The falling leaves of late October reminded Jarrett English of his days growing up in Sherman Park. They helped paint the picture of the one night each year that the streets were blocked off for hundreds of kids going door to door trick-or-treating. It’s among his fond memories and a reminder of why, one day, he wants to move back to the neighborhood that helped raise him.
English, senior field organizer for the ACLU, now resides on the East Side, a few blocks from where he studied electrical engineering at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. While he grew to appreciate working with mechanical systems, he now values working within Milwaukee community systems.
“I still love applied sciences; one day I’ll go back to it,” English said. “But now, I feel the need is for me to do what I’m doing.”
English began his career organizing for political campaigns, starting as a volunteer organizer for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Because of his experience and a reputation in the organizing field, English was recruited to apply for a youth and programs organizer position at the ACLU in 2014. His role quickly transformed to his current position when English was selected to be the lead organizer on the suit against the Milwaukee Police Department for unconstitutional “stop and frisk,” the practice of stopping and patting down people with no cause.
The genesis of the lawsuit began years before English arrived at the ACLU. A national investigation into racial disparities among arrests for marijuana possession sparked the inquiry into additional areas of racial disparity in law enforcement. An analysis of MPD data found that 350,000 stops made by MPD between 2010 and 2017 failed to show reasonable suspicion of a crime. This number is more than half the population of the City of Milwaukee.
After surveying people and looking at data on the demographics of unconstitutional stop and frisk cases, the ACLU concluded that stops targeted black and Latino people at higher rates than they targeted white people, suggesting racial and ethnic profiling.
“Even though we filed the case, and we, for a very long time, worked on it, this is something that the community has been asking for, for a very long time. There’s been activists and organizers from other organizations doing a lot of work to try to hold the MPD accountable,” English said.
Emilio De Torre, director of community engagement at the ACLU of Wisconsin, said that English’s work on the case was pivotal in understanding how Milwaukee communities are affected by unconstitutional stop and frisk.
“We started the project prior to his arrival, but it certainly bore fruit because of his strong relationships with the community, his ever presence at community meetings, community groups and meeting with folks,” De Torre said. “People jokingly call him the mayor of Milwaukee because so many folks know him and respect him.
English’s office is uncharacteristically disorganized. Mounds of papers stack atop boxes of pamphlets and fliers. He hasn’t had a chance to clean up since finishing “The Justice Tour,” a discussion event on race-based policing and mass incarceration in Wisconsin. Plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk lawsuit had the opportunity to share their stories and discuss the settlement of the lawsuit that was signed on July 23.
The terms of the settlement require MPD to undergo reform in an effort to eliminate unconstitutional stop and frisks conducted without reasonable suspicion and/or based on race and ethnicity. In addition, MPD is also now required to seek community input on police operations from the Milwaukee Collaborative Community Committee.
Tammy Rivera, executive director of the Southside Organizing Committee and treasurer of the Collaborative Community Committee said that community oversight is vital to resolve tensions between police and community members.
“If you’ve never experienced a particular issue, you’re not understanding the nuances of that lived experience,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s work in MPD District 2 has shown her that improvement in police and community relations on the South Side could spread to rest of the city in light of MPD changes within the last year, including the appointment of Chief of Police Alfonso Morales.
“The current chief was the former captain of District 2, and we’ve had the opportunity to work with him for several years with the community and law enforcement collaboration grassroots model and have had a lot of success,” Rivera said. “Right now, there’s a sense of things improving because of our first-hand experience with the former captain.”
English personally understands that improvement in police and community relations is still needed throughout the city. In late August 2016, English and State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff were taken to the ground, arrested and briefly detained while they were talking to residents and observing activities in Sherman Park a few weeks after unrest in the neighborhood resulting from the police killing of Sylville K. Smith. Police did not give a reason for the arrests.
“It’s important to bring up not because of me, but because those things happen to people all the time,” English said. “And it’s not something that is uncommon for people of color to be arrested wrongfully or be accused wrongfully or be harassed or even brutalized.”
According to English, unlawful police practices affect all people regardless of race, due to expensive police settlements paid to victims of misconduct by the city. That’s part of why he believes his work is valuable and important for all people to understand. While today his top priority is ensuring that the terms of the stop-and-frisk settlement are fully implemented, going forward, English hopes his work will continue to push forward other civil rights and liberties.
“A lot of times people refer to social justice work as the ‘good fight,’” English said. “I’m not here to do a good fight; I’m here to win.”