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According to Milwaukee police, the city saw 66 traffic deaths in 2021 in a total of 61 incidents.
But data shows only 38 of the 61 incidents, or 62%, were due to reckless driving.
Meanwhile, motor vehicle thefts did more than double, from 4,508 in 2020, to 10,482 last year.
Stolen cars and the reckless driving that follows have climbed to the top of the worry list for Milwaukee residents who are now facing the first open mayoral race since 2004. A primary is scheduled for Feb. 15, with the spring election April 5.
Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who is among seven candidates, unveiled a plan in a Dec. 21, 2021 news release dubbed S.T.A.N.D. for Safer Streets. City officials say the plan focuses on:
Safe street design
It includes physical road improvements; stepped-up police enforcement, a new policy for towing unregistered or unlicensed vehicle operators who are caught driving at dangerous speeds; and a staff member in the mayor’s office to coordinate the plan across city departments and work with residents and businesses.
"As a parent of three children in Milwaukee, and someone who drives these streets daily, I find the statistics around automobile accidents and vehicle thefts unacceptable," said Johnson.
To be sure, at the time Johnson was the incoming mayor, since Mayor Tom Barrett – who had been confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg – had not yet resigned. Johnson was sworn in as acting mayor two days later.
The news release went on to state that "in 2021, 65 people in Milwaukee lost their lives due to reckless driving accidents, and more than 9,000 cars were stolen, double the amount in 2020."
Let’s look at both parts of the claim.
When asked for supporting data to back up Johnson’s statement, city staffers directed our attention to Milwaukee Police Department Traffic Safety Unit statistics. According to MPD data, the city saw 66 traffic fatalities in 2021 (as of Feb. 3, 2022, there had been 6).
Johnson’s news release cited a figure of 65, so obviously one additional fatality occurred between that date and Dec. 31, 2021. But there is an important factor that gums up the claim: Johnson’s news release is citing reckless driving fatalities, while the MPD statistics simply cite traffic fatalities.
Here is the department’s breakdown on traffic fatalities for 2021:
66 individuals were killed in fatal crashes
There were 61 fatal crash incidents
But only 38 of the 61 of the crashes involved reckless driving (62%)
The 38 reckless vehicle crashes resulted in 43 fatalities.
"The fact that dozens of people died in such crashes verifies the seriousness of the problem," said Jeff Fleming, communications director for the mayor’s office, in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "Nevertheless, we overstated last year’s reckless driving death toll."
As a point of reference, Karen Domagalski, operations manager at the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, said there were 87 motor vehicle accident deaths in 2021 throughout the county, so deaths in accidents in the city accounted for nearly 76% percent of those.
In Milwaukee, residents have increasingly raised concerns about reckless driving. Here is just a sampling of those incidents from 2021:
June 16, 2021: A 16-year-old boy was killed and five other teens were hospitalized when police attempted to stop a stolen vehicle on the 9900 block of West Good Hope Road, but the driver instead led officers on a chase and eventually crossed over into oncoming traffic, hitting another vehicle head-on at 50 to 60 miles an hour.
August 15, 2021: A car that was speeding and disregarding red traffic signals at 2:07 a.m. struck a Milwaukee County bus in the 2700 block of West Wisconsin Ave. The passenger of the car, a 38-year-old man, died from his injuries. The driver, a 28-year-old man, was hospitalized in stable condition after suffering life-threatening injuries.
August 15, 2021: A Milwaukee man and woman were killed in a crash after two vehicles were drag racing at North 76th Street and West Silver Spring Drive around 7:10 p.m. and one vehicle struck a vehicle that had not been racing. Inside that other vehicle was a 66-year-old Milwaukee man and a 21-year-old Milwaukee woman. Both died on scene, police said.
August 29, 2021: A 16-year-old boy was killed and three other teens, ranging in age from 15 to 17, were critically injured in a single-vehicle crash when the driver lost control and struck a tree about 3:30 p.m. in the 3100 block of North 20th Street, police said. Footage from TV news stations shows the damaged car ended up on the grounds of Union Cemetery.
The second part of the claim is more straightforward. Johnson’s news release said more than 9,000 cars were stolen, double the amount in 2020.
According to Milwaukee Police Department Crime Maps and Statistics, there were 4,508 thefts of motor vehicles in 2020, and the total by year’s end in 2021 was 10,482, an increase of 133%.
So he is on the money there.
Johnson claimed that "In 2021, 65 people in Milwaukee have lost their lives due to reckless driving accidents, and more than 9,000 cars have been stolen, double the amount in 2020."
Johnson was correct with the stolen vehicle part of the claim, but was off on the deaths due to reckless driving. The number cited by Johnson was for all traffic fatalities. The actual figures, according to Milwaukee police, are 38 reckless vehicle crashes resulted in 43 fatalities.
For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, our rating is Half True.
Email, Kailyn Kenney, Chief of Staff to the Common Council President at City of Milwaukee, Jan. 18, 2022.
Email, Karen Domagalski, Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, Jan. 26, 2022
Email, Jordan Morales, BUILD Health Sherman Park, Jan. 26, 2022
Email, Jeff Fleming, communications director for the mayor’s office, Jan. 28, 2022.
Email, Milwaukee Police Department Office of Management, Analysis, and Planning (OMAP) Jan. 28, 2022
Milwaukee Police Department Traffic Safety Unit, "Fatalities of Persons"
Milwaukee Police Department Crime Maps and Statistics "Motor Vehicle Thefts"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "'Total disregard': Sherman Park residents are fed up with reckless driving. Here's how one resident is trying to stop it," Dec. 13, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Milwaukee's streets simply aren't safe. The city needs a stronger response to reckless driving," Sept. 10, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Motorist speeding on Fond du Lac Avenue dies in crash, injures two women," Oct. 31, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "16-year-old dies, five other teens injured after a stolen vehicle crashes into another car, police say — latest in reckless driving crisis," June 16, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "A 16-year-old boy was killed and three other teens in critical condition after reckless driving crash near Union Cemetery," August 29, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Man, 51, dead in north side car crash; 31-year-old Milwaukee woman arrested by police," Sept. 7, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "'They murder people': After drag racing cars on Milwaukee's northwest side cause fatal crash, officials call for action on reckless driving," August 15, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Two men killed by street-racing driver in Milwaukee; two others die in separate crashes over weekend," Aug. 8, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson sworn in, mayoral election scheduled for April 5," Dec. 23, 2021.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "After Tom Barrett's resignation, Milwaukee's first open mayoral race in nearly two decades features seven candidates," Jan. 19, 2022.
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