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Sterling Brown arrest refuels debate on excessive force used against black Americans

Milwaukee police released body-cam footage showing NBA player Sterling Brown being arrested in January. City officials admit his treatment by police was excessive, and his case is raising anger again about the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. Amna Nawaz gets two views from civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson and David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    first, a case of police force in Milwaukee that city officials admit was excessive. It is raising anger again about the treatment of African- Americans by law enforcement. As Amna Nawaz reports, this case involved a professional basketball player, and included a lengthy body cam video from the police.

    (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

  • Police Officer:

    Do you have a driver's license? Where's it at? Back up? You don't see the issue here?

  • Sterling Brown:

    Don't touch me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Milwaukee police last night released body camera footage showing the arrest of NBA player Sterling Brown. The officer confronted the Milwaukee Bucks player for a parking violation, in the middle of the night in late January.

    Within minutes, additional officers arrived and the situation escalated.

    Brown was wrestled to the ground and then tased.

  • Police Officer:

    Taser! Taser! Taser!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Brown was arrested, given a parking ticket and released with no criminal charges. His injuries, still visible during his next game.

    News reports today said the Milwaukee Police Department suspended and plans to retrain two sergeants and an officer. Both the mayor and the police chief apologized to Brown.

  • Alfonso Morales:

    I'm sorry the incident escalated to this level. Our department conducted an investigation into the incident, which revealed members acted inappropriately and those members we're recently disciplined.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a statement, Sterling Brown said he plans to take legal action against the Milwaukee Police Department to, quote, continue forcing change in our community.

    Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also criticized the officers' use of force.

  • Mayor Tom Barrett:

    This type of behavior whether it's toward a professional athlete or any other citizen has no place in our city.

    (END VIDEOTAPE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's get some reaction to the case, how the police handled it and what should change going forward.

    DeRay McKesson is an organizer with Campaign Zero and the Black Lives Matter Movement. And David Klinger is a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a former Los Angeles police officer.

    We invited Milwaukee's mayor, police chief and representative of the police union — all declined or didn't respond to our offer.

    So thanks for being here to both of you.

    DeRay, I want to start with you. We heard the police department, the mayor all apologized for the actions taken by the officer there, but the police union is defending the actions saying the use of force will never look pretty but is unfortunately a necessary component of policing. What's your response to that?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    So, it's good that the mayor came out saying this is inappropriate. It's good that the police chief came out saying it's inappropriate. We have to be mindful, though, that they said that the officers were disciplined but they won't tell us what the discipline was. So, anything that still allows these police officers to still police communities in Milwaukee is not a good solution.

    The police union probably has the most sort of aggressive statement that is off the mark. They just come down and say the force was justified, which we saw clearly was not the case. They tasered him for no reason. None of that is OK.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David Klinger, let's talk about what so many people have seen in that video now. It's a 30-minute video. It's been viewed more than a million times which is more than twice the population of the city of Milwaukee.

    How does it go from zero to 60 so quickly? Where did things go wrong?

  • David Klinger:

    Let me start out challenging one assertion that your guest just made, said it's obvious that the use of force was inappropriate. We don't know that. We really can't see from the body cam exactly what happened.

    But how it goes from zero to 60 is this, you had a situation where a police officer did not manage the confrontation that he got from Mr. Brown appropriately. As soon as you get resistance, as soon as someone starts to push back, you have to understand, huh, I'm dealing with something other than a standard issue, in this case parking ticket stop, and go ahead and try to calm things down.

    Instead, what he did is he starts using language such as this is my space. I own this space.

    Now, the police officer has every right to control that space but he doesn't need to explain it that way. He could say, sir, I ask you to step back, you need to step back, let me explain to you why, I can't let you get access to this motor vehicle. And that's a perfectly legitimate reason for why a police officer wants to create distance between himself and the individual he's interacting with.

    And then the officer called for an additional unit, which is a good thing, and multiple units showed up. And one of the things I've seen many times is when a large group of police officers show up to a situation where it really isn't warranted, the emotions start to kick up. And I think — so, the combination of not managing the verbal interaction initially in an appropriate fashion, trying to deescalate is the term of art now, and having multiple police officers show up when there wasn't really the need for that many created a very tension-filled environment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, David, let me ask you, you mentioned what we don't see in the video, we are relying on the one body cam here.

  • David Klinger:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you think could have happened? What would have justified that level of use of force?

  • David Klinger:

    Well, you have a situation where a citizen refuses to comply with a lawful order and let's assume for a moment it was a lawful order to go ahead and keep your hands out of your pocket to Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown places his hands in the pockets. The officers get apprehensive, go ahead and grab Mr. Brown.

    Then the question is if he is struggling against that, go ahead and take him to the ground. I do not understand the use of the taser. I don't know why the officer who deployed the taser decided to deploy the taser. When you have multiple officers in that close proximity and you've got the individual on the ground, it doesn't make a lot of sense why a taser would be employed.

    But I want to read the police report. I want to hear exactly from Mr. Brown's mouth what happened so I can get a better sense of whether the tasing was appropriate or inappropriate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    DeRay, let's talk about what we know based on the video, too. You hear them going back and forth, Sterling Brown and the initial officer who confronts him about the parking violation. And they didn't even get into it afterwards, you know, when he's already been handcuffed and is standing there, they go back and forth about who initiated everything.

    Do you think that there's a sharing of blame when it comes to the escalation?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    No. So, I'm reminded the police are public institution and who should be susceptible to public oversight. So, the police don't get to willy-nilly just come into people's lives and the communities or any of their personal space. And to say like that, if you don't agree with them in that moment that that is just a crime, that that's resisting arrest.

    We know a third of all the people killed in this country by a stranger is actually killed by a police officer. So, we think about the violence of police is something that is pervasive and a challenge like this incident, is that we see no real accountability. So, with the police chief just saying they have been disciplined, it's like, what does that even mean?

    The fact they're being coy about what that means, I think that this video, and I must disagree with the other guests, I think it's clear. It's not clear to me at all why the officer stopped him in the first place in such an aggressive way. It can't be just because the police say take your hands out of your pocket, do this, do that, the community just have to comply with anything the police say because they happen to be the police. We don't live in a police state and we should not accept that as a standard.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David Klinger, let me ask you now about the accountability point that DeRay is raising because these reports are now saying that three members of the police force have been suspended as a result of this. We don't know what else will happen if anything. But if this is something Milwaukee wants to stop and we know that it's already cost taxpayers there something like $20 million of police misconduct settlement since 2015, does that suspension, does that send enough of a message that says this behavior won't be tolerated?

  • David Klinger:

    I don't believe it does because we don't know what they're disciplined before. And my understanding is there are more officers involved. So, which officers being disciplined for what purpose is a key question, because if you're on the police side and you say, what are these guys being disciplined for, and you don't know, how can you know how you're supposed to alter the behavior?

    But stepping back to the assertions, I'm sorry, when a police officer has lawful warrant to stop somebody and clearly parking your motor vehicle in a handicapped zone is a violation of either a Milwaukee ordinance or a Wisconsin law, I don't know what the story is there, but then once the officer has a lawful stop, he or she has the right to control where you are and what you do and to keep your hands in plain view.

    I'm sorry, if you engage in behavior where a police officer has reasonable suspicion to detain you or probable cause to arrest you, you have to do what he or she says.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We see video after video after video of similar encounters a lot and a lot more tragically than this one did, why is this so hard to crack? Why can't this be fixed?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    It's only hard because we continue with these narratives that people just have to comply with anything the police officer says.

  • David Klinger:

    That's the law, sir. That is the law.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    You know what was the law? Slavery was the law, too. I don't accept that that was a just thing and I don't accept that people just have to comply with unjust behaviors by police departments just because you don't want them do, that I don't live —

  • David Klinger:

    Keep your hands in plain view, how is that unjust.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    — in a world where the police can just go up and just taser people. That's unacceptable. And if somebody tasered your son, you'd be saying something different. But it wasn't your son and it wasn't people that look like you. This was somebody else.

    And what I'm talking about is the fact that one in eleven killed by somebody, one in 11 homicides in California is by a police officer. What about that? Like that is a problem. We should [sic] live in a world where we accept the violence from the police.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David, it's a valid question I want to put you. When people feel they're being asked to do something by a police officer that isn't just, do you still say they should comply in that moment?

  • David Klinger:

    Absolutely. Then the courts have ruled that that is the case. What you do is you comply and you go ahead and you file the complaint. Now with body cams, so on and so forth, the evidence is there if the officer is doing something appropriate, if the detention is illegal, if the officer is issuing illegal command, then there is redress.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    How do you file a police complaint from the grave? How do you file a police complaint when you have been beaten and brutalized so badly that you can't speak anymore, how do you do that?

  • David Klinger:

    Well, sir, this was not a situation.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    Exactly, you don't have an answer for that. And that is because the police continue to harm people in communities and it can't be just that you comply willy-nilly. You don't — I don't think —

  • David Klinger:

    Sir, what you are doing is you are creating a narrative for people to go ahead and refuse to comply with the police, which is only going to exacerbate the problem.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    I'm creating narrative that is true that the police —

  • David Klinger:

    What I am saying is that you should comply with awful order to the police and the police need to learn how to do a better job of structuring interactions. I agree that the police did not act in a fully appropriate way in this fashion, but to run from that to an argument that people don't have to comply with the police, when the police have lawful warrant to detain them, is wrong.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    David Klinger, let me ask you — what do you want to see happen in police departments next?

  • David Klinger:

    I want to see better training focusing on two things. Number one, interpersonal communication skills and number two the management of space. So, if we get police officers who know how to verbally cool people out and know how to manage space, we can reduce these across the board.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    DeRay, I'll give you the last word here. What do you have to say about what should happen next?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    There are people who want it to be a complicated issues that we need ten thousand series about. We know that this is two things. One thing is it's about race.

  • David Klinger:

    No, its' not.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    And the second is as long as the police have no accountability and oversight, they will continue to do these things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    DeRay McKesson and David Klinger, thank you so much for your time.

  • David Klinger:

    Thank you for having me.

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