A Milwaukee police car drives in a Milwaukee neighborhood.
A recent report found that significant racial and ethnic disparities in police stops by the Milwaukee Police Department persist. Here, a police cruiser drives in a neighborhood on Milwaukee's North Side in 2018. (Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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It’s been seven years since Stephen Jansen was a plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union’s landmark Collins lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee over the police department’s unlawful stop-and-frisk policies and five years since a settlement in the case was reached.

Jansen, co-chair of the Community Collaborative Commission, is still waiting for several terms of that settlement to be met, particularly one that mandates an end to racial bias in stops by Milwaukee police.

The main task of the Community Collaborative Commission, or CCC, is to work with the Milwaukee Police Department on a plan to develop standards for community-oriented policing and to improve law enforcement practices in Milwaukee, including those related to stop-and-frisks.

A September report by the Crime and Justice Institute, which tracks the Milwaukee Police Department’s compliance with the Collins settlement, found that Black Milwaukee residents of typical driving age were 4.5 times more likely to be stopped than whites; 10 times more likely to be subjected to a field interview; and eight times more likely to be subjected to a frisk-type encounter.

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“The report made real the disparity between the policing that takes place in different communities based on color and concerns that people have in our community about policing,” Jansen said. “It’s a call for action to make real the type of social justice in police reform that we’ve been seeking.”

He said he wants to see more officers of color, police training data that’s available to residents, more mental health support embedded in the police department and a real community policing plan.

In addition to an end to racial bias in stop-and-frisks and other police encounters, the Collins settlement also mandates more rigorous data collection, training for officers and discipline for those who demonstrate bias or fail to document stops, among other terms.

The police department reached compliance on several other terms of the settlement, including implementing a better system to track and process complaints; training related to constitutional stops; investigating complaints; and performing more audits of data. The department has also made progress in other areas, including measures related to diversity, supervision and discipline and its work with the Community Collaborative Commission to host community meetings in different aldermanic districts.

Milwaukee Police Department responds

The Milwaukee Police Department issued a statement to Neighborhood News Service that acknowledged the racial disparities that exist in the city and the nation.

“MPD has agreed to conduct additional analysis to help identify the drivers of disparity in the city of Milwaukee. We are eager to move forward with this important next step,” the statement reads in part. “We certainly agree that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally and will continue the work to ensure that is our community’s reality.”

The MPD has secured funds from the city to conduct additional analysis to better understand why disparities in police stops continue, according to the Crime and Justice Institute report.

The deadline to reach full compliance with the settlement was originally five years, but ACLU officials now say they will monitor compliance until it is reached for five consecutive years. 

Call for urgency

The report also cited a need for more urgency by the department to mend its relationship with the community. It states that in 2024 the department should develop a community engagement plan that helps create a culture of trust and respect between the police department and the community.

“It is essential to include in that community plan what they have heard in community meetings and partnership with the CCC,” the report noted.

Jansen said meetings that were held in different aldermanic districts and were organized by the Community Collaborative Commission and the police department have yielded some interesting ideas but lack the community participation needed to get a better sense of what changes should be made.

The commission tried unsuccessfully to have the city fund a survey by a nonpartisan group that gathers input from community members on stop-and-frisks.

Jansen said city leaders balked at that plan and are also to blame for not mandating the types of changes needed to move Milwaukee police toward compliance with the settlement.

“It’s not just local community leaders who should be pushing for change but the Common Council and the mayor spearheading the kind of police reform that we need,” he said.

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Milwaukee city leaders, including Mayor Cavalier Johnson, have not issued public responses to the latest report. 

Olga Akselrod, a senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said: “The city has certainly made progress with regards to its systems for documentation and supervision of policing as well as in establishing policies that are really important to constitutional policing.”

Nevertheless, she said, the Milwaukee Police Department is still conducting unconstitutional stops at rates that violate the terms of the agreement.

“We are looking at steps we can take to improve compliance,” Akselrod said. “It’s important to point out that the problems in policing will require a multitude of different strategies.”

She also called on local officials to do more.

“The city receives these reports,” Akselrod said. “The city should absolutely be making sure that the MPD is accountable for the findings in the report.”

Challenges persist

Amanda Merkwae, advocacy director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said one major challenge for the city is complying with Act 12, which was approved in July.

She said Act 12 eliminated the ability of the Fire and Police Commission, or FPC, in Milwaukee to set policy changes and also took away the avenue for Milwaukee residents to weigh in on changes to standard operating procedures before they go into effect.

“The FPC is now serving in more of an advisory role, and they’ve also taken the public out of the process,” Merkwae said.

As for Jansen, he said he’s tired of waiting for real change to happen in the city. He wants political leaders in Milwaukee to do what it takes to make those changes happen.

“All of our elected officials need to be actively involved in this because it’s not just an issue of MPD accountability,” Jansen said. “These issues have existed for decades, and I cannot see anyone running for office or in office without being asked about their plans for reforms of the police department.”

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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.