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ACLU of WI: 'Race Out Of Place' Shouldn't Be Enough To Justify A Police Stop

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The American Civil Liberties Union released an in-depth analysis Milwaukee Police Department records Wednesday. The ACLU says it found a pattern of problems with how stops in Milwaukee are being conducted.

Outside experts found that nearly half of the vehicular stops they analyzed failed to cite a probable cause. For pedestrian stops, it was nearly 60 percent.

"You have data that both shows disparities in race of who is being stopped and that shows fairly widespread lack of information that there was a legal justification for that stop."

The report also found major racial discrepancies in who is being stopped by police officers. The majority of stops were made in black and Latino neighborhoods -  but even in predominantly white neighborhoods, Black and Latino people were more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts.

"So you have data that both shows disparities in race of who is being stopped and that shows fairly widespread lack of information that there was a legal justification for that stop," says Karyn Rotker, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin. 

The records were analyzed as part of a class-action lawsuit against the MPD. The ACLU is representing nine plaintiffs in the case, Collins v. City of Milwaukee, but they said their experiences are representative of many Milwaukee residents.

The plaintiffs represented by the ACLU say they were stopped (and in some cases searched) for no discernible reason. 

"There really isn't a good reason except that you're someone walking where an officer thinks you shouldn't be. I mean, that's what a lot of these end up appearing to be."

Rotker says, "There really isn't a good reason except that you're someone walking where an officer thinks you shouldn't be. I mean, that's what a lot of these end up appearing to be... Someone being in the 'wrong area,' that's like, overly broad discretion." 

She says that so far, MPD has defended the practice by saying some stops were motivated by the time of day or night, citing examples like a person walking in a heavily industrial area during non-working hours. 

Rotker admits, "Maybe that's appropriate, but that's not most of what's going on, either. [It's often] the well-known phenomenon of 'race out of place,' so a person of color in a predominantly white neighborhood or a white person in a central city neighborhood, that shouldn't be enough to justify a stop." 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.