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Sports Law Development of the Week: Milwaukee Bucks Player Sues City of Milwaukee, city Police Chief, and 8 Officers Over January Incident

Sports Law Development of the Week: Milwaukee Bucks Player Sues City of Milwaukee, city Police Chief, and 8 Officers Over January Incident

By: Cameron Miller

Racially biased policing has long been an issue in American society, but shootings and other violent acts committed by peace officers against persons of color in recent years—and the activism those events have spurred—has brought the issue to the forefront of the national consciousness. Athletes, and particularly NFL players, have played a key role in raising awareness and effecting change in policing tactics and other social and economic justice concerns. Players have also been on the receiving end of allegedly improper conduct by police officers; notable examples include then-Atlanta Hawks players Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic; former NFL player Desmond Marrow; and, in January, Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown.

Like Sefolosha, Brown sued over the incident, which took place outside a Milwaukee Walgreens store on January 26; his complaint was filed June 19 in Wisconsin federal court.

Brown names the city of Milwaukee, the city’s police chief, and eight officers as defendants in his forty-page complaint, alleging that all “depriv[ed]” him of his Constitutional right to equal protection and his “right[] to be free of excessive force and unlawful arrest.”

The complaint outlines the “national crisis” of racially biased policing, which seems to be particularly evident in the state of Wisconsin, where the ratio of unarmed African Americans killed by police to unarmed whites killed by police is 15.91:1—more than three times the national average. The complaint notes that Milwaukee’s police department is currently facing other legal action related to its conduct and policies. It also outlines relevant sections of the police department’s Standard Operating Procedures, which include admonitions against:

  • Using “electronic control devices” (e.g., tasers) in an “unjustified manner” and/or against “people who are offering only passive and/or verbal resistance”;
  • “Fail[ing] to intervene in any unreasonable use of force, when there is an opportunity to do so”; and
  • Considering race in determining whether or not to make an arrest.

Brown then recounts the details of January 26, all of which he claims are corroborated by the officers’ body cameras. Brown says he was confronted by a Milwaukee police officer outside a Walgreens early in the morning of January 26 for parking in a handicap space without a proper placard. Instead of properly issue him a citation, however, Brown alleges the officer shoved him, and later called for back-up. Seven other Milwaukee police officers arrived shortly thereafter. Minutes later, Brown says that as he was complying with a command to remove his hands from his pockets, the officers took him to the ground, tased and stomped on him, pinning him to the ground. Brown was arrested and later treated for facial abrasions and puncture wounds on his back.

The aftermath of the incident was also recorded on the officers’ body cameras. Brown’s complaint describes how the officers “synchroniz[ed] their stories concerning what took place in the parking lot,” with one saying how the group was “trying to protect [themselves].”

The complaint alleges that the Milwaukee Police Department’s reaction to the incident—which included suspending three of the officers involved—“were not complete”, “incompetent” and “constitute an attempted cover up of the Defendants’ unlawful conduct[.]” It also presents numerous Facebook posts from one of the officers involved in Brown’s arrest and characterizes them as racist and “admission[s] that [the] Defendant officers are allowed to engage in unlawful attacks and arrests of African Americans without justification and then relish such events without any fear of real discipline.”

Brown sets forth six causes of action:

  • Violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause

Here, Brown claims the officers discriminated against him on the basis of race, including when they “utilized unlawful and excessive force against Mr. Brown as they arrested Mr. Brown and further unlawfully detained him” and “failed to intervene or take any other reasonable steps to prevent the deprivation” of his rights.

  • Excessive Force

The Complaint claims that the physical acts committed against Brown—“grabbing, tackling, injuring his neck and face, kneeling him in the groin, deploying the taser to Mr. Brown’s back while he was subdued on the ground, stomping on him and standing on his ankle”—were unnecessary because Brown posed no threat.

  • Unlawful Arrest

Because “[p]arking improperly in a handicapped space is not considered a crime in Wisconsin,” Brown claims he was improperly arrested and his vehicle illegally searched.

  • Section 1983 Failure to Intervene

Brown expounds on his earlier Constitutional claim, arguing that despite ample opportunity, none of the officers stepped in to stop or curtail their colleagues’ behavior.

  • Monell Claim

The complaint asserts that the City of Milwaukee, through its police chief, promulgated a “de-facto policy, regulation, decision, or custom condoning excessive force in executing arrests, false arrests, and/or otherwise violating person’s equal protection rights.”

  • General Tort Claim

Brown seeks relief for the “unnecessary and severe personal physical and psychological and emotional injuries” the Defendants’ actions caused.

Brown demands a jury trial and punitive damages from the individual Defendants, though it seems likely a case such as this ends, as Sefolosha’s did, in a settlement.

Cameron Miller is a 2016 graduate of Stanford University and earned a Master's in Sports Law & Business from Arizona State University in 2017. He is the Sports Lawyers Association's Research Assistant.


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