A police cruiser drives in the Amani neighborhood on Milwaukee's North Side in this 2018 file photo. (Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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Despite Milwaukee County’s record-breaking rise in drug overdose deaths, drug-related arrests in the city of Milwaukee have declined in recent years.

The Milwaukee Police Department in 2022 made 724 arrests for drug-related crimes including drug sales or possession — a 67% decrease since 2017, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Unified Crime Reporting data dashboard. 

In comparison, the much smaller West Allis Police Department made 384 drug-related arrests last year, while Greenfield police made 185.

Milwaukee police change focus

Milwaukee police officers are making fewer drug-related arrests as the department shifts its focus to violence prevention, Capt. James Hutchinson said.

“We typically focus on violent crime reduction,” Hutchinson said, referencing the increase in shootings and murders the past several years. “We have dedicated units that focus on violent crime that really aren’t focused directly on drug arrests.”

A reduction in personnel has also affected drug investigations.

“We don’t have as many boots on the ground as we used to, so we have to rely on our enhanced intelligence and intelligence units to try and focus on what’s the more impactful thing to do,” Hutchinson said.

Advocates see a no-win situation

Having fewer police officers available as demand for drugs skyrockets has created a no-win situation for law enforcement and community groups, said Rafael Mercado, founder of Team HAVOC, a group that conducts needle cleanups and trains people to administer Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.

“The increased use of fentanyl and other stronger products created by big pharma make it almost impossible for these community groups like mine to keep up,” he said.  “We don’t have enough resources to help us at this point and the resources that are out there are going to the wrong approaches.”

Rafael Mercado, founder of Team HAVOC, holds a container of needles collected during a cleanup on the South Side. His group conducts needle cleanups and trains people to administer Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. ( Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service) Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Milwaukee County in 2022 saw 652 drug overdose deaths, with 25 cases still pending toxicology tests as of July. 

Police shift from targeting drug houses

Hutchinson said his department is increasingly targeting suppliers of large quantities of drugs, rather than the houses where drug users congregate. 

“Traditionally, we’ve had drug arrests where we go into the community and try to arrest our way out of the drug problem, and we realize that it was the drug users getting arrested, but we were probably missing the people that supply the drugs,” Hutchinson said.

This helped create a culture of mistrust of the police, he added. 

The number of arrests related to drug sales of opium and cocaine — two drugs implicated in thousands of deaths since 2017 — has decreased annually since 2017, from 281 that year to 80 in 2022.

(Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, factored into 1,526 deaths in Milwaukee County from 2017 to  2021, while cocaine was involved in 1,026 deaths, according to a June 2022 presentation to members of City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force by Sara Schreiber.

Schreiber is a member of the county overdose team and the forensic technical director of toxicology for the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Drug sale arrests

Meanwhile, arrests for marijuana sales have remained steadier. In 2017, Milwaukee police made  193 arrests for marijuana sales, while in 2022, there were 150.

Milwaukee saw fewer arrests last year for the sale of synthetics (14) or other dangerous drugs (34). Arrests for possession of opium or cocaine dropped from 481 in 2017 to 109 in 2022, while marijuana possession arrests plunged from 1,009 to 266.

Statewide, the number of broad drug-related arrests are also down since 2017, although those numbers have fluctuated year-to-year. For example, the total of 31,124 arrests in 2017 increased in 2018 to 31,495, before a dip to 27,670 in 2019 and 23,046 in 2020.

Numbers have steadied since then. In 2021, there were 23,958 drug-related arrests in the state with a slight increase last year to 24,422.

(Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)

Residents say drugs a top problem

Shanna Hickman, a Milwaukee resident who previously worked as an evidence technician for the Lac Du Flambeau Police Department, said Milwaukee police aren’t doing enough to address drugs, especially considering how much damage they’ve caused in the community.

“I think they don’t want to put in the work,” she said. “MPD picks and chooses which crimes to address, and drugs just always seem to be at the bottom of the barrel.”

Donta Holmes is the senior director of programming for Safe & Sound, an organization that works with residents, law enforcement, businesses and others to address safety concerns.

He said the top two concerns his organizers hear from residents are reckless driving and drug overdoses, and he believes those issues are connected. 

“In the past, it was drug houses, and now they’ve moved to mobile drug movement out of the cars,” he said. “A lot of the reckless driving ties into that.”

‘Drug dealers have gotten smarter’

Wendy Ramm of Milwaukee agrees.

“The drug dealers have gotten smarter with not having a drug house and instead using vehicles to deliver products, so the cops can’t really stop everyone in a vehicle,” Ramm said.  

Holmes added that violent crime is also often tied to drugs. Still, he said, a reduction in arrests does fall in line with a public health approach that his organization supports.

“We want people to get the mental health help they need,” he said. “People who have drug issues or addictions, many times it ties back to mental health.”

Drug addiction a public health crisis

The outside of a “hope kit” is shown. The kits were developed by the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative, a partnership between the Milwaukee Health Department, the Milwaukee Fire Department and other groups that seeks to decrease the chances of drug overdoses. Substance abuse, particularly involving opioids like fentanyl, is the leading cause of death among people experiencing homelessness in Milwaukee County. (Courtesy of MKE Overdose Prevention)

Hutchinson said the Milwaukee police take a public health approach to addressing drug issues.

“We’ve also had a shift in culture where we recognize that drug addiction is a public health crisis,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, although we are trying to interrupt it and make an impact on the death and destruction we’re seeing.”

But Ramm said that approach pushes the problem around without offering a real solution.

“Overdoses are through the roof, and the amount of people we see every day strung out on the streets is bad,” she said. “People have to want help and we can’t force them.”

Even if they want help, said Mercado, those resources also are limited.

“To prevent drug usage at its current rate we need to open up more treatment centers that are available 24/7,” he said.

Impact of ACLU settlement

Although Hutchinson said the decline in arrests was not a result of policy or procedural changes, Stephen Jansen, co-chair of the Community Collaborative Commission, believes ACLU’s 2018 legal settlement with the city of Milwaukee has played a role.

The $3.4 million settlement mandated sweeping reforms of stop-and-frisk practices, more training for police and improved reporting procedures, among other changes at the department.

Jansen, whose group is working to negotiate a community plan with police and on a stop-and-frisk survey for residents, said the settlement created more accountability for training within the department and caused the city to look inward at how it can do better policing.

“As a result of that I think that’s why some of the stops have been reduced,” he said, adding that this has likely resulted in less targeted arrests.

He said that while some may believe fewer stops mean more crime, it’s a myth.

“Since we’ve seen a steady decline in stops that are taking place, you’ve also seen in some areas of policing that crime is being reduced, such as burglaries and other serious crimes,” he said. “When you use a broken window and stop-and-frisk approach you’re holistically targeting people.”

Jansen believes that drug use and drug related crimes are a major problem in the city. Still, he said, a holistic approach is needed to address it, rather than arrests.

“I think that when we’re talking about crime, especially drug-related crime, in many cases we’re talking about economics and mental health,” he said. “We need economic viability. housing, mental health, getting rid of abandoned homes, and uniting with law enforcement to bridge relationships with residents, and the investment of the entire city to make things better.”

A version of this story was first published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods.

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Edgar Mendez is a senior staff reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. He won a 2018 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award and 2014, 2017, and 2018 Milwaukee Press Club Awards for his reporting on taverns, marijuana law enforcement, and lead in water service lines.

In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists’ regional award for columns dealing with issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. His writing has been published by the Associated Press, Reuters, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media.