When Wisconsin’s leaders talk about racial inequalities, they often point to longstanding segregation, chronic poverty, a failing public school system, and high black unemployment. But America’s Dairyland is plagued by another factor few Wisconsinites like talking about: very high and very unequal arrest rates.
Wisconsin has the second-highest arrest rate for juveniles in the country, behind only Indiana. Black kids are almost four times as likely to be arrested as white kids in the state, and five times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, curfew violations, or loitering.
While Milwaukee, the city where I grew up, often takes the heat for the state’s policing problems, police in the capital city of Madison — a college town often considered a liberal bastion in the middle of conservative farmland — actually arrest black kids at a much higher rate than cops in Wisconsin’s largest city. In Madison, black kids are eight times as likely as white kids to be arrested, according to FBI and Census data.
In a city where whites outnumber blacks more than 11 to 1, Madison made over 1000 arrests of black children between the ages of 10 and 17 in 2013. It’s unclear how many kids may have been arrested more than once, but only 3,247 black children of that age live in the city, according to the Census.
“My grandmother moved from Mississippi to Madison with me because she was told it was a great city. It’s so progressive, it’s so welcoming,” said Christen Justice, a black 18-year-old who settled in Madison when he was 9. “And it is great, if you’re white.”
I spoke to more than a dozen black teenagers on a recent trip to the state’s capital; not a single one was surprised to learn that their police department had one of the nation’s highest arrest rates for black kids.
Every teenager I spoke to said they and their black peers were unfairly targeted by the police. Each told a different story.
Sirena Flores, 17, said she was arrested for “blocking traffic” during a peaceful protest. Charles Jargue, 18, said he was ticketed as a 10 year old for “running in the street.” One 15-year-old said she was cited for disorderly conduct for picnicking in a restricted area of a park.
Christen Justice, who is black, 6’6’’ and 240 pounds, says he tries his best to avoid the Madison police, but it isn’t always easy. “Some people find me intimidating, I guess,” Justice said. “I try my best to stay out of everyone’s way, I try not to give the police an excuse to look at me twice or a reason to lock me away.
Nearly 13 percent of African American men in Wisconsin are incarcerated, a rate that’s twice the national average.
Justice says he was wrongfully issued a shoplifting citation at the East Towne Mall, where he works, after a friend he was with stole from a store. Despite his insistence that he was innocent, Justice performed community service for the citation on his parents’ advice, he says.
Four weeks later, on his lunch break from his job at Hollister, Justice headed to Taco Bell in the mall’s food court with friends, as he often did. Two police officers approached him while he was eating, he recalls. They asked him what he was doing and told him he wasn’t allowed to be there.
“I was sitting there eating, and they came up to me and said, ‘Stand up, you’re under arrest,’” Justice said. He told the officers he was returning to his job shortly, but they cuffed him and made him sit in a police car for three hours. They cited him for trespassing.
Justice “was allowed to report to work at East Towne Mall, but was not to conduct other activities,” said Madison Police public information officer Joel DeSpain, who also noted that this wasn’t Justice’s only run in with police.
The Madison police chief, Mike Koval, told Fusion he rejects the idea that his department is the “driver in creating adverse consequential contacts with African Americans.”
“On any given month, more than 98 percent of our calls for service are activated through the 9-1-1 Center,” he said in a statement. “Upon arrival, our officers are required by law to evaluate the behavior that is manifesting to see if it reaches legal thresholds required to ticket and/or arrest.”
Justice is currently fighting the citation and trying to save enough money to go out-of-state for college, in part to distance himself from Madison’s police force.
In March, a white police officer, Matt Kenny, shot and killed one of Justice’s close friends, a biracial 19-year-old named Tony Robinson. The police say Robinson was behaving erratically and had taken drugs prior to the incident. The police officer was not charged.
Robinson’s friends say he wouldn’t be dead if he was white.
“When I think about it, I figure that the biggest threat to my life is a police officer,” Justice said. “My biggest threat is the people who are supposed to be protecting you.”
A NEW KIND OF POLICING
The death of Tony Robinson was particularly tragic for Lester Moore, 47, a black cop who has served on the Madison police force for 16 years. Moore has pushed for years for his department to diversify its ranks and build trust with minorities in the city. Its police department is 80 percent white and 10 percent black, according to most recent estimates.
Moore was moved to tears when talking about how Robinson’s family is coping with his death. The officer grew up in Houston in the 1970s; he distinctly remembers disliking the police and thinking they abused their powers.
“Until you’ve walked in it and lived in it, it’s hard to imagine how humiliating it is when you’re treated badly by a police officer,” he said. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
He now aims to improve perceptions of the Madison police every day by “building trust and policing with love.”
“We gotta start doing things differently,” Moore said. “A lot of people across the United States are upset with their policing, and some of it is for good reasons. If we’re not open to having the discussion about what you could do better, then you’re not serving.”
Moore doesn’t have to respond to calls as most officers do. Instead, he patrols the city’s Darbo-Worthington section as a “neighborhood cop.” Much of his day job involves giving kids birthday presents, supporting community events, and talking to mothers.
“Look at him, he looks like your uncle,” LaToya Jackson, a mother of two young children in the neighborhood, said of Moore. “People trust Lester, but not all cops are are as friendly as Lester.”
Unlike many of his comrades, Moore tries to avoid writing tickets for what he calls “petty stuff.” If teens are “standing out, if they are slap-boxing or messing around, I don’t roll up on them and give tickets,” he said.
In Madison, a black child is 14 times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than a white child.
“For some reason, if black males are arguing, it’s [seen as] more menacing to others,” Moore said. “I recognize that behavior from growing up, as a kid. I don’t really mess with that.”
Katie Adler, a recently retired neighborhood cop in Madison, says part of the problem is that instead of arrest being a last resort, it is often the only option for Madison police who want to get children access to state services like counseling.
“The system is kind of screwed up,” Adler said. “The only way you could get the kid help sometimes would be to start arresting them, so that they’d have a state charge, so that they end up getting the services they need.”
The Madison Police Department has admitted that there is room to improve, and has recently launched initiatives to find alternatives to arrests and decrease the racial disparity in arrests for young people.
“If [the Madison Police Department] is part of the problem, then we are also anxious to be a part of the solution,” Chief Koval wrote in a blog post this summer about a new “restorative justice” courts program. “We are committed to examining systems, evaluating practices, and exploring possibilities beyond the traditional default switch of ticketing or arresting away our concerns.”
Moore thinks that reform is long overdue, and his department is not always asking the right people. One lieutenant recently called on a panel of white professors to figure out why unhappy members of Madison’s black community were gathering during neighborhood arrests, Moore recalled.
“If you want to know why people are upset with you, shouldn’t you just go ask them?” Moore said. ”We have to sit down and have a long conversation with ourselves to make sure we’re really serving our whole community.”
But Moore told me he can’t do it alone: “I’m not in management, I don’t make those decisions, I’m just a little old neighborhood officer on the beat.”
— Alice Brennan, Mark Gimein, and Susan McGregor from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University provided additional data reporting for this story.