A Milwaukee woman is considering legal action after Wisconsin Capitol Police, with assistance from Madison Police, detained her at gunpoint after she recovered her own stolen car in Madison.
Phillis Coleman said in an interview that her car was stolen from her Milwaukee home on the evening of July 4, and that she knew who had taken it. She said she spent several hours trying to reach the man who had taken it, and finally called Milwaukee police around 2 am on July 5. She said she told Milwaukee police who had stolen it and even where he lived, but they didn’t pursue it rigorously. Then, on July 9, she got word that her car was parked in a wooded area in Madison.
“I had called Milwaukee police several times to try to let them (know) that I had found my car and tried to let them know where I spotted it or what you have you,” she said. She said Milwaukee police told her someone would call her back.
She got a ride to Madison late that night, but there was a vicious thunderstorm, so she checked into a hotel. The next day, she went to pick up her car near Vernon Avenue.
Driving back to Milwaukee, things took a turn.
“Soon after I pick up my car, I’m using the GPS and I turned down East Washington (Avenue) and I realized that the police were following me,” Coleman said. “And I wasn’t quite sure if they were following me, but I pulled over. And then that’s when all the lights came on. It was one officer at first, he turned his lights on, and then before I knew it, it was five other squad cars and that officer pulled his gun out on me. And all the other officers, they drew their guns and they all started screaming demands at me. And I didn’t know which one to follow. One said, ‘Turn your car off.’ And I was going to turn my car off. And the other one said, ‘Stop moving, put your hands out the window.’ And so I put my hands out the window and the other officer said, ‘Turn your car off now.’ And so I was scared to put my hands back inside of the car. So then the other officer said, ‘If you move, we’re going to shoot.’ So I didn’t know that if I put my hand back in the car to turn the car off, like the first officer told me to, if they was going to fill my body with bullets. I was scared to even turn my car off at that point.”
She did ultimately turn the car off, but the police didn’t let up.
“They said, ‘Get out of the car now. Open the passenger door.’ And I was like, ‘There’s no one in here with me. It’s just me. I’m alone.’ And they said, ‘Get out the car. Get out the car,’” she said. “And I got out the car and they said, ‘Walk toward us.’ So I walked toward them and one of the officers said, ‘Get on the ground.’ And then the other officer said, ‘Stop moving.’ So I stopped moving. And so the other officer said, ‘Turn around and walk backwards.’ And then the other officer told me not to move. So they just came and handcuffed and took me to the squad car.”
A witness who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal confirmed that Coleman was placed in the back seat of a Capitol Police squad car. Video taken by other witnesses and posted to social media confirm that Coleman was handcuffed. Video also shows officers approaching the empty vehicle with guns drawn.
The witness said they estimated eight to ten squad cars were present. Several other passersby stopped and took video of the incident; at least one was threatened with arrest for doing so.
In an interview with Madison365, a Capitol Police officer initially claimed Coleman had never been handcuffed or placed in a squad vehicle, but later admitted she was not present for the early part of the encounter.
From the inside of the squad car, Coleman said she could see that the situation could have been resolved almost immediately.
“When I got in the squad car, I looked at the (squad car’s computer) screen and I saw my face on the screen,” she said. “And it said that I was the registered owner of the vehicle and they had the full police report on the screen that said I was the one that made the report of my car being stolen. And it had my first and last name, my date of birth, and my photo ID. So when I got out the car with my hands up and they saw my face, they knew at that very moment that I was the registered owner of that vehicle. So they had no reason to continue screaming at me with their guns drawn. They knew I was unarmed and they knew I was not the one that stole the vehicle.”
Coleman said the officers didn’t make any effort to confirm her identity before drawing their weapons and placing her in handcuffs.
“They didn’t ask for my name, my ID or nothing,” she said. “They just said, ‘This car was stolen.’ I said, ‘I was the one that reported.’ So they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll figure all of that out.’ They knew that because it was right there on all of their computer screens.”
The Capitol Police officer said police did ascertain that Coleman was the owner of the vehicle, but that Coleman told them she had not called Milwaukee police to report the vehicle as recovered. Coleman disputes this, reiterating in subsequent Facebook messages with Madison365 that she did call Milwaukee police to let them know the car had been found, and that she told Capitol Police as much.
The Capitol Police officer said she could understand how the situation was stressful for Coleman, and said she too was frustrated that it took a long time to communicate with Milwaukee police and have the vehicle cleared in the statewide system, so Coleman would not be pulled over again.
Ultimately Coleman was allowed to leave, but not to drive herself, as her driver license was suspended. The witness offered to drive her to the DMV to have her license reinstated, and said police followed them to the DMV. The DMV told Coleman they would be unable to reinstate her license for reasons that remain unclear, so the witness drove her home to Milwaukee.
Coleman said she doesn’t blame Milwaukee police for not updating the status of her car — even though they didn’t do so, Capitol and Madison police should have been able to figure out that it was her car without drawing their weapons or handcuffing her, she said.
“I couldn’t even think straight. I was scared. They had no right to continue on with them guns in my face and screaming all them demands at me and running up to me and handcuffing me and holding me in the back of a squad car. Why do you guys have tasers, then?” she asked rhetorically. “Y’all could have had tasers on me at least. But y’all are drawing out full blown (guns). Y’all are trying to fill my body up with metal, for no (expletive) reason.”
The Capitol Police officer refused to say what the standard protocols are for approaching a stolen vehicle, and whether Capitol Police officers are instructed to draw weapons in that situation. She referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not return calls seeking comment. Both Madison Police and Capitol Police refused to provide reports as the investigation is still ongoing and additional information is still being collected, including squad car dash camera video. Madison365 will continue to request those records and update this story when they become available.
“At the same time all of this happening, my 10 year old is texting me hearts, asking me, ‘Mommy, are you okay? I’m just checking on you. Do you think you’ll be able to bring us some McDonald’s when you get home?’ At the exact moment that they got their guns in my face,” Coleman said.
She said she’s considering a formal complaint and legal action and is currently seeking an attorney.