Milwaukee reckless drivers; police allow most to drive away

If a reckless driver's weapon is a car, Milwaukee police now have the authority to disarm them. However, a FOX6 News investigation finds most of the time, they do not. 

Since May 1, 2022, police have towed more than 200 cars involved in reckless driving. The mayor and police chief say it is making a difference. What they will not tell you in a news release is how many dangerous drivers they still allow to drive away.

If reckless driving were a sport, Dirul Chaplin would be an all-star. In the past four years, Milwaukee police alone have pulled him over 26 times for running red lights, blowing through stop signs, cutting in and out of lanes, and speeding.

"But they keep letting me go though," Chaplin said when FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn caught up with him in June.

"Why do you think that is?" Polcyn asked.

"'Cause there ain’t nothing they can do about it," Chaplin answered.

Two years ago, a Milwaukee police officer warned Chaplin there would be consequences. If, that is, he drove the same way somewhere else."

Dirul Chaplin laughs during a traffic stop in December 2022

"Especially if you drive around in West Allis and stuff like that," the officer can be heard saying in a video recorded by his body worn camera. "They have nothing better to do but just arrest you and tow the vehicle because they legally can."

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That was supposed to change last spring when the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission approved a policy that gives officers the authority to have a reckless driver's car towed in limited circumstances. The policy allows police to tow a vehicle if it's unregistered and one of four other conditions is true:

  • The driver was racing
  • Fleeing police
  • Endangering safety by reckless driving; or
  • Speeding 25 mph or more over the limit

When the policy was first approved, Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman touted it as a strong signal that they were serious about curbing the behavior. 

"I believe wholeheartedly this will send a message and have that particular type of response our public is looking for," Norman said.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson supports the tow policy.

"You're able to take the vehicle, or in some cases, the weapon, away," Johnson said. "I think we’re making a significant impact."

Chief Norman said that, among other efforts, it is making a difference.

"I feel that we’re making headway," Norman said.

A FOX6 Investigators review of police data shows there is some evidence to back that up.

Milwaukee Police started towing the cars of some reckless drivers in May 2022

Of the 177 drivers towed for reckless driving between April 1, 2022 and Dec. 31, 2022, 149 of them (or 85%) have committed no new traffic violations since.

"There is some improvement," said Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy. "But I think the reality is we have a long way to go."

The former chair of Milwaukee's Reckless Driving Task Force, Murphy says he is still hearing from constituents who are concerned.

"The number one issue that I hear is really about how scared they are driving on the roads of our city," Murphy said.

The police department's reckless driving tow policy took effect May 1, 2022. Between May 1, 2022, and the end of the year, Milwaukee Police wrote more than 20,000 traffic tickets. That includes:

  • 1,070 for running red lights
  • 492 for running stop signs
  • 389 for fleeing from police
  • 1,792 for speeding 25 miles per hour or more over the limit

In all, police wrote nearly 5,000 (4,962) tickets for violations they consider "reckless driving." But in that same time period, they towed 177 cars. In other words, for every 20 reckless drivers police caught, they allowed 19 to drive away.

(Note: Which violations MPD considers reckless driving is derived from two sources. First, page 14 of the department's 2023 Budget Presentation to the Common Council. Second, pages 2 and 3 of a lawsuit filed by the city against Anthony Szablewski accusing him of repeated reckless driving that amounts to a "public nuisance.")

That includes Dirul Chaplin. Police pulled him over on Sept. 17, 2022 and again on Dec. 14, 2022. Both times, he was driving the same, unregistered 2010 Dodge Caliber. It is also the same car FOX6 Investigators found him driving Jan. 13, 2023, on his way to traffic court in Waukesha.

Police stopped Chaplin in the same unregistered 2010 Dodge Caliber in September and December. Each time, police allowed him to drive away from the stop, even though his license is revoked.

"You drove illegally to a court hearing for driving illegally," Polcyn said after approaching Chaplin in the parking lot.

"Does it matter what I'm doing?" Chaplin replied. 

When Milwaukee police stopped Chaplin in December, an officer admitted he was looking past the obvious registration violation.

"I'm just going to get you the speeding one, ‘cause that’s what we’re out here trying to curb, alright? The speeding. Alright?" the officer said. "But you know you’ve got to get your car registered."

Milwaukee police now say they could not have towed him anyway. He was caught driving 59 in a 35. That's 24 miles-per-hour over the limit – one shy of the tow policy standard.

Murphy said he fears Chaplin is a serious crash waiting to happen.

"I think it’s a matter of time, just on probability," Murphy said. "People who play Russian Roulette, it eventually catches up with them."

"I'd say that basically we’re doing everything that we possibly can," Norman said.

But there's one thing Chief Norman is not yet ready to do -- lower the speed threshold for towing reckless drivers.

"I don’t mind having a small group," Norman said. "We should be going after a small group."

Drivers going at least 25 miles per hour over the limit already account for 26% of all speeding tickets in Milwaukee. Lower the threshold to 20 mph, and it's 71%. Lower it all the way to 15 mph, as some neighborhood activists have requested, and the policy could cover 98% of all speeding tickets in the city. Still, city leaders say it's an option.

"Do you think there’s benefit to lowering that threshold?" Polcyn asked.

"I think there are a number of things we can look at, certainly that’s one," said Mayor Johnson.

"I think that’s a possibility," Murphy said.

"It would be nice to know what the numbers look like when we’re in May 2023," said Chief Norman, referring the first full year of towing data. "But all options are on the table."

Whatever they do, Chaplin will likely not pay much attention.

"I don’t care," Chaplin said.

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As long as he has four wheels and keys, he'll keep shooting for reckless driving's MVP.

The 25 mile-per-hour standard for exceeding the speed limit is just one of four reasons Milwaukee police can currently tow an unregistered car. Another is endangering safety by reckless driving -- but there's a specific state law for that – and Milwaukee police say speeding, by itself, is not enough for a reckless driving citation.

Milwaukee Police Sergeant Efrain Cornejo says it is only when speed is combined with other dangerous behaviors like weaving, passing on the right, or cutting off traffic, that it rises to the level of reckless driving.