BETTY JEAN TUCKER, a 62-year-old resident of Canton, Mississippi, says she was hosting a barbecue for family and friends in 2014 when several unmarked cars appeared. Plainclothes deputies from the Madison County Sheriff's Department (MCSD) jumped out. Without a warrant, they detained and searched all her guests, going so far as to rummage through everyone's pockets, she says. After finding nothing, the deputies got back in their cars and drove off without explanation.
It wasn't the first time Tucker had a run-in with the MCSD. About five years ago, she says, her teenage grandson was in her front yard, fixing his brother's bicycle, when an unmarked truck sped toward him and stopped. Two plainclothes officers jumped out, tackled him to the ground, and searched him. Again finding nothing, the deputies left. Tucker shouted at them, asking what he had done. "Tell your grandson to wear a shirt next time," they allegedly replied.
Tucker is now a named plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) class action lawsuit against Madison County. The suit, filed in May, alleges that the sheriff's department and its plain-clothes "jump-out" squads systematically target and violate the Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights of residents like her just for being black and living in the wrong place.
The dozens of similar stories unearthed in the ACLU's suit and a subsequent Reason investigation are stunning, but the Madison County Sheriff's Department's tactics are not unique. Paloma Wu, a Mississippi ACLU attorney, says they only represent a "sharpened iteration" of the methods used widely in other places across the country.
The ACLU is also suing Milwaukee for its high-volume stop-and-frisk program, which the civil rights group says subjects minority residents to suspicionless searches. Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn is a disciple of "broken windows" policing--the theory that a heavy police presence in a community, combined with proactive enforcement of low-level nuisance crimes, will deter more serious offenses. Under Flynn, the combined number of police traffic and pedestrian stops in Milwaukee nearly tripled in an eight-year period, rising from 66,657 in 2007 to 196,434 in 2015, according to the lawsuit. And minorities bear the brunt of that saturation policing.
Flynn argues the strategy logically focuses on areas with the most crime...