stops and disabled vehicle interactions. It is also asking the community to share stories of contact with the sheriff’s department — both positive and negative.

“We have a suspicion this is a pattern, but we want proof,” Krumm said.

Abundant research of bias in policing has shown people of color are often treated differently by law enforcement in routine traffic stops. Black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely to be searched as white drivers, according to findings from the Stanford Open Policing Project, which analyzed data on more than 100 million traffic stops in 31 states.

In a written statement provided to The Washington Post, Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson said racially biased policing “is not trained, condoned or tolerated,” the department’s investigation found no violations of training, policy or procedure, and evidence did not show the deputy’s actions were racially motivated.

This was a small incident, relatively speaking. There were no bullets, no bloodshed. Encounters like these, that show how subconscious prejudices can shape our behavior, are most important to talk about, according to John Dovidio, a Yale psychology professor who studies implicit bias and race. It is tough to have a real dialogue when bias is only discussed in the context of tragedy, like police shootings of unarmed black men. With encounters that are less violent and emotionally charged, it is easier to reflect, to stay open and stave off defensiveness.

There is an instinct to brush off a minor aggression like this if you have never gone through the same thing, Dovidio said, but it is a mistake to underestimate the effect they can have.

“What microaggressions do is create a constant feeling of suspicion and stress,” Dovidio said. “If I’m a person of color, these pinches that come every single day in so many different ways shape my view of the world. It puts a barrier between me and members of other racial groups.

Recently, as Krumm was tucking her daughter into bed, the girl began to sob. She was worried the police were going to kill her, the 6-year-old said. As Krumm wiped her tears and assured her the police would not hurt a child, she said, she was stricken by the loss of innocence her daughter had already gone through. Bedtime stories are supposed to be about magic and fairy tales, but here she was, grappling with her little girl’s fears of being harmed by those who swear to serve and protect.

“Sheriff Severson doesn’t have to have this conversation with his child at bedtime,” Krumm said.

The Sunday following the incident, Williams shared his story as part of his sermon. He tried to use it as a chance to teach his congregation — especially the younger members — about staying composed in tough situations. He has kept them updated as the investigation progressed, hoping to teach something about the complexities of justice.

Every time he has brought it up, members of his church have come to him afterward, offering stories and fears akin to his. He knows each one is weight — invisible, constant and shared.