When conducting an investigatory stop, the Fourth Amendment requires police to follow a standard of ‘reasonableness’ in order to protect the security of citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. This fundamental right protects every creed and color. It does not only protect affluent neighborhoods; nor does it only protect professional athletes. However, the manner in which the police conduct investigations cannot rest on a subjective determination of race, class, and a fabricated perception of criminality.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Police Department released body camera video of the tasing of Bucks’ guard Sterling Brown. The department’s chief has since then apologized for the incident. But upon watching the Sterling Brown video, few can deny its grim nature. To those of you who thought, “This would’ve never happened in Milwaukee’s predominantly east side”, you are probably right. It wouldn’t have. No police officer could expect to keep his job if he treated a young high school kid in such a manner. According to CNN, officers are being disciplined for these actions. While ‘discipline’ is a step in the right direction, I question whether internal punishment is a great enough remedy for the continual ill-treatment of Milwaukee’s African American population.
Though it has been ignored at times, current case-law stresses that police officers must act objectively – that they be not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. Is that truly what happened here? Or did officers infuse a generalized perception of criminality when conducting this stop? Is that truly what has ever happened in Milwaukee? Brown plans to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department as a result of being tased and arrested last January.
“This type of behavior has no place in our city. No citizen should be treated this way,” Barrett said Wednesday. Despite the minor parking infraction, “The fact that it escalated to what happened is what disturbed me the most,” Barrett said.
Yes disturbing. But oh too familiar.
In 2014, Milwaukee citizen Randy Johnson left his car parked within 15 feet of a cross walk as his sister ran into a convenient store; a minor parking violation under Wisconsin law. Suddenly, two patrol cars ran up on the car, boxed it in, and doused it with flood lights. They immediately pulled Johnson from the car and in doing so, found a handgun. Officers testified that, “part of our initiative is to look for smaller infractions and hope that possibly they may lead to bigger and better things,”. Were officers looking for bigger and better with Brown?
Though the fact pattern is not exactly the same, in both instances we have an African-American male, minor parking violation, and presumably ‘high crime area’. However in both cases, these facts should not be used as means for justifying the use of “excessive force” when the perceived offense is a minor parking infraction and at the outset there exists no reasonable suspicion that the individual is armed and dangerous. In Johnson case, he made a conditional guilty plea to being a felon with a gun, then appealed the legality of the warrantless search that led to his arrest. He is now appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In instances where the police do find narcotics or a weapon, many fall back on the time worn, “Well yeah, that’s just good police work then.” While that happens once, maybe twice out of a handful, the Sterling Brown case reminds us of the majority. “[T]he overwhelming majority of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD have committed no crime. The statistics . . . show that [an eight-block area] had 52,000 stops between January 2006 and March 2010. That averages nearly one stop a year for every person who lives in the . . . area.” I could not find any statistics like this on Milwaukee but I think it is safe to assume a similar story here; as for any predominately segregated city in this country.
After the release of the footage, several NBA players have reacted with the hashtag #StandwithSterling. As for Brown himself, he said “Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously,” Brown wrote. “I am speaking for Dontre Hamilton of Milwaukee, Laquan McDonald of Chicago, Stephon Clark of Sacramento, Eric Garner of New York, and the list goes on. These people aren’t able to speak anymore because of unjust actions by those who are supposed to “serve and protect” people.”
It should not take an NBA player to shed light onto these incidents. With that said, I hope Brown continues to use his platform to give voice to those who would like to speak out. The Fourth Amendment stands for those teenagers and parents who are just trying to go about their everyday business.
“Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they ‘seize’ and ‘search’ him in their discretion, we enter a new regime.” I think it is safe to say, we entered that new regime a long time ago.
-Justice Douglas, 1968 Terry v. Ohio