Jimmy Harris’s Long Struggle for Justice
Pulled over by police and beaten, he filed and won — finally — a civil rights lawsuit.
In the last year alone, the self-insured municipal corporation doing business as the City of Milwaukee has racked up judgments and settlements stemming from police misconduct totaling approximately $13.8 million.
My eyes were opened regarding the Office of the City Attorney last year when I asked Deputy City Attorney Jan Smokowicz a question regarding the ACLU’s “Stop and Frisk” settlement agreement and court order. He replied, “You’re not my client” and walked away.
We, the people living in the geographic area known as the City of Milwaukee, who comprise the municipal corporation and are taxed to fund its operations and pay its employees’ salaries are not the “clients” of the Office of the City Attorney? Welcome to the MACHINE.
For decades, the Office of the City Attorney has doggedly defended the police, no matter how heinous their acts, fighting plaintiffs’ tooth and nail, prioritizing what the office perceives to be the interests of the municipal corporation above the interests of the human beings who comprise it.
Thank God justice was finally done on March 4 in the case of Jimmy Harris, who, by virtue of the hard work and expertise of his attorney, Nathaniel Cade, won a jury verdict in his civil rights lawsuit against the City of Milwaukee and four members of the Milwaukee Police Department (three of whom were promoted and are still on the force).
Jimmy’s MAN vs MACHINE case is instructive not only for the courage and determination demonstrated by the plaintiff, but also for the stubborn obstinance and heartlessness of Mr. Langley’s bulldog, Deputy City Attorney Smokowicz, who pulled out all the stops attempting to defend the indefensible.
MPD Officer Froilan Santiago (now detective) did not know who he illegally stopped the night of Nov. 19, 2010, even though he looked up Jimmy’s vehicle plate in the DOT’s database, matched the VIN to the car and had his driver’s license in hand — he did not see the MAN. Jimmy, street-smart and originally trained to be a corrections officer, legitimately questioned why he had been stopped and what Officer Santiago was doing pulling cars over with liquor on his breath.
Jimmy had the courage to speak truth to power and took a beating for it, hence the civil rights lawsuit decided in his favor. Unfortunately, money will never compensate Jimmy for the permanent damage inflicted on him that night or his permanent disability.
Perhaps it is not fair to draw the conclusion that police misconduct stems from a feeling of invincibility, “qualified immunity” if you will, that comes from knowing that the Office of the City Attorney is ever ready to go to the mat to defend them – no matter what they have done.
Jimmy Harris, bruised and battered, took a lonely bus ride home after finally being released from the MPD holding cell with the resolution to fight back, to change the system, to make sure no one else had to go through what he went through, indelibly etched in his mind and heart. With the help of his fiancée, Charita Sims, who witnessed the assault, he immediately filed complaints with the MPD, Fire and Police Commission, Office of the City Attorney and Mayor Tom Barrett, who informed him that he does not get involved with those types of matters.
He championed: new procedures to make sure that police body mics were working (Officer Santiago’s body mic was coincidentally not working on Nov. 19, 2010, which made Jimmy’s case harder to prove); independent investigations by entities outside of the MPD for police shootings; community access to dash cam video and later body cam video; allowing concealed carry for firearms; restricting police use of the smell of marijuana as probable cause to escalate an encounter; and updating the MPD’s “Use of Force” policy to require quarterly reporting and increase the scope of police actions that would require that a “Use of Force” report be written.
After three and a half years of persistent struggle, Jimmy filed his civil rights lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Milwaukee County pro se on July 14, 2014. Ultimately, he refiled his complaint in the federal district court pleading indigency to get the $400 filing fee waived.
Timothy Baldwin, his court-appointed pro bono attorney, was told by the MPD that, “there were no records of the report requested” in response to his detailed and specific discovery requests and Mr. Smokowicz did not respond to a request for help. Baldwin filed an amended complaint for Jimmy on July 19, 2016, and gave way to attorney Cade shortly thereafter.
Expert testimony was gathered, witnesses were deposed and a motion for summary judgment by the defendants – playing their qualified immunity card like a one-trick-pony – followed and was beaten back by Cade.
Through it all, up to the moment he took the stand eyeball-to-eyeball with Santiago and told him: “You thought this day would never come,” Jimmy remained steadfast, calm and even-keeled.
After the verdict was read and Jimmy embraced Charita and his brother Roosevelt, he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a picture of his mother, who passed away in 2017, and said: “This is for you.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Thank YOU, Mr. Jimmy Harris!
Paul Mozina, a retired IT professional and community activist.