Inside one city: Milwaukee residents dissatisfied with police amid a nationwide reckoning

Amid a reckoning over law enforcement that is roiling the nation, Milwaukee residents by nearly 2-1 give low ratings to the city’s police department, a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY Network Poll finds.

The survey, the first in a series in major American cities, explores attitudes toward law enforcement at a critical moment. Cellphone footage of George Floyd being killed last spring by a Minneapolis police officer, and a string of other videos showing deadly police action against Black Americans, have fueled outrage and upheaval across the country.

In Milwaukee, a third of those surveyed (35%) say the city’s police are doing an excellent or good job, but 61% assess their performance as fair or poor. Concerns about police practices cross racial lines but the assessment among Black residents is particularly harsh: Just 1% say the department is doing an “excellent” job.

“Who are they going to serve and who are they going to protect?” Jason Brooks, 39, asked skeptically. A Black man who was interviewed after being called in the poll, he said he had been the victim of racial profiling by Milwaukee police. “I’ve been stopped a couple of times for what they considered suspiciously walking,” the professional wrestler said. “Like, I don’t know how you walk suspiciously.”

The poll shows views of the police are complicated, though. An overwhelming majority of residents say the problem is “a few bad apples” on the force, not systemic racism by most officers. There is opposition by 2-1 to “defund the police,” a slogan adopted by some in the Black Lives Matter movement. But most of those surveyed also support the idea of diverting some police funding to mental health and other social services.

The debate over issues of race, safety and citizenship also has become part of this week’s commemorations of Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of people who had been enslaved in the United States.

“I hope it is a point of change,” Beverly DeWeese, 88, a retired teacher who is white, said in a follow-up interview after participating in the survey. A resident of Milwaukee for six decades, she said she has become increasingly aware of institutional racism in recent years. The trial of the former police officer convicted of Floyd’s murder “may have activated people’s concerns about fairness,” she said. “Now, whether this will continue, we’ll have to see.”

The poll of 500 adults, taken this month in conjunction with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is the first in an occasional series planned by the Suffolk University Political Research Center and the USA TODAY Network. The project, called CityView, explores the attitudes of residents of major urban areas across the country. 

More than 150 people march on State Street toward the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on Thursday to protest police killings of Black people and racial injustice. (Photo: Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Milwaukee’s population of about 590,000 people is diverse: 44% white, 39% Black, 19% Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Four percent are Asian and another 4% identify as being two or more races. 

But housing in the city is among the most segregated in the nation. That fact has contributed to stark racial disparities in income, homeownership, educational attainment and crime victimization. 

Crime, controversy and no permanent chief

The debates over law enforcement that have engulfed cities from New York to Los Angeles are also rocking Milwaukee.

The police department in Wisconsin’s largest city is without a permanent chief. Violent crime has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic; homicides last year surpassed historic highs from the 1990s. The city’s civilian oversight board, tasked with hiring the chief and disciplining cops, has been embroiled in controversy. 

Last month, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a settlement for a police misconduct lawsuit filed by NBA star Sterling Brown, who in 2018 was thrown to the ground and tasered by police confronting him about a parking violation. Last year, a Milwaukee police officer was charged with homicide, accused of putting a man into a fatal chokehold while off-duty. He resigned from the force.

Over the past year, some changes have been made. The department’s use-of-force policy has been strengthened and chokeholds have been banned. A formal community policing policy, advocated for years by local activists, has been adopted.

But the survey’s findings underscore continuing suspicion among many Milwaukee residents toward law enforcement, and the difficulties ahead in restoring trust.

“What is the cause of the dissatisfaction, and I think it can run in two separate directions,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in an interview. “On the one hand, the cause may be how people are treated by the police and that they’re not happy with this. The second cause could be that there’s too much crime in their neighborhoods and they’re unhappy that the police have not eliminated the crime.”

He also said it was important the city’s police officers live in Milwaukee, a requirement that was abolished by state lawmakers in 2013. “It’s not surprising that there’s a disconnect if you’ve got a majority of the department that doesn’t live in the city,” he said.

One-fourth of white residents and one-third of Black residents say a police officer has stopped them while investigating a crime. A majority across racial lines say they were satisfied with how police handled the situation, but Black residents were twice as likely as whites to describe the themselves as “not at all satisfied” with how the situation was handled – 23% compared with 10%.

“There was a time when I got stopped right in front of my house,” said A. Jackson, 57, who is Black. “He asked me where I was going. I said, ‘Nowhere. I live right here.'” Jackson, who has retired from running an investigation company, laughed about the incident but added, “Those kind of encounters will sour your relationship with the police department.”

Most of those polled say they have sought help from the police at some point. Eight in 10 said they were satisfied with how police handled their call, with only modest differences on racial lines. 

But having a positive personal interaction with the police didn’t prompt a better overall assessment of the force. Even a helpful encounter with an individual officer apparently isn’t enough to offset an overall negative opinion of law enforcement, presumably forged by news coverage and the experiences of family, friends and others in the community.

Do the police follow their own rules?

Milwaukee residents aren’t convinced that the police follow their own rules.

  • By 45% to 40%, those surveyed believe police use force when it isn’t necessary. While white residents split evenly on this question, Black residents by a ratio of nearly 2-1 (56% to 29%) say the police at times deploy excessive force.
  • By 54% to 35%, those surveyed believe the police stop and search people even when they don’t have a good reason. The margin among white people was narrow (48% to 41%); among Black people, it widened to more than 3-1 (69% to 20%). 

The Milwaukee Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices have been the source of friction for years, especially with communities of color. In 2018, the city settled an ACLU lawsuit that alleged a racist pattern to stops, but a court-appointed monitor found little has changed since then.

“The policies behind the Milwaukee Police Department, I say, are racist because that’s the way that they were designed,” said Jackson, who has lived in Milwaukee since he was 7 years old. “They were that way when I was coming up as a teenager; they’re currently the same way now.”

The poll, taken by landline and cellphone June 3-6, has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Among subgroups, the margin of error is 6.9 points for white respondents, 7.6 points for Black respondents and 10.6 points for Hispanic respondents. 

Despite their concerns, residents across racial lines acknowledge they rely on the police.

“A deeper dive shows some hope for Milwaukee and its police department,” said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center. “Despite trust issues and skepticism, 70% of Black Milwaukee residents feel safe in their neighborhood, 76% would ask the police for help if needed, and 92% say they would provide information to the police if they witnessed a crime.” 

By a nearly 2-1 ratio (57% to 29%), those surveyed oppose the idea of “defund the police,” a slogan that can mean different things to different people. By an even wider margin (62% to 13%), residents say they would feel safer with more police officers on the job in their neighborhood, not with fewer.

However, a majority (55%) support the idea of cutting some funding from the police and using the money for such social services as helping the homeless and the mentally ill.

“I certainly would be in favor of taking a lot of the money that goes into the mill, arming the police with military-type weapons, and putting that into helping psychological people that deal with mental health problems,” said Tom Mulroy, 72, a freelance writer who is white. “The low-level and mental health-related problems are things that should be settled without the use of a gun.”

For the Milwaukee Police Department, the most encouraging finding may be this: 63% of those surveyed, including a majority across racial lines, agree with the statement that Milwaukee police generally treat people of different races fairly, even if there are a few “bad apples” on the force.

In contrast, 29%, including 36% of Black residents, agree with the statement that Milwaukee police are racist in the way they treat people, even if some of them try to do a good job.

Jason Brooks isn’t sure what will happen next. 

“I feel two ways about it, and there’s one end that goes, ‘This has been happening forever,’ ” he said, despite calls for change. But he wondered if the prevalence of cellphones and their cameras is now making a difference. He mentioned Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, all Black men whose deaths prompted nationwide protests.

“Then there’s a part of me that goes: ‘This was a big deal. People see it,’ ” he said. “The world is just able to finally see it.”

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