‘They violated his constitutional rights’: Sterling Brown lawsuit detail past police misconduct

‘They violated his constitutional rights’: Sterling Brown lawsuit detail past police misconduct

An NBA player’s lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee has found one police officer thought he should have used more force during a controversial arrest while another has a history of being investigated for misconduct.

Attorney Mark Thomsen, who represents Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks, filed a 30-page motion this week to throw out the city’s offer to settle the player’s civil rights case for $400,000.   

“They knew they violated his constitutional rights. The city attorney calls it mere errors,” Thomsen said Thursday at a news conference outside City Hall, describing the offer as a “Jim Crow settlement agreement.”

The starting point for any settlement, Thomsen said, is the city admitting to those violations. On Tuesday, Brown authorized him to propose a confidential settlement offer to the city “addressing all the issues” and the city has not yet responded, Thomsen said.

In January 2018, a group of officers took Brown to the ground, tased and arrested him after a parking violation at a Walgreens, prompting an internal investigation that ended with several officers suspended and others retrained. Brown was not charged in the incident. 

The recent court filing details officers’ statements under oath in depositions and findings from thousands of pages of discovery, including:

  • One of the sergeants falsely told internal affairs he saw a gun in Brown’s vehicle, later saying he “must have misspoke” when he told that to the investigators. 
  • The first officer who approached Brown said he should have used additional force during the interaction. Other officers said the first officer escalated the interaction quickly.
  • Several officers said based on the retraining they received after Brown’s arrest, they agreed they violated Brown’s constitutional rights.

The latest court filing, which quotes portions of the officers’ depositions, includes information about past misconduct investigations into the officers. 

When Thomsen questioned Officer James P. Collins, he read from an internal affairs investigation years earlier that described Collins slamming a woman’s head down “while giving her four to five thrusts with his forearm stating before each thrust ‘Don’t you kick me, you (expletive) bitch.’ ”

One civilian interviewed in that investigation characterized Collins as a “cocky officer and a ticking time bomb,” Thomsen said, quoting the report while questioning Collins. Internal affairs determined Collins had used excessive force in that case.

A related internal affairs memo written to a then-acting captain, now retired, noted Collins had 11 use-of-force incidents within the prior two years.

The memo recommended Collins get more training in communication and arrest tactics, which Collins said he received. The partial deposition did not provide an exact time frame for this memo.

Stepping on ankle unreasonable force

Video of Brown’s arrest showed Collins stepping on Brown’s ankle after the athlete was shocked with a Taser. 

He also was recorded calling in for overtime pay, singing, “Money, money, money, money” before falling asleep in his squad car for almost 15 minutes, according to the lawsuit.

In his deposition, Collins denied stepping on Brown.

“I put my foot against his leg to prevent him from kicking anymore,” Collins said. “I did not step on his leg. I did not stomp on his leg.”

In the same deposition, Collins said he was told by the city in retraining he used unreasonable force by stepping on Brown. Thomsen then said, “But you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Collins said.

Ten months after Brown’s arrest, Collins was involved in an incident when a van was towed in a drunken driving case. A 4-year-old girl was still inside the van and left overnight in a city lot overnight in 18-degree weather.

Collins recently received a 35-day suspension for his role in the incident and is under a last-chance agreement for the next two years. If Collins does not follow the terms of the agreement, he faces firing.

A Journal Sentinel records request for the tow lot reports and video was denied again last week, with police officials citing a pending internal investigation.

‘I don’t think I did anything wrong’

Officer Joseph Grams, who was the first to confront Brown outside the Walgreens and called for backup, said after the retraining, he believes he should have used more force on Brown. 

“At the training, I don’t think they said I did anything wrong. We talked about what happened on the body camera. What happened at the scene,” Grams said in a deposition. “…I handled it the way I handled it. And I don’t think I did anything wrong.”

Asked about shoving Brown in the chest, Grams replied: “Yeah, it should have been more forceful because in that training — I mean, I tried to keep it from escalating; so I just pushed him with my fingers. That training shows that you strike the person straight up in the chest very forcefully to actually move them back … and I didn’t do that.” 

Grams, who received a two-day suspension in the incident, also explained his thought process when he saw Brown’s car running and parked across two handicap spots. He said he thought it looked like a “perfect armed robbery car” and he couldn’t let Brown pass because “there could have been dead people in the Walgreens.”

In the filing, Thomsen noted Grams had not mentioned those suspicions to other officers who responded to the scene. 

Collins was asked about Grams’ behavior in his own deposition and said he did not believe Grams had any knowledge Brown was trying to commit a crime. 

“As Sterling Brown is walking out the Walgreens, if he was an armed robbery suspect, he’d do one of two things: either walk towards the officer and shoot him, or run the other way,” Collins said. “Mr. Brown walked towards the officer and started talking with him.” 

Another officer, Erik Andrade, who was fired for social media posts after Brown’s arrest, said he “didn’t feel the threat was as high as everybody seemed to make it” and said he would have sent some of the officers on the scene back to patrol.

“That way you’re not surrounding someone with 10 cops,” he said. “I mean, I’m a cop and I wouldn’t want all these cops surrounding me.”

‘There was nothing specific … that made me suspect he had a gun’

Some officers and sergeants involved in Brown’s arrest had written in reports or said in internal interviews they believed Brown might be armed because of his hand movements and because officers saw a paper target with bullet holes in the car. 

Sgt. Jeffrey Krueger, who received a 10-day suspension in this case, said in a deposition he did not recall seeing a “huge bulge” in Brown’s pocket.

“There was nothing specific about his pockets that made me suspect he had a gun,” Krueger said.

Thomsen also asked Krueger about his statements to internal affairs in which the sergeant said Brown “got really agitated with me looking into his vehicle, and now I see this gun.” 

“I did not see a gun,” Krueger said to Thomsen.

“So if you never saw a gun, why are you telling internal affairs that you saw a gun, sir?” Thomsen asked.

“I must have misspoke and nobody caught it,” Krueger said.

The 30-page filing contains a fraction of the evidence gathered as part of the lawsuit, Thomsen said Thursday. 

In a statement responding to Brown’s motion, the City Attorney’s Office said the $400,000 settlement offer, while approved by Common Council, was never filed with the court so there is “nothing to strike.”

It also disputed Thomsen’s characterization about the sincerity and reasonableness of the offer.

“Just rehashing any error by the officers on the night of the incident does nothing to improve the police department or the city it serves,” the statement read. “The city, its police department, and its officers have made tremendous efforts to improve police-community relations.”

Thomsen said he and Brown “fundamentally disagree” with that statement.

“There isn’t anything to rehash and these are not just mere errors,” Thomsen said. “Mr. Brown has said that the suit was filed to vindicate his civil rights but also to create the conditions in this city where other people’s civil rights aren’t violated.”

The Journal Sentinel sent questions about the officers’ depositions and the lawsuit to the Milwaukee Police Department and asked the City Attorney’s Office for a response to Thomsen’s statements on Thursday and has not yet heard back. 

Published at Thu, 10 Oct 2019 11:38:00 +0000

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