By IVAN MORENO
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Body camera video showing police using a stun gun on an NBA player over a parking violation is just the latest setback for efforts to improve relations between Milwaukee officers and the city’s black population. The confrontation involving Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks also represents the first major challenge for new Police Chief Alfonso Morales, who took the job in February promising to restore public trust in a department besieged in recent years by excessive-force lawsuits.
“Milwaukee has all the ingredients to be a great city, but each time an incident like this occurs, we are reminded of how much work we still have to do,” the city’s Common Council said in a statement Thursday. Morales, a lifelong Milwaukee resident born to Mexican immigrants, pledged to be more transparent with cases of police misconduct, and he’s already faced TV cameras twice this month to apologize for his officers’ actions. The other case involved four officers caught on video kicking and punching an African-American man while he was restrained on the ground.
The Jan. 26 video of Brown showed how a simple interaction quickly escalated after an officer approached him about parking in a handicap spot around 2 a.m. at a Walgreens drug store. When their conversation became tenser, the officer called more squad cars for help. As Brown is surrounded by four officers, he’s asked to take his hands out of his pockets and a scuffle ensues. Within seconds, one officer yelled “Taser! Taser! Taser!” The video became public after the department finished its internal investigation. The officers were disciplined because they “acted inappropriately,” Morales said. Brown was not charged with anything.
The chief did not name the officers or say how they were disciplined. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing unidentified sources, said three officers received suspensions ranging from two to 15 days. “I am sorry this incident escalated to this level,” said Morales, who left a news conference Wednesday without taking questions. The police department did not identify the races of the officers, but most of them in the video appeared to be white. Brown is black.
A 2017 analysis by the Journal Sentinel found that black officers made up about 18 percent of the department, in a city that is roughly 39 percent black.
Morales’ predecessor, Edward Flynn, had a combative relationship with some city officials during his decade on the job. The Common Council became so frustrated with him that members passed a resolution asking the state to empower the council to fire him. On Thursday, a council member repeated that request, saying change in the department can only happen if the chief is accountable to city leaders instead of a civilian commission appointed by the mayor. “We can have all sorts of community meetings and groups and say all these wonderful things. But “at the end of the day, the police chief can do whatever he wants without any consequences,” Alderman Tony Zielinski said.
Morales’ spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview. Brown has indicated he will file a lawsuit against the police. If he does, the complaint will add to a long list of litigation the city has faced over officer 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 American Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin also has a pending lawsuit alleging the department has for years targeted black and Latino residents by stopping and questioning them without cause. “It’s just another black eye for the city of Milwaukee on a national level,” Alderman Khalif Rainey said. A day before the Brown video was released, Morales posted a short video on YouTube that showed him walking through neighborhoods, talking to residents and emphasizing his desire to restore trust in the department. Rainey bashed the video, saying it’s not enough. “First and foremost, it’s going to require something more than a video, a nice fluffy PR effort,” he said.
“So it’s really going to require the police to get out here in the community and really get integrated in neighborhoods and build a rapport with actual people on a first-name basis.”
Jonathan Safran, a Milwaukee attorney who worked on the Dontre Hamilton case and lawsuit over illegal strip searches, said he’s optimistic that settlement discussions in the ACLU lawsuit could lead to changes in how officers behave during traffic and pedestrian stops. “The issue in my mind going forward, and this is a good example,” he said, referring to Brown’s case, “is should officers act as warriors or should they should they act as guardians?”