American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin
Press Release

ACLU sues Milwaukee Police Department for unconstitutional conduct during Sherman Park demonstrations

“The Milwaukee Police Department has demonstrated its custom of using excessive force to disperse people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, and our clients suffered real harm as a result of that policy.”

By - May 29th, 2019 02:50 pm

MILWAUKEE — The ACLU of Wisconsin has filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department for conducting unlawful arrests and using excessive force towards citizens that were peacefully observing a protest held in the Sherman Park neighborhood in the weeks after a Milwaukee man was fatally shot by police.

On August 30, 2016, in response to a wave of protests over police violence following the killing of Sylville Smith, the Milwaukee Police Department responded to a gathering held at a memorial site dedicated to Mr. Smith. After ordering demonstrators to disperse, police officers began arresting those who refused to leave. A number of arrests were made that day, including the plaintiffs bringing the suit, even though neither were engaging in the allegedly unlawful protest. Jarrett English showed up only to spectate, and Benetria McGowan was on her way to work and decided to come to the memorial to pray for peace.

“When our police are in the practice of indiscriminately deciding when people can protest, or even be near an area where a protest might be occurring, the principles enshrined in the First Amendment are at risk and our society suffers from chilled free speech,” said Asma Kadri Keeler, ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney. “The Milwaukee Police Department has demonstrated its custom of using excessive force to disperse people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, and our clients suffered real harm as a result of that policy.”

As merely passive onlookers, Mr. English and Ms. McGowan did not engage in civil disobedience, unlawful assembly, or illegal activity of any kind, but were nevertheless forcefully apprehended, handcuffed and detained by Milwaukee Police. In doing so, the officials responsible for taking these actions plainly violated the constitutional rights of Mr. English and Ms. McGowan while putting their physical and emotional wellbeing at considerable risk.

As a result, Ms. McGowan and Mr. English are seeking compensation from the Milwaukee Police Department for the injuries they suffered.  The lawsuit also seeks steadfast commitment from the City of Milwaukee to stop violating the rights of persons who are not participating in any unlawful activity.

The costs incurred by the plaintiffs due to the unlawful arrests are not insignificant. Ms. McGowan, who was abruptly grabbed by an officer, handcuffed and taken to a police van, experienced long-lasting physical pain, emotional distress, and eventually lost her job partly because of the hours she spent in unlawful detention.

Mr. English, who was approached by officers after he had walked across the street from the protest, was forced to the ground and handcuffed, suffered bodily pain, and emotional disturbance, as he feared what could happen to him upon his arrest and detention.

“We want the Milwaukee Police Department to address the harm caused by its approach to this particular demonstration in Sherman Park in 2016 and our city also needs to ensure that nothing like this happens to residents or visitors in the future,” said Chris Ott, ACLU of Wisconsin executive director.

Both plaintiffs faced serious consequences from a traumatic experience that never should have occurred in the first place. This practice defies the First and Fourth amendments and the ACLU of Wisconsin aims to assist its clients to secure remediation while ensuring all citizens of Milwaukee are protected by a Constitutional dispersal procedure.

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