Police Video Gets National Attention
Police confrontation with Bucks player gets national headlines, raises troubling questions.
Yesterday the Milwaukee Police Department released the 30-minute body-camera video of the early morning January 26 incident outside a Walgreens involving Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown and a Milwaukee Police Officer. And it doesn’t make the police department look good, as national media accounts made clear.
As CNN reported, the video “shows a routine stop escalating into a testy confrontation in a matter of seconds.”
Brown had parked illegally across some handicapped spots at 2 a.m. in the morning and after he leaves the store, he’s met by a police officer at the driver’s side door of Brown’s car.
“The officer fires off questions and orders one after another as Brown tries to get a word in,” as CNN describes it. “He repeatedly orders Brown to back up, telling him he’s getting in his face, as Brown tells him not to touch him.”
“Barely a minute has passed when the officer calls for an extra squad car, CNN continues. “‘We’re going to figure out what we’re gonna do,’ he tells Brown. ‘You can’t do that by yourself?’ Brown counters.”
But the video shows a far less simple story, as the publication notes: “At least four additional squad cars and a handful of officers arrive minutes later, four of whom surround Brown and begin questioning him.”
Eventually an officer yells at Brown, “Take your hands out of your pockets now!’”
Brown responds, “I’ve got stuff in my hands,” and in response at least four officers tackle him, then use a taser to stun him as he’s groaning on the ground.
The officer who first confronted Brown has not been identified, but CNN notes that he later “mocks” Brown “while talking to another officer about what happened, saying he thought Brown ‘was being an ass’ and ‘trying to hide something’… “And now he’s like, ‘I’m a Bucks player, blah, blah, blah. So what,’ the officer says.”
This was after the officer was sarcastic with Brown about this, saying “Sorry I don’t follow the Bucks, so I didn’t recognize you. I didn’t recognize your famous name.’”
“Why else are you famous,” he continued. “You been to Mars? You been to Venus? You been to the Moon?”
The story by ESPN called the video “another setback for a department that for years has tried to rebuild its image and relationship with Milwaukee’s African-American residents after several high-profile cases of police misconduct.”
It quoted Fred Royal, the president of the NAACP in Milwaukee: “I find it disturbing that an officer would incite an argument over a parking citation,” adding that he “didn’t see anything that would warrant (Brown) to get tased.”
The Guardian, the international publication based in London, noted the past history of police misconduct: “Last year, Milwaukee paid $2.3 million to settle a lawsuit over the death of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man fatally shot by a police officer after the officer roused him from a park bench downtown. In 2016, the city paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit by 74 black residents who said police illegally strip-searched them between 2008 and 2012.”
The New York Times reported that “Police conduct toward black people has been a fraught issue in Milwaukee, where protesters have held demonstrations repeatedly in recent years in the wake of police shootings and the release of videos showing rough arrests.”
CNN quoted Mayor Tom Barrett at length: “No citizen should be treated this way,” he said. “I believe that this is a situation that could have been defused, and obviously it wasn’t… As a community we have to do better. I want our residents to be respectful of our police and I want our police to be respectful of our residents. It has to be a two-way street.”
The incident happened near the end of former Police Chief Ed Flynn’s tenure and he made it clear he found it problematic: “We wouldn’t be conducting an investigation into this if we were 100 percent satisfied with” its handling,” he said at the time. “What we want to do is ascertain how a parking ticket turned into a tasing.”
Prior to releasing the video, new Police Chief Alfonso Morales tried to be proactive. On Tuesday, Morales released a video in which he promised to be “honest and transparent” should there ever be an incident like this.
And two days before that, as the Huffington Post reported, Assistant Police Chief Michael Brunson Sr. warned parishioners at a local church that ‘There’s going to be a video that’s going to come out soon, in the next couple of weeks, involving the department… And I’m going to be honest with you, we’re going to need your support during the challenges.”
The Milwaukee police union has so far been the only party to defend the handling of Brown, saying “The use of force never looks pretty, but it is, unfortunately, a necessary component of policing.” And when those encounters are scrutinized, “often opinion gets in the way of fact.”
As CNN reported, the union “called on city leadership to bolster its ranks to alleviate what it described as chronic understaffing. Such shortages tend to lead to one-man patrols in which officers may feel compelled to use higher levels of force, the association said.”
Indeed, Brown is standing for several minutes amid several officers who are questioning him — with no sign of violence or intransigence by him — before the officers surround him and take him down to the ground. That part of the video may be the most difficult to understand.
Also disturbing was the officer’s mention of the fact, early in his encounter with Brown, that this is being taped. The officer obviously felt he was justified in how he handled Brown, and was convinced viewers of this body camera footage would agree. That more than anything may suggest the vast gulf separating some members of the department from the community they serve.
And that community includes the mostly African American players on the Bucks team and its many African American fans. As the statement from the Milwaukee Bucks noted, the “abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable…Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case…It shouldn’t require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment.”
It will be interesting to see how the team handles this issue going forward. Brown has already hired an attorney and is filing a civil rights lawsuit against the department.
Still, it’s important to emphasize that this is the first such problem under a new police chief, one he inherited, and he should be given the benefit of the doubt. But the Milwaukee Journal’s reporters couldn’t resist zapping Morales, writing that the chief “pledged transparency but did not take questions from reporters at his news conference.”
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