Milwaukee city attorney argues that Sterling Brown’s violent arrest was his own fault

The mayor and police chief have already said they're embarrassed about how police treated Brown.

City leaders have apologized to Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown and disciplined numerous officers who participated in and joked about his violent arrest earlier this year. CREDIT: Dylan Buell/Getty Images
City leaders have apologized to Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown and disciplined numerous officers who participated in and joked about his violent arrest earlier this year. CREDIT: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

To the extent that cities are formal embodiments of connections among individual people, Milwaukee has made abject apologies to NBA guard Sterling Brown for harassing, assaulting, and arresting him under color of law. But the legal entity “City of Milwaukee” apparently feels quite differently about the January incident that drew formal discipline for 11 different cops and public apologies from both the mayor and the police chief there.

It was actually all Brown’s fault, the City of Milwaukee argued in its formal response to Brown’s lawsuit on Friday.

“The plaintiff’s injuries, if any, were not caused by any policy, practice, or custom of the City of Milwaukee or any of its officers, agents, or employees acting in their individual or official capacities,” city attorneys wrote.

The filing is a flat contradiction of Mayor Tom Barrett (D), who apologized to Brown in May after body camera video showed officers taking issue with Brown’s attitude and then stunning him with a taser during the late-night encounter. “As a human being I am offended by what I saw on the video,” Barrett said then. “As a mayor I am committed to improving police-community relations.”

Barrett says he didn’t know his city’s lawyers were planning to issue the full and staunch denial of liability that was filed late Friday and widely reported over the weekend. “I think it’s counterproductive for anybody to turn up the heat with rhetoric like this,” Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after the filing dropped. The lawyer who authored the brief is elected separately from the mayor, the paper noted, rather than appointed.


City Attorney Grant Langley isn’t just applying heated rhetoric, though. He’s deploying the full toolbox of technical language and lawyerly obtusenesses that are requisites of his profession.

Elsewhere in the brief, which is formatted to include at least a pro-forma reply to each separate paragraph of Brown’s complaint, Langley’s choice of logical weapons produces toddler-like perversities. In response to Brown’s lawyer’s recitation of Brown’s basic biographical details — where he lives, how old he is, and that he is a black man who “suffered severely…as a result of the Defendants’ unlawful conduct” — Langley wrote that his team “Lack knowledge or information sufficient so at to form a belief as to the allegations contained therein, and therefore, deny the same.” In the cloistered fancy-speak of courtrooms, Langley’s simply pausing to dispute Brown’s claim that what was done to him was illegal, not denying Brown’s assertion of his specific identity. But the sentence reveals the totalizing zeal that Langley’s taking: Because he doesn’t know enough to have an opinion, his opinion is that Brown must be wrong.

Throughout the document, Langley disputes citations of newspaper articles and academic research, lodges objections to Brown’s lawyer’s quotations from body-worn camera video from the night, and tries to reverse Police Chief Alfonso Morales’ own public conclusions about what happened that night.

Langley, 73, has been a lawyer for the city since he was 26. He joined the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office straight out of law school in 1971, helped form a staff union for fellow junior attorneys, and beat their longtime boss Jim Brennan in the 1984 election. He’s been re-elected to head the department every four years ever since, serving atop the agency for 34 of the 47 years it’s been home.


Langley has many alternative options to the aggressive deny-everything approach he opted for in the Brown suit, as his career working for Milwaukee illustrates. He’s offered settlements many times in civil cases involving the police department. When a group of white cops sued the city because they believed Arthur Jones, the city’s first black police chief, had denied them promotions for being white, Langley settled the cases for $3.2 million. He forestalled a civil suit over the 2003 police killing of Justin Fields by paying family members $1.6 million. In 2009, Langley proposed paying $3 million to a man who’d been paralyzed by police while in custody because he feared a jury would award him even more money if the city kept fighting the case.

In other cases, Langley’s been willing to hold out for years. Frank Jude, Jr., is perhaps the city’s most famous victim of police brutality. Even though six of the Milwaukee officers who beat Jude into a hospital bed while drunk at a party in 2004 were convicted of crimes, Langley’s office fought his $30 million civil suit for 5 years before getting the man to accept $2 million at the start of 2012. Notorious locally, the Jude case also carries national implications; a 2016 academic study showed that black people in Milwaukee stopped calling the police for help for months after the story of Jude’s savage beating hit local papers.

Since 2015 alone — prior to any of the above-described cases — Langley’s team  has had to dish out more than $17.5 million in settlements over police misconduct. Cities borrow extensively to fund such liabilities; with interest costs included, Milwaukee taxpayers spent $21.4 million on police settlements from 2015 to late 2017. There have been more than $6 million in further proposed or agreed settlements in such cases since then, according to the Journal-Sentinel.