It Isn’t Easy Being Black in the Badger State

Cristina Costantini, Fusion, September 25, 2015

Every year, my home state is rated one of the best states to grow up–if you’re white. But it’s one of the worst if you’re black.

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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.

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Nearly 13 percent of African American men in Wisconsin are incarcerated, a rate that’s twice the national average.

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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.”

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In Madison, a black child is 14 times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than a white child.

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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.”

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