A black Milwaukee driver is seven times more likely to be stopped by city police as a white driver, according to a study conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The analysis of nearly 46,000 traffic stops also found Latinos were five times more likely to be stopped.
The disparities found in Milwaukee are much higher than other large metro police departments where traffic stop data is collected in the region. Charlotte, Kansas City, Raleigh and St. Louis black drivers were only stopped between 1.6 and 2.2 times as often as white drivers.
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.
Milwaukee city and police officials say their aggressive policing is a "necessary safeguard" that they liken to airport security checkpoints but they fail to recognize the disparity.
"Drawing a conclusion of bias is a great stretch just because there is disparity of police intervention," Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn told the Sentinel.
"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.
James Hall Jr., president of the local NAACP chapter, agrees with Flynn’s strategies.
"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 to the Sentinel. "We must collectively make it a priority to ameliorate these conditions," he continued.
Hall cites his organization not seeing an increase in racial profiling complaints in recent years as part of why he supports Flynn.
But others say complaints of discrimination may often go unreported to city and police official.
Primitivo Torres, president of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, told the Sentinel 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."
Milwaukee black and Latino residents aren’t the only ones being stopped frequently. A 2010 NY Times investigation reviewed data on NYPD stops over four years in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, a predominantly African American community that’s dense with public housing. Reporters found police made nearly 52,000 stops in an eight-block radius over just four years. Just 1 percent of the stops yielded arrests and cops found only 26 guns.
Shortly after the NY Times published their findings Colorlines.com went to Brownsville to talk to neighborhood residents and hear their side of the story.