The city attorney has recommended a $750,000 payment and proposed changes to the Milwaukee Police Department’s policies to settle a lawsuit brought by Milwaukee Bucks’ player Sterling Brown.
The settlement proposal also includes an admission that Brown’s constitutional rights were violated when officers took him to the ground, tasered him and arrested him during an encounter January 2018 that began with a parking violation.
If approved by Milwaukee elected officials, the settlement likely would become the first time the city admitted wrongdoing in a police misconduct case.
Since 2015, police misconduct has cost Milwaukee taxpayers at least $31.6 million in legal settlements, forcing the city to borrow money to make the payouts amid an ever-tightening budget.
That amount includes the recent $4 million settlement the city reached with the estate of Sylville Smith, whose death from a police shooting in 2016 set off days of unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
The city is self-insured, meaning taxpayers are on the hook for the payments.
FULL COVERAGE: Sherman Park Turmoil
In Brown’s case, the proposed monetary amount includes attorneys’ fees and costs, and is larger than the $400,000 originally signed off on by Milwaukee Common Council in September 2019.
In a letter dated Nov. 4, City Attorney Tearman Spencer recommended the new settlement proposal to the Common Council’s Committee on Judiciary and Legislation “because of the unpredictability of a trial, and the city’s risk for exposure to compensatory and punitive damages, as well as additional attorney fees and costs.”
At the time of the original settlement offer last year, Brown’s attorney, Mark Thomsen, said: “Any settlement that doesn’t include an admission that they violated Mr. Brown’s civil rights will go nowhere. We can’t heal in this city without that.”
Thomsen declined an interview Monday, citing the pending proceedings before city officials. He did sign the settlement agreement after getting authorization from Brown, according to federal court records.
It was not immediately clear Monday morning if the new settlement offer will move forward at City Hall and what exact Police Department policy changes are being sought. The settlement must be approved by the committee and the full Common Council before going to Mayor Tom Barrett.
In an interview, Spencer confirmed his office had reached a tentative agreement in the case. He said details about the terms would come once city officials signed off on it.
The Milwaukee Police Department declined to comment on the settlement proposal because the litigation remains pending.
Thomsen, a veteran civil rights attorney with Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, has proposed policy changes on behalf of clients in other lawsuits.
He is representing Milwaukee activist Frank Nitty in a pending lawsuit against Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputies after Nitty was arrested on the Hoan Bridge during a demonstration last summer. As part of the lawsuit, Nitty wants the Sheriff’s Office to adopt a lengthy anti-racism and anti-discrimination policy.
Brown: ‘Making something positive happen’
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 police body camera footage, Brown can be seen remaining calm and polite as the officers progressively become more confrontational.
Several months after the incident, then-Assistant Police Chief Michael Brunson, who currently is the acting chief, showed Brown a four-minute clip of video from his arrest.
“I get mad every time I watch it,” Brown told the Journal Sentinel in May 2018. “I was defenseless.”
At the time, Brunson apologized, but Brown said: “It doesn’t justify what happened.”
Brown has consistently said he wanted to use the attention — something he did not ask for — to fight for positive change. The son of a police officer, Brown grew up in Maywood, Ill., not far across the state line from Wisconsin.
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Brown helped lead protests against racism and police brutality this summer.
In June, he looked at a 7,500-person crowd outside Fiserv Forum in June and told the marchers they were “making something great happen, something positive happen, something that’s heard around the world.”
“As we march today, let’s be loud, let’s be known,” he said.
In late August after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Brown and his Bucks teammates decided not to play a playoff game against the Orlando Magic to bring attention to racial injustice and call for change from Wisconsin lawmakers.
The team’s decision has rippled across the league and into other professional sports. Afterward, the NBA agreed to create a coalition to address social justice issues.
On Monday, The Athletic reported Brown and Bucks’ co-owner Marc Lasry had been named to the coalition.
The Bucks released a statement later Monday, saying the organization was pleased Brown’s lawsuit “has been mutually resolved and that there’s been an important commitment by the City of Milwaukee and its Police Department to make changes.”
“No one should ever have to go through the horrifying abuse and injustice that Sterling experienced,” the statement read.
New city attorney reaching large settlements
The proposed settlement with Brown is a striking example of change inside the city attorney’s office.
Spencer ousted longtime incumbent Grant Langley by a large margin — 61% to 39% — in the April 7 election. Langley had served as city attorney for more than three decades.
Spencer, a private real-estate and consumer affairs attorney, had made police misconduct settlements a campaign issue.
Langley had been criticized by some for prolonging the lawsuits, which consume enormous resources in the office and often require the hiring of pricey outside attorneys. For his part, Langley said he did his best to reach settlements that avoided trials.
A year ago, as the Common Council first considered a settlement offer for $400,000, Langley and Brown’s attorney, Thomsen, sparred over the terms.
Thomsen maintained the city must admit to constitutional violations for any settlement to go forward. Langley refused to concede that point.
“Obviously there were errors by police on scene that night because some were disciplined,” Langley said at the time. “But whether or not those errors arise to constitutional violations of Mr. Brown’s rights are a matter for the jury to decide. I’m not prepared to admit that.”
The proposal Thomsen had put forward at that time contained a monetary figure that already had been rejected by a Common Council committee, said Langley, who added that the only damages Brown could recover in a jury trial were monetary.
The initial figure that was rejected has not been made public and it is not known if it was higher than the $750,000 offered by Spencer.
Spencer also showed a different strategy than Langley when he decided to drop an appeal Langley’s office had been pursuing in the Smith estate lawsuit.
In that case, a federal judge ruled the officer who fatally shot Smith was not protected by qualified immunity, and denied the city’s motion to dismiss the case on that ground. Langley appealed the ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was pending when Spencer took over as city attorney.
Alison Dirr of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee city attorney proposes $750K settlement, police policy changes in Bucks’ Sterling Brown civil rights lawsuit
Published at Mon, 09 Nov 2020 11:45:23 +0000