Third of three stories.
Marijuana was the second most-common target in residential drug searches conducted by police in Milwaukee County in 2019, well behind cocaine but ahead of heroin, a review of search warrant filings found.
Trailing far behind and seldom searched for were meth, opiate painkillers, and Ecstasy, according to an analysis by Marquette University journalists.
Rarely was marijuana – which Milwaukee County and many municipalities have taken steps to decriminalize – the sole drug targeted by police in a particular raid. That was the case in just 11 of 433 drug search warrants carried out at Milwaukee County addresses in 2019.
That year was chosen for the review because it was the most recent year unaffected by the COVID pandemic, which affected law enforcement and court operations.
But marijuana was in the search mix in 54% of warrant requests, most of them by Milwaukee police and multi-agency drug task forces.
Here’s the breakdown of how often police targeted each drug in the 433 searches:
Police reported nabbing 26 pounds of pot on a summer day in 2019 at a home on Milwaukee’s northwest side, but court records show no charges against the suspect until a separate incident in 2021.
In south suburban Greenfield, police investigated alleged gang members and made multiple arrests on marijuana, heroin and cocaine charges with help from a home search following neighborhood complaints in 2019.
No matter the drug, searches of residences were pretty effective in finding potentially incriminating evidence.
Police found drugs in at least two out of every three residential searches (67%). (Excludes canine drug sniffs outside homes.)
Sloppy or inconsistent reporting by police on public search warrant documents makes that statistic a little squishy. The actual number is likely higher. Sometimes police report finding evidence but don’t attach the inventory or otherwise specify results.
The “success” rate in finding evidence rises to 81% when including things such as weapons, drug paraphernalia, ammunition, and business records of dealing. (Again excluding the sniffs.)
Nearly every canine “odor search” included pot as a target in 2019, the review found.
That might be changing for some police departments as marijuana legalization spreads in the U.S. – though not yet in Wisconsin.
“Many jurisdictions that are buying drug dogs now are not having those drug dogs trained to detect marijuana, in anticipation of potential legalization in this state,” said South Milwaukee Police Chief William Jessup.
“If you have a dog that's trained to detect marijuana, you can't untrain that dog,” he added.
Jessup said South Milwaukee police are moving away from doing odor searches for marijuana.
What is the track record of “Bravo” and “Rex” and all those other drug-sniffing dogs that local police have reported using outside residences to build a case for doing a search of a residence?
The Marquette review found that in odor searches, police report the dog almost unfailingly found the presence of drugs. Police used positive dog hits to beef up their applications for far more intrusive search warrants. But the accuracy of police dogs has been questioned, and studies have shown that there are a significant number of false alerts – enough to raise questions about the usefulness of any single drug sniff.
The Marquette review found less interest in marijuana searches by anti-drug task forces that go after higher-level drug traffickers and employ officers from multiple agencies – local, state and federal.
The individual municipal police departments that conducted searches – and not all of them did – showed more interest in searching for pot.
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