The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Wednesday over stop-and-frisk practices the group says have unconstitutionally targeted black and Latino residents of Milwaukee.
The city, the fire and police commission, and the chief of police are all named defendants in the suit. A similar lawsuit in New York led a judge to rule the way the stops had been carried out in the city violated the constitutional rights of residents.
The Milwaukee plaintiffs, which include men, women, and a child, say they have been stopped, questioned, and searched by officers on multiple occasions while carrying out their daily routines. A 60-year-old African-American man named Charles Collins alleges he and his wife were stopped by police while driving home from babysitting their grandchild. Tracy Adams says her 16-year-old black son has been stopped repeatedly while walking through his neighborhood, dating back to when he was 13-years-old.
The suit claims the stops violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights of Milwaukee residents because the stops are done “without objective and articulable reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct” and because the frisks are “motivated by race and ethnicity.”
According to the ACLU, the Milwaukee Police Department increased the number of traffic and foot stops they conducted between 2007 and 2015 from 66,657 to 196,434. A report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that black and Hispanic drivers were seven and five times more likely to be stopped by police than whites, respectively. The suit alleges both groups made up 34% of the city’s population between 2010 and 2012, but 72% of the traffic stops made at the time.
“They’re conducting these stops based solely on the race of the people that they’re stoping on based on the fact that they’re in a black or brown community,” says ACLU attorney Jason Williamson. “Our feeling is that racial profiling is never acceptable and there is no evidence that doing this is making communities safer.”
Williamson says the suit stems from a 2013 report on arrests on marijuana possession and the data they uncovered on cities across the U.S. on how they deal with low-level crimes. In their research, Williamson said the ACLU discovered significant disparities in the arrest rates between African Americans and whites — the data on Milwaukee, he says, was particularly striking and led them to investigate further.
When the Journal Sentinel released its analysis in 2011, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said that stopping innocents was a small price residents had to pay for safer communities. “Yes, of course, we are going to stop lots of innocent people,” Flynn said in 2011. “The point is, do folks understand what their role is as a cooperative citizen in having a safe environment.” The suit alleges that after the police department adopted a policy to reduce disparities, the stops and frisks on blacks and Latinos continued.
The suit comes amid a change in approach to policing by the Trump Administration. President Donald Trump has suggested expanding stop-and-frisk practices across the U.S. and providing more protections for police officers. The Department of Justice is also expected to soon release the results of a collaborative report it conducted with the Milwaukee Police Department to review its practices.
Williamson said the suit is still necessary because the recommendations that come as a result of that report will not be legally binding. A spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Mayor’s office says they do not comment on pending litigation. The Milwaukee City Attorney’s office declined to comment.