Police in Milwaukee, Wisconsin misled the public about the violent arrest of professional basketball player Sterling Brown in January, videos released by the city Wednesday show.
While law enforcement sources initially claimed Brown had been the aggressor, the videos show police escalated the situation rapidly while Brown spoke in a frustrated tone of voice but never raised his volume or moved toward officers.
Arrest papers listed Brown’s crime as resisting an officer, one in a category of oft-abused charges that police put on the paperwork when they want to punish someone for “contempt of cop.” The cops had used a Taser on the player, officers initially said, because he “confronted them and became combative” about being ticketed for blocking two handicapped parking spots.
The videos show a different story, confirming suspicions raised when the charges used to justify Brown’s arrest were quickly and quietly dropped earlier this year. Brown is clearly annoyed, and asking questions in a frustrated but calm tone of voice, but never struggles with officers. He is the party confronted, not the one doing the confronting. The officer who initially approached him quickly loses control of the situation after summoning a small army of backup, who further escalate the situation and then tackle, shock, and handcuff Brown.
In the videos, Brown emerges from the store and approaches his car as the yet-unnamed officer steps between him and his car door. The officer tells him to back up and Brown says, “Don’t touch me.” The officer repeats the order and Brown takes a step back, before the two have a long, tense, but overall level-headed conversation.
The officer radios for another squad car to show up. Approximately five cars arrive, and suddenly more than half a dozen officers are surrounding Brown as he stands near his car. The original officer walks to each of the other vehicles, explaining he just wanted one car to show up and wait while he wrote Brown a ticket “because he was getting in my grill.”
By the time the original officer returns to Brown, a group of five cops surround him closely. Brown keeps the volume of his voice level even as his frustration is obvious. “Can I ask you why? ‘Cause I’m bothering you? On what? For what? I’m just asking you a question,” he says to the group of newly-arrived officers.
One officer touches Brown’s car and the alarm goes off. Brown uses his key fob to silence it.
Moments later, one of the new arrival officers shouts “take your hands out of your pockets now” at Brown. Brown says something about the car keys he’d just grabbed to silence the car alarm, and suddenly four officers are wrestling him to the ground. Someone asks if they should use a Taser. Then, “Taser, Taser, Taser!” and a snapping sound, followed by groans from Brown. The video goes on for another 20-plus minutes, capturing much of the discussion between officers on the scene.
One of the new arrivals eventually realizes who they’ve just tackled and Tasered. “Are you the Bucks player?” he asks. “I remember that name.”
The original officer says nothing throughout the arrest. Afterward, as Brown protests again from the ground, he gets back into it.
“Kicking me for no reason, beating on me for no reason,” Brown says.
“I asked you to step back and you didn’t do it,” the officer says, repeating the line he’d given Brown earlier but in a newly deflated tone of voice.
Later, to another officer, he says he pulled in to check out the parallel parked car because “I’m thinking maybe he’s got a medical emergency or something.” The officer also says he was ready to say, “OK have a nice day” until “he was being an ass.”
Milwaukee officials have been bracing for a backlash over the videos for days. Ahead of the release, Mayor Tom Barrett (D) said he had “concerns” after reviewing the video alongside the original police narrative. A senior police official visited a black church congregation on Sunday to address the situation and plead for aid in keeping the peace.
The body camera footage provides new grapes for an old wrath. Milwaukee PD’s institutional track record has had similar stains on it going back decades — grimmer ones, really, just without the mobilization and mass awareness that attends police brutality today.
In 2004, for example, a group of drunk off-duty cops beat two black men into hospital beds. When the story broke city-wide the following year, Milwaukee saw marches and demonstrations — and then a massive, long-running drop in 911 calls from communities of color, a 2016 study found.
In 2010, an on-duty officer sexually assaulted a woman while responding to her 911 call, prompting a lawsuit alleging that department officials had allowed the man’s sexually violent behavior to go unchecked for years.
After former MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown shot and killed Sylville Smith in 2016, the city convulsed with angry and occasionally violent civil unrest. That Smith’s uniformed killer was a fellow black man only underscored how thoroughly tied up police institutions are today with the prejudices and fears of the white supremacy that lies at the historic root of many American law enforcement agencies, and how the absolutist terms of police training steer many officers into believing they have impunity to behave not just inhumanely but illegally.
It was the same summer that saw one national political party in full denial mode toward the idea that there might be something wrong with the traditional, racially biased mode of policing in America. It was also 49 years on from the summer when hundreds of black Milwaukeeans protesting residential segregation were pelted with rocks and eggs and jeers by a white crowd determined to keep them from walking through white neighborhoods.
If the video of officers visiting needless cruelty on Brown is just a new note in an old song, another piece of video put out by the department this week comes closer to true novelty.
A day before releasing the footage of Brown’s arrest, the city released a polished video package featuring Chief Alfonso Morales walking through his old neighborhood, talking about diversity and pledging to hold his cops accountable when they do wrong and back them when they’re in the right.
It’s a carefully calibrated message and a slick bit of PR work, to be sure. But cynicism aside, it’s also worth noting that the Milwaukee of old wouldn’t have bothered to address the concerns of a community accustomed to police abuse but not inured to it.
It isn’t just high-gloss videos that show Milwaukee leaders looking to step back from the old political model of supporting cops even when they do wrong. City leaders haven’t just publicly appealed for calm. They’ve done so in language that implies they not only expect anger over the videos, but understand why people would be angry about them.
Brown, for his part, is suing the city and the police over the affair. In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Bucks organization said “the abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police was shameful and inexcusable,” and that Brown has the team’s “full support as he shares his story and takes action to provide accountability.”