Milwaukee residents living in every neighborhood deserve high quality professional police service. No one, regardless of where they live, should have to put up with police misconduct. Recent allegations that several officers in District Five carried out unauthorized strip searches and illegal body cavity searches need to be investigated carefully, fairly, and comprehensively. While it is important to determine whether or not individual officers violated department policies or state law or civil rights laws, it is equally important that the department evaluate its own policies, practices, and strategies to see if they may have undermined police service and civil liberties.
It is in the interest of residents and the department that the department responds to the alleged incidents of police misconduct with candor, transparency, and self-evaluation. Without violating the due process rights of the officers involved and regardless of the outcome of investigations into their conduct, the department can learn from this controversy and provide better service in the future.
The department must consider what impact its own policies, practices, and strategies may have on the delivery of police services.
For instance, incredible as it sounds, if the officers were truly ignorant of the policies or the differences between a pat down or frisk, a strip search, or a body cavity search, then the department has to explain how its training and supervision failed. Is their training forgotten or ignored when officers detain residents on our public streets?
The department must also evaluate its proactive policing strategy to see if it makes incidents of police misconduct more likely to occur. Under this strategy the Milwaukee Police Department made 240,000 traffic and subject stops in 2010. Traffic stop figures through October 2011 show the department will have made a similar number of stops in 2011, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
This extraordinary number of stops obviously increases the opportunity for interactions between officers and residents to go awry. What’s more as Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn told the newspaper, “Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people.” The department should evaluate what message it is sending to officers when its proactive policing strategy disregards a person’s innocence. The message at best says civil liberties are expendable.
We pointed out in an op ed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that the department should also revisit its decision to create the Gang/Drug Unit when the Metropolitan Investigations Division, formed in August, 2010. It appears that the implicated officers including a sergeant belonged to District Five’s anti-gang unit. Many police managers across the country have moved away from special gang and drug units, especially after revelations of widespread abuse by such units of the Los Angeles Police Department. Perhaps, there is a legitimate use for such units, but it appears the type and level of supervision given to Milwaukee’s anti-gang unit was deficient.
Finally, because metropolitan Milwaukee is a hyper-segregated area along racial and income lines, one cannot address policing without addressing civil rights. In the light of the department’s inability to use traffic stop data to identify possible racially biased policing, it is imperative that the department clarify how it is identifying biased officers. We don’t know if these District Five officers are biased, but bias could be a contributing factor. The department needs to be more aggressive in identifying and remedying individual or systemic bias.
The Milwaukee Police Department has an opportunity to evaluate its policies, practices and strategies following the allegations regarding misconduct by officers from District Five. If it simply investigates the officers, it will be setting Milwaukee up for more frustration. Chief Flynn has the capacity to exercise leadership. He can demonstrate that the department will address possible systemic problems. If so, this controversy may be an opportunity to further improve police community relations.
If you have been the target of racial profiling in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin, tell the ACLU of Wisconsin your story.