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Strip Search Bill Stirs Concerns Over Race And Policing

Opponents Say Measure Would Humiliate Minor Offenders, Be Enforced Unequally

Gilman Halsted/WPR

African-American legislators in Milwaukee are speaking out against a bill they say expands police officers’ ability to strip-search suspects, arguing it will increase racial profiling of young black men in the city.

Standing in front of the District Five Milwaukee Police Station, state Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd said the bill encourages a humiliating policy that will target young men of color.

“Enough of our young men being condemned to a future of incarceration because of the color of the skin instead of the culpability of their actions,” she said.

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But the bill’s co-author, Sen. Van Wanggaard, said it’s not about race.

“This is not something that is done to create an issue for any one person or any one group,” he said. “This is about keeping the jail safe.”

If passed, the measure would allow police to conduct strip searches on suspects who are being detained regardless of whether they are being charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. The bill has strong support from law enforcement groups who say they can’t detain suspects in the general jail population without making sure they’re not carrying weapons or contraband.

Wanggaard said a strip search could prevent a potential suicide or overdose. With the increased abuse of prescription drugs like oxycontin, he said, someone could be arrested on a minor charge of public drunkenness and successfully smuggle in baggies full of pills while waiting to make bail. Wanggaard said if the suspect is already in a depressed state, he might eat the pills and overdose.

Before the bill was voted out of committee, Sen. Lena Taylor tried and failed to amend it to exempt Milwaukee from the law because of its potential for disparate racial impact. Taylor said county jails should spend money on creating a detention space where suspects charged with minor crimes can be held until they can meet bail requirements.

She said that’s better than humiliating minor offenders who may not even be guilty.

“I would argue that people’s dignity is worth whatever that cost might be,” Taylor said.