Policing in the United States might not go back as far as you think. True that part-time watchmen and the like existed beforehand, but until 1838, there wasn’t a publically funded organization with full-time officers. As the first police forces came from the economics of different regions, so too did the biases around discrimination instilled in those areas. One of the original functions of some branches of organized law enforcement was to preserve slavery through state-sanctioned control of black people. Some of the very first police departments in American history were formed with the intention of enforcing black codes, vagrancy laws, the fugitive slave act, convict-leasing, and various other policies designed to reify racial hierarchy during and in the absence of slavery.4

This is not to say that all law enforcement officials are racist, and indeed most who join the profession do so for the right reasons. It’s a tough job that at times requires tremendous sacrifice, but we must allow ourselves to have a national reckoning with policing’s lasting legacy of racism and unreservedly confront how the system’s past impacts how it operates today.

Movements like Black Lives Matter have led the way in this regard, shining a powerful light on the problem of police violence while galvanizing a groundswell of everyday Americans to push for sweeping reform. For its part, ACLU of Wisconsin has secured landmark legal victories to combat racial profiling and overpolicing in Wisconsin.

Last summer, ACLU of Wisconsin successfully settled a lawsuit with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) that put an end to the practice of racially motivated stop-and-frisk, a biased law enforcement technique which resulted in hundreds of thousands of city residents being stopped unlawfully by authorities, with African Americans stopped at six times the rate of their white counterparts. Additionally, MPD is expected to document how it conducts traffic and pedestrian stops, undergo anti-bias training, and grant oversight authority to an outside monitor.

But the issues don’t end with stop-and-frisk. In Milwaukee, as in many parts of the country, instances of officers abusing and using excessive force in encounters with people of color has added to the growing conversation over imposing stricter limits on how and when police can deploy lethal weapons. Appropriate use of tasers or stun guns, for example, has recently come under fire following the death of Adam Trammell and the altercation involving Sterling Brown. Tasers are typically classified as nonlethal instruments, but cases like these should compel us to reconsider that analysis.

One explanation for the persistent occurrences of excessive use of force by officers could be connected to the fact that, over the past several decades, the scope of policing’s role in society has expanded well beyond the parameters of maintaining public safety. Officers are now expected to take on entrenched social problems, like poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental health—issues requiring solutions that don’t involve the criminal justice system. An officer’s chief responsibility is to keep citizens safe, and it’s both unfair and unwise for us to task law enforcement with the burden of taking care of these broader structural failings.

For us to actually alleviate these social maladies, we must look for answers apart from the criminal legal system. This means struggling communities must have adequate schools, access to healthcare, improved mental health and addiction services, affordable housing, pathways to meaningful employment, and so on. It’s crucial that we don’t leave these obligations solely to law enforcement.

What You Need to Know

• While comprising 13 percent of the United States’ population, African Americans account for 31 percent of people killed by police, while people of color overall account for 62.7 percent of unarmed killings.3

• Although white people and people of color report using drugs at roughly equal rates, those arrested for drug offenses are far more likely to be black or brown. Black people, in particular, are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes.2

Prisons and Criminal Law Reform

The United States is the most punitive society on Earth, with approximately 2.3 million of its citizens sitting behind bars in jails and prisons. Ignited by the senseless war on drugs that began in the ‘70s, the prison population has skyrocketed to unprecedented proportions, paving the way for the emergence of an era of mass incarceration. The growth of the carceral state has had a disproportionately harmful effect on communities of color. If current trends continue, projections estimate that one in every three black boys born today can expect to experience incarceration at some point in their lifetimes.

Perhaps no city in the country has felt the devastating implications of mass incarceration more acutely than Milwaukee. With one of the highest imprisonment rates in the nation, statistics show that half of all black men in their 30s have spent time in a state correctional facility.3 As the prison system continues to ravage the people of Wisconsin, ACLU of Wisconsin launched its Smart Justice Campaign, a long-term project aiming to cut Wisconsin jail and prison populations in half by 2025, and to eliminate racial disparities within the criminal legal system.

From expanding drug-treatment programs and parole eligibility to rewriting sentencing guidelines and ending mandatory minimums, ACLU of Wisconsin has identified several areas in desperate need of reform. One of the most critical changes being pushed for is to stop the epidemic of crimeless revocation, a process by which thousands go to prison each year for violating minor technical rules constituted as conditions of their parole. In effect, crimeless revocation allows for the reimprisonment of individuals who have not reoffended, but may have instead done something as innocuous as borrow money or miss an appointment. These rules-only violations accounted for a staggering 37 percent of all admissions into state prisons in 2017.1 By taking the simple step of doing away with this onerous penalty, Wisconsin could dramatically decrease incarceration, free thousands of people across the state, and truly help directly impacted individuals lead prosperous, productive lives after prison.

To build a system that is both effective and fair, we need more than decarceration. Efforts meant to lessen reliance on the prison industrial complex must also be paired with antiracist and impartial initiatives that foster equal treatment for all. Eradicating the enormous disparities within the criminal justice system requires targeted solutions that specifically address bias, discrimination, and inequality. Instilling equity in criminal justice necessitates a far-reaching interrogation of every contour of the system, including policing, prosecution, the judicial process, cash bail, and carceral debt.

ACLU of Wisconsin has helped make significant strides in solving mass incarceration. In 2018, it led litigation that eventually forced the state to agree to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, two institutions with long and troubling histories of holding minors under horrific and abusive conditions. While they remain open, the facilities can no longer use punitive solitary confinement or pepper spray, and must strictly limit employing handcuffs, belly chains, and other restraints. In addition, the prisons will be overseen by an independent monitor who will ensure satisfactory compliance.

Amid intensifying criminalization of immigration, ACLU of Wisconsin, along with a coalition of community members and activists, organized to defeat a proposal that would’ve brought a for-profit ICE detention center to New Richmond.

What You Need to Know

• In 2016, 1 out of every 45 people in Wisconsin were under some form of correctional control.1

• In 2017, black adults in Wisconsin were imprisoned at nearly 12 times the rate of white adults.1

• Wisconsin holds the highest incarceration rate of Indigenous Americans in the country.1

• Between 1980 and 2016, the number of women in the state’s prisons grew by 816 percent.1

• Wisconsin spent more than $1 billion of its general fund on corrections in 2017.1

The statistics in this article point to a systemic problem in an institution often given permission to act without community oversight. The individuals who make up the majority of the policing forces in the United States deserve better than to be required to enter specialty roles they have not been trained for, often putting themselves and the public at undue risk. Only by taking an honest look at the state of policing forces and asking tough, but fair questions can we hope to create safer communities for all American citizens.

1 ACLU of Wisconsin . Smart justice blueprint.

2 Lopez, German. Vox .

3 Milwaukee Independent .

4 Time Magazine .

Additional sources:
Huff Post .

NAACP . Criminal justice fact sheet.

Cassandra Bowers is the communications director at ACLU of Wisconsin.