African Americans make up the majority of residents arrested on charges of violating Milwaukee’s stay-at-home order, according to data obtained from the Milwaukee Police Department through a public records request.
Of the 177 individuals arrested from March 27 to May 12, 138 were African American (78%), and 21 were Hispanic (12%), according to Milwaukee Police Department data. Only 6% of those arrested were white. The remainder of those arrested were identified by multiple categories of race.
According to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 39% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Black. Hispanics make up about 19% of the population and whites, 35%.
Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide stay-at-home order that kicked in March 25 as fears grew over the spread of the coronavirus, and some cities — including Milwaukee — issued their own orders as well.
On April 21, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved a $500 fine for violations of the order after widespread reports of noncompliance to the order. Police had begun to enforce the order even before that measure.
Other Wisconsin communities also enforced stay-at-home orders, leading to scattered reports of charges or citations in Fond du Lac County and Oshkosh. Some cities, including Madison, largely warned violators instead of citing them.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 struck down Evers’ order, and courts have since said that ruling applies to local orders, too, although some jurisdictions, including Dane County, continue to place restrictions on public and private gatherings, bars and restaurants and other businesses.
Milwaukee Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Sheronda Grant said 173 people were arrested for committing other crimes while violating the stay-at-home order.
The other four arrests involved a business owner who refused to abide by the order; two individuals caught fleeing from police; and another person involved in a fistfight that resulted in a nonfatal shooting, she said.
When asked about racial disparities in arrests, Grant told Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS): “The police department did not target anyone for being outside their places of residence or business.
“The Milwaukee Police Department took great pains to ensure that our members educated the public prior to taking enforcement action.”
But leaders from the ACLU of Wisconsin say the arrests point to a troubling pattern by the Milwaukee Police Department.
“We’re concerned that these arrests reflect the disparate treatment at the hands of Milwaukee police that the community has long experienced,” the ACLU of Wisconsin said in an email to NNS.
The organization has consistently criticized the Milwaukee Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission for their efforts to comply with the terms of a $3.4 million settlement in the ACLU’s stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the city.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in February 2017, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm Covington and Burling, representing Charles Collins and eight other Milwaukee residents.
Collins, a military veteran and longtime Milwaukee resident in his late 60s, was pulled over by police officers while driving home with his wife after visiting their son in 2014. Like the other plaintiffs, he broke no laws and was never charged.
Mayor Tom Barrett said Wednesday he was troubled by the disparities in arrests, especially considering ongoing racial equity issues.
“The intention has never been to penalize or punish people, but find what is the most effective way for people to take actions to protect their best health interests,” said Barrett, adding that African American and Latino populations in the city have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
Milwaukee is not the only Midwest community to disproportionately arrest black residents for such violations. A ProPublica analysis of court records in Toledo and for the counties that include Columbus and Cincinnati found Black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating Ohio’s stay-at-home order as white people.
More arrests on North Side
The data also reveal that most of Milwaukee’s arrests occurred on the city’s North Side. Of those arrests, 46, or 26% of the total, occurred in the 53206 ZIP code, an area known for its concentrated poverty, extreme joblessness, levels of mass incarceration and declining incomes for those who are employed.
Twenty arrests (11.3% ) were made in 53209 and 16 (9.4% ) occurred in 53216, also on the city’s North Side. Sixteen individuals were arrested in 53212, which includes neighborhoods on the North and Northeast side.
Aside from those ZIP code areas, only 53204 on the near South Side had more than 15 arrests. In addition, 17 minors were arrested for violating the order. All of the minors were African American or Hispanic, the data show.
Grant said 53206 experienced the most calls for police service for all ZIP codes during the time the order was in place, while 53209 had the fifth-most calls.
“We are obligated to respond to calls for service regardless of the ZIP code from which the calls originate,” she said.
A version of this story was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Jim Malewitz, Wisconsin Watch investigations editor, contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.