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Are police ticketing practices creating a tinder box in black community?

Sara Sidner | 8/24/2016, noon
It's not just about police killing black men. It's deeper than that.

— It's not just about police killing black men. It's deeper than that.

Khalif Rainey stares intensely across the police tape marking the burnt out parts of the neighborhood he loves and represents.

Rainey is an Alderman for the 7th district in Milwaukee, which includes the Sherman Park neighborhood. It became the scene of protests and then violent clashes after police shot and killed Sylville Smith who is black and police say was armed.

"I see devastation," Rainey says. "I see something I hope we never see again."

Rainey laments what he sees, but also understands how it happened. He says the destructive reaction by some in the predominantly black neighborhood was not about the police shooting. It is much deeper than that.

One of the many triggers for the unrest is something much more mundane: the targeting and ticketing practices of police.

"Everyone felt it," Rainey says of the simmering tension. "Everyone knew that it was inevitable."

But some residents in Milwaukee don't understand the explosion of anger after a case like this, one where police say they have evidence the man pointed a gun at police.

'Oh lord,' it's the cops

Tawana Bridges has lived in Milwaukee since the 1970's. She is a single mother of five and having a heck of a time trying to make ends meet. She says just getting to and from her job every day is nerve wrecking, always looking over her shoulder wondering when the police are going to pull her over.

"Every day I see the police and I'm like 'Oh lord, not today,'" Bridges says.

Bridges says her ticketing nightmare began with a broken taillight. It came with a fine. Not only was she unable to afford to get her taillight fixed immediately, but she couldn't pay the fine, which just kept growing.

"Sometimes I don't have the extra $50 that they need me to send in. But if I don't send it then there's a warrant out for my arrest," Bridges says. "They will suspend my license so either way it goes. I'm in a lose-lose situation."

She is not alone.

A 2011 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that while blacks make up 19% of registered drivers in Milwaukee County, they received 69% of license suspensions for failing to pay fines. That far outweighs all other ethnicities. African-Americans point to numbers like these to show they are being targeted, which is ruining relations and creating more tension between the black community and police.

"Some of my clients are afraid to call the police for help in an emergency because they have a warrant for unpaid tickets," says Molly Gena, an attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin. "Imagine that for a moment."

The group represents those unable to pay for an attorney. Gena says what she is witnessing every day is black and poor residents bearing the brunt of the city's ticketing practices.

"My clients, so many of them lose their license for poverty-related reasons," Gena said.

Others say if you're breaking the law, there's no excuse. There have to be consequences and tickets can't be withheld out of concern a resident cannot pay it.