October 22, 2015

Strip search bill before the Legislature

By: Sen. Lena Taylor

If you live outside Milwaukee, you might not see Wisconsin’s racial gap. But enter the city limits of Milwaukee and it’s pretty hard to miss.

A couple of terrible statistics jump right off the page. We lead the nation in the incarceration rate of black men, we were rated as the worst state in the nation to raise a black child and we have tremendous racial disparities in all facets of life. It is simply unacceptable. This week, the Legislature took up a bill that could make that disparity even worse.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing this week on Senate Bill 248, which would eliminate the 12-hour hold on law enforcement strip searches of detainees who are suspected of having committed nonviolent crimes. That 12-hour hold is often long enough for individuals whose alleged crime is not fitting of a strip search to have been released, thus avoiding the horrible humiliation of a strip search.

As the mother of a black child who is about to get his driver’s license, I already fear how he may be treated for driving while black. But if this bill becomes law, I will also have to fear that a simple traffic stop could result in a degrading strip search like that which many of my constituents have already been subjected to.

As the only person of color on the committee, I reminded my white colleagues to view this legislation through a culturally diverse lens. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’ve never been racially profiled, it’s really difficult to put yourself in the shoes of people who have. But as lawmakers, each of them have the same vote I do on this bill. That’s why I asked them to keep a few key things in mind when contemplating the strip search bill.  

First, as I stated previously, we lead the nation in incarceration rate of black men. Additionally, many of the Republicans on the committee are the same individuals who repealed my law that required data collection on certain traffic stops. While we know the incarceration rate, the goal of the bill was to prove what those of us in the black community know to historically be true; that we have a greater racial disparity of traffic stops than our white neighbors.

But our racial disparities aren’t limited to driving without a seat belt. Remember several months ago when legislators from all over the state supported a brand new $500 million arena for the Milwaukee Bucks? Where were those same voices after Milwaukee Bucks player, John Henson, was racially profiled while attempting to shop for a watch at Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers in Whitefish Bay? I believe it is hypocritical to tell these NBA players we want their income tax revenue and we will support them when they are on the court but not when they are on the streets.

During the hearing, I implored my colleagues not to expand Wisconsin’s strip search law, especially in light of Milwaukee’s challenges on the issue. Remember, Milwaukee is home to the 2013 roadside strip search of a man who happened to be a passenger of a car that was pulled over. Because the police found one bullet and some marijuana on the driver, they used that as justification to strip search another man on the side of the road. According to Devin Ragland’s account, he was made to drop his pants. The officer conducting the search felt his testicles through his basketball shorts. Other officers who later arrived on the scene pulled Ragland’s shorts and underwear away, exposing his genitals. In the end, Ragland was arrested for being a minor in possession of cigarettes. Now I’m no advocate for our babies smoking, but I submit to you that’s no reason for a strip search, especially on the side of the road in front of the public. The incident and subsequent investigation led to four officers accused of illegal strip searches.

But that case is just the tip of the iceberg. As of last year, Milwaukee was battling over 50 different lawsuits of illegal strip and cavity searches. We have a real racial gap in Milwaukee. Rather than taking up bills that dehumanize people, I challenged my colleagues to work on the real issues that are plaguing our community.