Milwaukee police last year made nearly 200,000 traffic stops. Police Chief of Edward Flynn acknowledges that his officers are “going to stop lots of innocent people.” What’s more a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Watchdog Report found a racial gap in the 46,000 traffic stops Milwaukee police made in the first four months of 2011. The Chief explains the racial gap by pointing to his targeted policing strategy which uses traffic stops to disrupt criminal activity.
The Chief’s explanation falls short. Attributing racial disparities to a conscious departmental policy not only downplays the existence of biased policing, but by encouraging officers to make so many traffic stops, the policy masks illegal racial profiling.
The Journal Sentinel report found that the greatest racial disparity in traffic stops occurs in Police District 1, which includes downtown and parts of the east side, which have mostly white residents. A more probable explanation in this district than the effects of targeted policing is the phenomena known as “race out of place” stops. In other districts, the notion that police are responding to suspect descriptions isn’t credible when the description du jour appears to be “young black male”.
The Journal Sentinel report also found that black drivers were much more likely to have their vehicles searched than white drivers. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t state how often police used the commonly abused practice of consent searches. It did find that the hit rates for contraband were approximately 22% for both black and white drivers.
Community leaders must demand to know what the Chief is doing to eliminate bias, in addition to exhorting his officers to be fair and treat all motorists with respect. If the Chief’s policing strategy has rendered traffic stop data collection and analysis less useful as a management tool, how is the department determining the extent to which bias may be occurring? How is it remedied?
It has been suggested that the number of complaints filed by citizens about police actions is a measure of how officers treat motorists. Citizen complaints do not give us the same quantitative information as traffic stop data. Individual motorists may complain about rude treatment, but they can’t know how many black or Hispanic drivers are stopped and searched compared to white drivers. There is also reluctance on the part of offended drivers to file complaints when the complaint process is daunting to most ordinary citizens. The ACLU of Wisconsin is collecting stories about biased policing online at www.aclu-wi.org/story.
In serious discussions about using traffic stop data to address biased policing, no one I know claims that the data alone will prove that a particular officer or shift or agency is biased. Officers who do not act contrary to rules prohibiting racial profiling should have nothing to fear. Black and Hispanic drivers on the other hand do have something to fear from racial profiling – second class police service and citizenship.
This “Another View” op-ed originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 7, 2011. Read the MJS editorial in support of Chief Flynn’s policies on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel opinion page.