Racial gap found in traffic stops in Milwaukee
By Journal Sentinelof the
A black Milwaukee driver is seven times as likely to be stopped by city police as a white resident driver, a Journal Sentinel analysis of nearly 46,000 traffic stops has found.
Similarly, Milwaukee police pulled over Hispanic city motorists nearly five times as often as white drivers, according to the review, which took into account the number of licensed drivers by race.
Police also searched black drivers at twice the rate of whites, but those searches didn't lead to higher rates of seized weapons, drugs or stolen property.
The review found that the disparities spanned all seven police districts. The two with the greatest racial discrepancies - Districts 1 and 6 - have the lowest crime rates, and both have predominantly white populations.
The disparities found in Milwaukee are greater than other large metro police departments where traffic stop data is collected, including Charlotte, Kansas City, Raleigh and St. Louis.
In those jurisdictions, black drivers were stopped between 1.6 and 2.2 times as often as white drivers, according to 2010 data from North Carolina and Missouri. Hispanic drivers in those cities were between 0.7 and 1.2 times as likely to be stopped as whites, taking into account the overall driving-age population. Using that same measure, Milwaukee's disparities were 3.9 for blacks and 2.1 for Hispanics.
The Journal Sentinel's review is the first of its kind here. It is based on data from a since-repealed state law that required law enforcement agencies to collect detailed information on every traffic stop.
State Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee), who helped draft the traffic data provision, said the newspaper's findings confirm her belief that minority drivers are treated unfairly by police here.
"Is racial profiling real?" said Grigsby, who represents a district on the city's north side. "It's like water to a fish in my world. There is a feeling, there is an understanding, an unsaid knowledge that this is part of the experience of being a person of color in Wisconsin. It feels like a standard practice in this state."
Milwaukee police officials did not dispute the newspaper's findings, but said traffic stop rates track more closely with suspect and victim demographics than with driving population estimates.
In an interview at police headquarters, Police Chief Edward Flynn acknowledged the department's targeted crime-fighting approach can result in disparities because high-crime neighborhoods tend to have larger minority populations.
"I would say it's not an unexpected consequence," Flynn said. "If we are going to heavily engage with those communities that are both victimized and from whence a significant majority of our offenders come, we are going to generate disparities because of where we're physically located."
The findings come as the annual number of traffic stops conducted by Milwaukee police has nearly quadrupled in the past four years, increasing to almost 200,000 stops last year. Police figures through October show the department is on track to make almost as many stops this year.
The increase in traffic enforcement is a cornerstone of Flynn's data-driven strategy, which relies on targeted patrols in crime-ridden neighborhoods to disrupt lawbreakers and reduce crime.
Among the findings of the Journal Sentinel analysis:
Milwaukee police stopped 45,703 city residents during the first four months of this year. Nearly 69% of drivers stopped were black. White drivers accounted for 16% of stops, while 14% were stops of Hispanic motorists. The remaining stops were for drivers of other races. Wider disparities emerge when the stop rates are compared to Milwaukee's driving population, based on the number of licensed drivers by race and ethnicity.
After the stop, Milwaukee police searched the vehicles of black drivers twice as often as whites, or one search for every 12 stops. But police found contraband items in searches involving black drivers at almost the same rate as whites - about 22% of the time.
The greatest disparity found was in District 1, which encompasses downtown and the east side , where black drivers were stopped 12.6 times as often as whites, and Hispanics were stopped four times as often when the driving-age population was taken into account. Also, black drivers were searched nearly five times as often as white drivers there.
Black and Hispanic drivers were arrested at twice the rate of whites after getting stopped, which follows trends in other big cities, researchers said. Meanwhile, white drivers were issued traffic citations at a slightly lower rate than black or Hispanic drivers and were let off with written or oral warnings more often.
Police stopped black and Hispanic drivers about five times as often as white drivers solely for equipment violations. Police have wide discretion when enforcing equipment violations such as a broken taillight or overly tinted windows.
The disparities found in the Milwaukee police stops are higher than those found for the Wisconsin State Patrol, along with the Milwaukee County and Dane County sheriff's departments - the other law enforcement agencies that made enough traffic stops in the first half of this year to draw conclusions about stop trends.
The Journal Sentinel shared its findings with researchers who have studied racial profiling data in Wisconsin and other states. All confirmed the methodology and results of the newspaper's analysis.
Wisconsin's data collection law, which was passed when Democrats controlled the state Legislature and governor's office, was created to determine if minorities were disproportionately stopped or searched. The data include information on the race, age and gender of drivers; reasons for stops and searches; and whether a driver was arrested, cited or given a warning during a traffic stop.
The statute went into effect in January but was repealed in June after Republicans had gained control of state government and responded to complaints from some law enforcement agencies that the form used to record traffic stops created unnecessary paperwork and took too much time to complete.
No bias, officials say
Milwaukee police submitted traffic stop data for the first four months of the year, but not for May and June, a review of the database compiled by the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance shows. Police officials said data for May and June was collected, but not sent to the state due to a mistake.
In July, Flynn said that his department would continue to collect racial data on traffic stops despite the repeal of the law.
Flynn credited his department's proactive patrolling approach as a key factor in driving down the city's crime rate. Since he took over in 2008, the Police Department has reported double-digit declines in violent and property crimes.
Flynn said he is willing to admit that his more aggressive strategy can lead to drivers being stopped more often in high-crime areas. He likened the situation to being frisked at an airport security checkpoint - a necessary safeguard.
"Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people. The point is, do folks understand what their role is as a cooperative citizen in having a safe environment." Flynn said.
"That level of inconvenience, if it's coupled with respectful treatment, is something communities will accept to be safe. If the price of me walking down my neighborhood in safety is once a month (a police officer stops me), people are going to say 'That's OK with me, it's about time we saw the cops here.' "
The stop data does not provide evidence of police bias or racial profiling by his officers, Flynn said.
"Drawing a conclusion of bias is a great stretch just because there is disparity of police intervention," he said.
Mayor Tom Barrett said he anticipated that citizen complaints would increase with the dramatic rise in traffic stops conducted by police.
But they haven't - traffic stop complaints have dropped 18%, from 40 to 33, through the first 10 months of this year compared with the same period in 2009, when detailed data on complaints related to traffic stops was first collected, police records show. Overall, citizen complaints have fallen 45% since 2007 for the same time period.
"I'm very sensitive to the issue of racial profiling," Barrett said. "I don't want a situation where people are being targeted because of their race. At the same time, I do want a community where those who live in the poorest neighborhoods can feel safe. The bottom line question is do people want to have more police presence in their neighborhood. I would venture to guess the answer is yes."
Common Council President Willie Hines Jr. said there is a delicate balance between effectively policing high-crime areas and respecting the civil rights of residents.
"Just because there is increased police presence in a community doesn't mean that innocent people's civil rights should be violated - that shouldn't happen," said Hines, who represents a north side district. "With that said, residents have welcomed the Police Department and appreciate seeing them in the neighborhood."
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, was a member of the advisory committee that assisted in creating the state's traffic stop data collection program.
When told of the Journal Sentinel's findings, Ahmuty said he was concerned residents in minority neighborhoods of Milwaukee are having their rights violated.
"It's clear that citywide there is disparity, and when you deploy your people within a segregated city, the impact on some of those communities is going to be felt," Ahmuty said. "If you live in a community where you are constantly being stopped, you are being harmed."
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he understands the difficulties of policing a big city with a high volume of crime and has no reason to doubt the motives of Milwaukee police.
"But the police and community have to continue to work to ensure the strategies don't unnecessarily abridge people's rights," he said.
The higher search rate for black Milwaukee drivers is compelling because they were no more likely to have illegal drugs or weapons than whites, Rosenfeld said.
why are there "That's an important piece of information to interpret . . . such vast differences in the stop rates when one does not see differences in contraband found?" said Rosenfeld, former president of the American Society of Criminology. "That suggests that at least some of the stops made of blacks might have been unnecessary."
But Flynn said for a metro police department, finding drugs and weapons is not the sole purpose of searches - the intent is to disrupt criminal activity.
"I would say the similarity of hit rates is based on the fact that cops are doing a pretty good job identifying who needs to have their car searched," he said. "If the hit rates are similar, it means they are applying similar judgments to where the questions they're asking are taking them."
Trends in districts
The Journal Sentinel mapped where resident traffic stops occurred in the city and compared stop rates to the driving-age population of each of the seven police districts.
Criminologists who study traffic stop trends suggested breaking data up into subareas because racial and ethnic disparities might be very strong in some areas but go undetected in a citywide analysis.
Ald. Nik Kovac, whose district falls mostly within police District 1, which had the greatest racial disparity, said he stands behind the department's efforts to reduce crime.
"I think in the full context of all the data the police are dealing with, the most alarming thing about your data is how segregated our city is, not that our Police Department is acting with inappropriate bias," he said. "I think they are focusing on where the crime is happening."
District 6 on the south side had the second-highest level - the black-to-white disparity was 10 to 1, and the Hispanic-white disparity was nearly four.
Meanwhile, District 5 on the north side had the smallest traffic stop difference - the black-to-white disparity was three, and there was no difference between Hispanic and white drivers. District 5 has led the city in violent crime since 2007, police data show.
In response to the newspaper's analysis, the Police Department shared suspect and victim demographics for each of the seven police districts broken down by race. Flynn said these demographics are a better gauge of stop activity than the driving-age population.
For example, police records for the first 10 months of this year show that at least 90% of crime suspects in districts 3, 4, 5 and 7 were black. Meanwhile, black drivers constituted 80% or more of the stops conducted in those districts during the same period, according to department records.
By comparison, the driving-age population of those districts is between 48% and 74% black, according to census data analyzed.
"The disparities we are generating, we believe, are well within what we would expect given the victimization data and the offender data," Flynn said.
But letting criminal suspect demographics guide enforcement activity can lead to innocent minorities being caught up in the police net, Rosenfeld said.
"The problem is if the suspect profile is so crude to only include the race and gender and age of individuals, then inevitably you are going to stop lots and lots of innocent black people, particularly black men," he said. "Lots of individuals who are stopped will be guilty of nothing other than fitting a crude suspect profile and happening to be in the area where lots of crimes occur. And that's not enough."
An aggressive patrolling strategy can damage the often fragile relationship between police and residents who could be their allies in high-crime neighborhoods, Rosenfeld said.
One of the key reasons Flynn was selected as police chief in late 2007 was that he was well-versed in the community-policing model that Barrett and other local leaders favored. A community policing strategy emphasizes increased interaction and cooperation between police and residents to fight crime.
David Crowley, a legislative aide to Milwaukee County Supervisor Nikiya Harris, said he and his friends feel that Milwaukee police officers have become more antagonistic in how they conduct patrols in recent years.
"It seems like they are getting more aggressive, and their intimidation is really what is making people turn off to these police officers now," Crowley said.
Racial profiling has become an accepted fact of life for black residents in the city, he said.
"It's been going on so long, a lot of black men don't consider it racial profiling because it's just something that happens automatically if you are black - which is a problem," said Crowley, 25.
He said profiling sometimes occurs when someone on foot or a bike is questioned, known as a subject stop.
Those type of stops have also increased dramatically under Flynn's direction, more than tripling from 2007 to last year, records show. Commanders push officers to make them, as they gather information that can lead to arrests, police said.
In one incident in September, Crowley said he was walking to the store from his grandparents' house near the intersection of N. 10th and W. Burleigh streets with another young black man. As they rounded the corner, they saw a group of four Milwaukee police squad cars driving down the street. All four squads swerved over to their side of the street, which struck Crowley as a menacing tactic.
"Why do you intimidate us?" he said. "Why do you have to make us feel like we aren't supposed to be here?"
South side incident
In October 2009, Milwaukee resident Dennis Walton was picking up three friends from a south side nightclub located in District 6, which is largely white.
He said was playing reggae music on the factory radio of his Chevy Tahoe when he was stopped by Milwaukee police just after 2 a.m. in the 2900 block of S. 13th St.
Walton, who is black, said he feels strongly that he was the victim of racial profiling in the incident.
He was particularly upset about the stop because he felt he wasn't breaking any laws - his license and registration were valid, and neither he nor his passengers had any outstanding arrest warrants.
"Because (the officer) saw four black men on the south side, it was automatically assumed we had some type of warrant or there were some drugs or something," said Walton, 37, community outreach director for the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative.
The officer ran Walton's name and found that he had a valid license and no warrants, the municipal citation shows.
Walton was issued a $221 ticket for excessive noise because the officer said the music could be heard from more than 50 feet away. Walton disputes that.
While Walton's incident did not happen during the period the data was collected, his story and those of other black men illustrate a long-running concern, he said.
"The embarrassment and insult of being totally disrespected in that manner is . . . It creates a one of the most dehumanizing experiences that you have. bitter taste in your mouth and gives you a different perspective of the police," Walton said
Flynn position supported
Flynn's position on traffic stop activity is generally supported by groups such as the Milwaukee NAACP and the Felmers Chaney Advisory Board, which oversees the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center on the north side.
James Hall Jr., president of the local NAACP chapter, attended a recent briefing by the Police Department where he was given an explanation of the patrolling tactics used.
The NAACP opposes racial or ethnic profiling of any kind, but Hall said his organization has not seen an increase in racial profiling complaints received in recent years.
"We believe a factor that directly contributes to the disparity in traffic stops between racial and ethnic groups is the confluence of concentrated poverty and residential segregation," Hall said in a statement. "We must collectively make it a priority to ameliorate these conditions."
R.L. McNeely, chairman of the Felmers Chaney Advisory Board, said that his group is not opposed to the significant increase in traffic stop activity by Milwaukee police, but said the racial discrepancies raise "possible concern."
A lawyer and a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, McNeely said he was concerned specifically with the finding that the disparities are greatest in Police District 1.
"Although the data appear potentially disturbing in several respects, our overarching concern is a reduction in crime," McNeely said in a statement, "because the street crime being abated by MPD's concentrated presence is the type of crime that ultimately disrupts, destabilizes and destroys black neighborhoods."
Primitivo Torres, president of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, said his immigrant rights organization has noticed an increase in ethnic profiling complaints in the past year in the city.
"It was always there, but never to this extent," Torres said. "We are seeing cases almost on a weekly basis. We ask why they are being stopped, and we can't find out why."
Flynn encouraged anyone to come forward to the police if they have specific information about a racial profiling incident or wish to file a complaint.
Any racial profiling or harassment by police diminishes the quality of life for minorities in the city, Walton said.
"It's beyond civil rights, it's human rights," Walton said. "That distinction really needs to be made when we talk about violations that people are suffering. You are obstructing people's rights to move freely and to live their life."