In 2018, the Milwaukee City council approved a $3.4 million lawsuit against its police department over unlawful stop-and-frisks. A follow-up report released in February 2019 by the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston stated that after the settlement was reached in the lawsuit between the Police department and the Wisconsin ACLU, 80 percent of Milwaukee Police Department’s stop-and-frisks still lacked justification.
Not only have the stop-and-frisk practices lacked proper justification, but they have also overwhelmingly affected minority residents, specifically African American residents. Although African American people only represent 38 percent of the city’s population, an astounding 80 percent of frisks involved African Americans as well as 56 percent of police encounters. For comparison, white people represent 35 percent of the population and were only involved in 6 percent of frisks.
Tracy Adams, a plaintiff in the suit, added that the complaint process in response to actions of police racism is complicated, bureaucratic and vague. When she asked for further clarification, she was met with the same ambiguous claims leading her nowhere. The complaints were over the maltreatment of her son who was first harassed in 2010 at age 11. Adams called the department to complain and a sergeant responded saying the Milwaukee Police officers have a policy to stop young men walking through alleys, a claim that is not even trying to hide its racist intentions.
The problem with the stop-and-frisk policy is not in the details or how it is applied — the practice itself is unjust. The legal ability to stop a person with reasonable cause — not probable cause — and proceed to search them allows too much power to any individual, no matter their level of training. Especially in a country and a policing system with a history of racist attitudes and actions, this gross misuse of power consistently leads to racial discrimination, specifically against young Latino and African American men. Milwaukee is not unique in its use of stop-and-frisk. The Madison Police Department allows a similar practice.
There’s not much else to say about stop-and-frisk other than we know it does not work. Although Madison is yet to have any major reported cases of police abuse of this power, the existence of a stop-and-frisk allows for its possibility, and while generally clean, the MPD has dealt with racial profiling in the past. One particular case led to the creation of a new state bill designed to prevent future cases of profiling. In 2018, while campaigning in a majority white neighborhood in Madison, someone called the police on a suspicious-looking woman who in reality was state representative Sheila Stubbs, D-Wisconsin. Once the police arrived, Stubbs was held, tediously questioned and the police asked for multiple forms of identification.
The department’s stop-and-frisk policy is pretty detailed, but the problem is not in their specific policy but in the idea of reasonable suspicion which, as stated earlier, is very different than the more commonly understood probable suspicion or cause. Reasonable suspicion is defined as not capable of a precise definition and is generally based on the individual officer’s hunch.
As a New Yorker, I have seen stop-and-frisk first hand, and to put it lightly, get out of hand. At its worst, in 2011, 685,724 people were stopped. Out of those 685,724, 87 percent were either African American or Latinx, and 88 percent were found innocent.
Unfortunately, a policy intended to protect citizens has done much more to harm and scare minority communities. We should not let irrational fear override our conscience and morals. There is no urgent need for a stop-and-frisk policy in Madison, so why risk the consequences?
Jonah McGarvey ([email protected]) is a freshman studying political science.