Racial gap persists in Milwaukee PD’s use of stop and frisk practices, annual report states

ACLU blasts department for still not complying fully with 2018 Collins settlement

By: - September 26, 2023 5:45 am
A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A Milwaukee police squad in front of the Municipal Court downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin is accusing the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) of not complying with key provisions of a  five-year-old legal settlement that mandated an end to racial profiling stop and frisk practices in Milwaukee.

Citing the latest annual report from the Crime and Justice Institute, which evaluates MPD’s compliance with the 2018 Collins settlement, the ACLU noted that rate of stop and frisk encounters with Black Milwaukeeans remains far higher than for other races. “The report also finds that MPD officers continue to stop and frisk people without reasonable suspicion, as required by law, at rates that violate the settlement,” the ACLU stated in a press release. Black residents of driving age, the report found, are 4.5 times more likely to get stopped than white drivers, over 10 times as likely to undergo a non-traffic field interview by officers, eight times more likely to experience a frisk-based encounter, and over twice as likely to be frisked once stopped by law enforcement.

The Collins settlement required the MPD and Fire and Police Commission to change policies related to stop and frisk. MPD was also required to document when the tactic is used as well as improve training, supervision and auditing. In addition, the settlement required the department to consistently discipline officers for inappropriate stop and frisk practices.

The Milwaukee Police Administration Building downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee Police Administration Building downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

MPD’s citizen complaint process was also required to be overhauled, and a Milwaukee Community Collaborative Committee was supposed to be maintained. As part of the settlement, MPD was also required to release stop and frisk data publicly, use an independent consultant to evaluate compliance with the settlement, and eliminate racial bias among its force.

MPD didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. The 53-page report does, however, note areas of both improvement and struggle for the department.

“For the first time since the Settlement Agreement was signed, the FPC maintained a full commission, with each of the nine seats filled and minimal staff vacancies, for the majority of the reporting period,” the report states. “With support from the Common Council, the FPC budget was expanded to include a position of senior auditor increasing its capacity for the rigorous oversight envisioned by its authorizing language and the Settlement agreement.”

While the report praises the gains made to revitalize and re-engage the FPC, it also raised concerns about changes to the commission by the Republican-controlled legislature. During the summer a deal was struck between city, county and state officials to allow Milwaukee just enough revenue to avoid a looming fiscal crisis. As part of the resulting local government funding legislation, the FPC was forced to hand over its power to set policy for MPD to the police chief. Other provisions that were both beneficial for law enforcement and were specific demands of police unions like the Milwaukee Police Association, were also included in the deal. The deal spurred ire among Milwaukee’s activist community, who had fought for policy changes that the legislation reversed, and the FPC’s chair and vice chair resigned.

The report gives the department credit for improvements. It states that over the last year “there has been an increased focus across the breadth of the MPD not only to reach compliance, but also to understand more deeply why compliance has not yet been achieved. We observe more members talking about how they do their work, as well as why doing it right and well matters, not only for compliance, but because of their pride in performance.”

MPD conducted monthly  meetings of police offers, led both by the patrol and administrative commanders, which personnel from the Crime and Justice Institute attended remotely.

“These meetings bring district personnel together to review sample data on stops and searches,” according to the report. “There is an emphasis on learning, discussion, and understanding the standards for documentation of stops. MPD and FPC leadership are present and often participate. District personnel also bring examples of community-based problem-solving efforts, which run the gamut of issues and offer a range of solutions, often including partnerships with other parts of local government and most often, members of the community.”

The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Nevertheless, problems and struggles have lingered. The report regarded the last monitoring period as “a period of stability for the FPC until the state legislature’s passage of a local government funding bill, Act 12, in June 2023.” Besides stripping the FPC of its policy-making power, the bill, “also grants law enforcement unions in the state additional influence over the candidates selected to serve on the Commission,” the report highlighted. The city has also struggled to set systems of accountability to demonstrate compliance with the settlement, according to the report.

A continued trend of racial disparities among police stops has also persisted, the report states. “The City and MPD have committed to conducting additional analyses to better understand what is driving those disparities, and where and why they are occurring,” it states. “The MPD is actively exploring options that will allow them to delve more deeply into their data and has secured funding from the city in their budget to do additional analysis.”

Some may point to crime rates in Milwaukee as a reason for high rates of stop and frisk encounters in minority communities. To the contrary, “an analysis of the ratio of frisk rates to crime rates by district shows that when accounting for relative crime rates, officers conduct frisks more often in Black and Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods,” the report states. “Overall, we find racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops, field interviews, non-action encounters, and frisks conducted by MPD, with robust disparities in police encounters with Black residents compared to white residents of Milwaukee.”

According to MPD’s online crime data, homicide cases for the year through Sunday (Sept. 24) are down by 22%  compared to last year, after increasing 11% from 2021 to 2022. While rape cases are up 2% and robbery cases have increased 3%, human trafficking cases have more than doubled, soaring 108%. Overall, however, crime in the city between 2022 and 2023 appears to have dropped by 12%. The rate of non-fatal shootings, has increased by 4%, and carjackings have increased 7% over  last year. Meanwhile, according to Milwaukee County’s overdose dashboard, there have been just over 5,500 non-fatal drug overdoses so far this year. So far, 623 county residents have lost their lives to a drug overdose as compared to a total of 648 last year.

Dr. Melinda Brennan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin. (Photo | ACLU of Wisconsin)
Dr. Melinda Brennan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin. (Photo | ACLU of Wisconsin)

“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally, no matter where we live or what we look like,” stated Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project. Akselrod added that  “when police stop us based on our race or ethnicity, it doesn’t make us any safer. Instead, these deeply-entrenched inequalities compound the damage done to communities the police are sworn to protect.”

While calling it “a positive step” to see the indicators of unconstitutional policing drop since the settlement was established, Akselrod concluded: “As we reach the fifth year of Collins, it remains clear that this settlement is still needed.”

In November, the ACLU will launch a “Know Your Rights Tour,” which will feature trainings around Milwaukee to educate residents about their rights when interacting with police. The trainings will have a particular focus on Black youth in the city.

Dr. Melinda Brennan, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the settlement will “persist until the City reaches full compliance.” Brennan stated that, “we can work toward preventing harm – and not merely responding after the fact – by addressing root causes of crime and investing in proven solutions, like affordable housing, mental health services and economic opportunity.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.