Derelict Properties Often Havens For Wrongdoers

Mar 19, 2014

Abandoned homes in Milwaukee challenge law enforcement
Credit Bob Bach

Milwaukee police must be vigilant to stop a myriad of illegal activities in vacant homes.

Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate of African American males in the country. Here in Milwaukee, one zip code area is particularly affected - 53206. Nearly 4,000 black men there are, or have been, locked up.

As part of our Project Milwaukee series on the issue, we rode along with police patrolling the area – because they decide whom to arrest - the first step toward incarceration.

Sgt. Louis Staton describes what he sees and hears every day that causes concern.

“A lot of times what I’ll do is read a daily crime briefing and I’ll see what kind of crimes have occurred, and descriptions of people or vehicles,” Staton says.

The officers keep an eye out for those suspects and, for things that look out of the ordinary.

Capt. Tom Stigler says they also watch boarded up houses.

“In that past block there were six boarded up houses, there’s another one. In two blocks we have, there’s another one there, eight boarded up houses plus all the vacant lots. Can you imagine being one of the citizens that owns a house on this block that’s trying to make it work.  The houses are literally scavenged for everything scrap metal. They get boarded up. Then, they are just magnets for kids to hang out on, and they’ll use ‘em as drug houses, sometimes they’ll run extension cords from other houses to put electricity in there. Sometimes they run after hours bars out of them, those are illegal taverns that are run out of either private residences or commercial buildings. They’re magnets for crimes number one and they’re extremely dangerous –multiple homicides over the years at these after hour parties where there’s just uncontrolled liquor being consumed and there’s drugs and people have guns. There might be one light in the middle of the basement and a stripper pole hanging in the corner and that’s all that’s going on there. Sometime in the not too distant past, every one of these vacant lots was a house that was occupied by a family, a taxpaying family that cared about their neighborhood. We have a very, very low owner occupancy rate in this area and that leads to some of the problems that you see as we’re driving along here –the litter. There’s a lot of disorder in this area and it’s our job to try and keep it under control,” Stigler says.

Police say warnings about illegally entering properties are often ignored.

Stigler says one technology is helping Milwaukee police respond quickly to troublesome situations.

It’s called Shot Spotter –microphones tucked out of sight in high crime neighborhoods. The system enables officers to almost instantly, identify where someone has fired a gun.

On a hot summer night when there is very little wind, sometimes the officers tell me they can still smell the gun smoke in the air. The vast majority of gun shots in Milwaukee --it’s a crime to shoot a gun in the city of Milwaukee, but they’re not shooting at somebody. They’re not shooting at somebody that was breaking into their house, they’re not shooting at an opposing gang member or drub member, people just shoot off guns in the city. Sometimes they do it, they buy a gun from somebody on the street and they want to make sure it works, so they go off the back porch and fire a couple of shots into the ground or fire some shots into the air. You know at bar time, they have a gun with them and they shoot off guns, or they try and shoot out street lights, or things like that,” Stigler says.

I asked him if such behavior destabilizes a neighborhood.

“Absolutely, and what we found is we have made a lot more arrests using the shot spotter program in the few years that it’s been in existence because a lot of times people don’t call the police when they hear gunshots in their neighborhood. Either they’re desensitized to it or they don’t want to get involved, so it’s helped us help the neighborhoods that really can’t help themselves. We’ve had neighbors come up and cheer us and you know, say ‘Thank you, for doing that, you know that idiot’s been shooting off that gun for the last three days,.’” Stigler says.

Part 2 of Bob Bach's Police Ride-Along: Police Say 'More Traffic Stops Mean Less Crime'