By Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued on Wednesday to halt Milwaukee's stop-and-frisk policy, a nationally controversial policing practice that critics say unfairly targets people of color and has been endorsed by President Donald Trump.
Police defend the practice as an effective way to deter crime, despite scant evidence that it lowers crime rates, and say innocent people should not fear being stopped and searched by officers in the interest of public safety.
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In its lawsuit, the ACLU charged that Milwaukee's stop-and-frisk program discriminates against black and Latino people and unconstitutionally lets police stop people without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Milwaukee's city attorney declined to comment. Milwaukee Police Department Chief Ed Flynn said in a statement that he rejects the label "stop-and-frisk" for the police department's anti-crime practice, but added that traffic stops in high crime areas have been proven to reduce the number of non-fatal crimes.
The ACLU has successfully challenged stop-and-frisk programs in two other cities, reaching court-enforced reform agreements with Philadelphia in 2011 and with Chicago in 2015. Stop-and-frisk by New York City police was halted after a federal court ruled it was unconstitutional in 2013.
In Milwaukee, the ACLU is seeking a court order to end the practice there, citing studies and officer testimony that said police conduct overly aggressive stop-and-frisk patrols in largely black and Latino neighborhoods.
Trump, a Republican, repeatedly endorsed stop-and-frisk during his 2016 election campaign and civil rights advocates are concerned that his administration will dismantle policing reforms pursued by Democratic President Barack Obama.
"This work is even more important now when it doesn't appear that similar reforms will come from the Justice Department," said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury.
Darius Charney, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney who brought the case in New York, said he expects civil society groups to start intervening in Obama-era police reform agreements if Trump's Justice Department stops aggressively enforcing them.
Trump's main anti-crime action has been an executive order directing the U.S. Attorney General to establish a task force on crime reduction and public safety.
In Milwaukee, violent crime per capita was higher in 2015 than in 2007, according to FBI data, even though the Milwaukee police made nearly three times more traffic and pedestrian stops in 2015.
Tracy Adams, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said her 17-year-old son has been stopped and searched by officers for no clear reason several times while walking through his neighborhood, beginning when he was 11.
(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)