A recent ACLU stop-and-frisk lawsuit alleged that the Milwaukee Police Department was violating the rights of people of color during stops. The city paid out a $3.4 million settlement, which includes money to cover an independent consultant who will monitor the department’s progress on racial profiling.
Now, the local organization Common Ground, a social justice coalition with over 40 member groups from across southeastern Wisconsin, has launched an investigation into the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.
The group has not filed a lawsuit but is seeking to find out whether the department has engaged in systematic racial profiling.
"Why are we here today? All of us citizens, Americans, are deserving of equal treatment, and justice from law enforcement individuals regardless of the color of our skin, our race, our religion, or even our immigration status," said Gwen Mosier of Common Ground at a press conference the group held Monday in the parking lot across from the Waukesha County Courthouse.
She introduced the Rev. Demetrius Williams of Community Baptist Church of Greater Milwaukee and the Rev. John Patterson of Mt. Olive Baptist Church of Milwaukee. The Baptist church leaders are coalition members who recently had an interaction with the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department.
Their interaction wasn’t instigated by a traffic stop, but by a flat tire. The two pastors, who are African-American, say that on May 1, 2018, they were returning from a fishing trip. While driving back through Waukesha County with a boat trailer, the trailer blew a tire. They say they pulled over and called the insurance company for roadside assistance. A few minutes later, a sheriff’s deputy pulled up with flashing lights.
“And we thought we were going to receive assistance, but instead he asked us if we had drugs or guns in the car and then asked for our driver’s licenses," recounts Williams. "When we asked why was he doing this, he said, ‘It’s is our policy.’"
The pastors say they were already stopped — it’s not like the deputy pulled them over for a violation. They asked why they were being treated that way. "And again, he said, ‘This is our policy.’ He put the orange sticker on the boat and we protested, and he said, ‘Well, my supervisor’s in the squad, I have to do it',” Williams explains.
Law enforcement can put an orange sticker on a disabled or abandoned vehicle to note that it’s been investigated. The men say they never told the deputy that they were leaving the boat.
Patterson says that instead of being helpful by putting up cones to divert traffic, the deputies made him feel violated. “They didn’t even ask us how we were doing or anything like that, was there anything that they could do. They just proceeded to treat us like we were a couple of criminals,” he adds.
The men contacted the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department in the hopes of speaking with Sheriff Severson directly. They say the department offered to let them speak with Severson’s second in command. The pastors say that was insufficient because it is the Sheriff himself who can set policy.
Williams and Patterson say they want sensitivity training for the Sheriff’s Department.
Gwen Mosier of Common Ground says the incident left her organization with questions about how the Sheriff’s Department treats other people of color and members of other communities, such as immigrants
“Did this just happen to Reverends Patterson and Williams? Or is it happening to others in your communities, and in this community of Waukesha County. We need others to come forward. Come and tell us your story," she says.
The group is asking for people to come forward with tweets, calls or emails detailing negative or positive interactions with the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department. They are also requesting reports filed by the deputy who conducted Williams and Patterson's stop, to learn if he asks all disabled motorists if they have guns or drugs in their car.
Mosier says depending on what they find out, Common Ground may have a public hearing in the fall to document the results.
Melvin Grisby Jr. is an African-American who lives in Brookfield. He hopes the press conference shines a light on the issue.
“Honestly, today is just for awareness to be brought and for it to be talked about. And hopefully sit down and have productive conversations and productive solutions to the issue. I mean if we do nothing, the same thing is going to keep occurring, and we’re going to be sitting here in front of the courthouse over and over again," he says.
Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson provided a statement about the incident, indicating that racial profiling is prohibited in his department. The sheriff wrote that he investigated the incident and found “no violations of policy, training or procedure.” He wrote that there was no evidence that the deputies’ actions were racially motivated. He states there were no improper detentions, arrests, use of force or other unprofessional conduct.