At about 2 A.M. on January 26, Milwaukee Bucks rookie Sterling Brown did something most 22-year-olds in Wisconsin would consider during a Walgreens run in the dead of a below-freezing night: park as close as possible to the store. Brown made a choice he likely wouldn’t have in the light of day, taking up designated handicapped space. He made a choice he wouldn’t have if he’d expected to be harassed by police officers, tased, and arrested for it. Because usually in Milwaukee, if you’re caught parking in a handicapped zone while unauthorized, you’re issued a $200 citation. You’re not subject to arrest, let alone violent arrest.
From Milwaukee Police: pic.twitter.com/YRE2qR1yDS
— Dan O'Donnell (@DanODonnellShow) January 26, 2018
And yet, Brown was arrested–by a police officer doing a “business check”–on a “tentative misdemeanor charge of resisting or obstructing an officer”. For a then-undisclosed reason, “an electronic control device was deployed”. Brown was tased and brutalized before he was taken into custody for allegedly resisting arrest, and according to the Milwaukee PD’s statement, a simple conversation became an “incident”, escalating rather quickly into a questionable use of force.
On May 23, the body camera footage was released. Brown, upon exiting the Walgreens, is questioned for several minutes by a single officer beside Brown’s Mercedes. The officer wastes no time calling for “another squad”. He then instructs Brown to “back up” but makes it unclear where to or how far. He asks, “are you obstructing me?” and later accuses Brown of having been “in his face” (Brown visibly was not). The officer accuses Brown of trying to get back into the car, and tells him, “I own this right here.” Brown replies, “you don’t own me, though.” The officer accuses Brown of handing him a fake ID.
As the officer continues to escalate the situation, Brown explains that he simply went “in and out” of the drug store; a young woman was in the parked car while Brown was inside, supporting Brown’s claim. A moment later, Brown wonders out loud why the officer is drawing out the encounter and waiting for his “partner” instead of simply writing out the parking ticket. The officer responds, “you had time to park across these lanes here, so we’re gonna wait a little longer.”
At least four additional squad cars arrive at the scene; it’s unclear precisely how many, but visibly, close to a dozen total extra officers show up. Brown continues to ask questions of them, but he is, quite obviously, neither threatening nor combative. Just after the eight-minute mark, one officer, out of the camera’s view, suddenly implores Brown, “get your hands out of your pockets, now!” Brown, who’d had his hands in his pockets for most of the encounter, is not given much time to obey before five officers begin wrestling him to the asphalt. One yells, “taser, taser, taser!” and Brown can be heard groaning in pain on the ground. The stun gun is then employed.
At around the 13:30 mark, Brown, still on the ground but out of view, can be heard in conversation with the initiating officer. The officer says, “I asked you to step back and you didn’t do it,” implying that something that took place seven minutes before the altercation is the real reason why Sterling was tased and handcuffed.
After Brown’s car is searched, the initiating officer can be heard reconciling the encounter to another: “I thought, okay, [Brown]’s being an ass, he’s trying to hide something.” He then points out that he has “no idea” what to do next, and asks the other officer who’d run Brown’s information, “did he have anything? … No warrants?” Sterling did not have any warrants.
At about 23:50, Brown, standing up and in handcuffs, asks the initiating officer, “what are we waiting for?” The officer responds, “we’ve got all night long, man” and claims to not “have all the answers”. Brown expresses confusion: the officer who “initiated everything” does not know what’s supposed to happen next. The officer then brings up Brown’s status, taunting, “sorry, I don’t follow the Bucks … I didn’t recognize your famous name.” Brown contests, “that’s fine, you don’t need to,” emphasizing that his career is irrelevant to the situation.
The officer begins again, “I [just] wanted to talk to you about [the parked car]”, and Brown points out that while the two could have talked, the officer chose to do more. The officer again brings up how Brown did not “back up” in precisely the manner he preferred him to, insisting again that this is the reason Brown is under arrest.
— SB (@thatnegus_sb) May 23, 2018
In a personal statement released soon after the arrest video surfaced, Brown acknowledges that the nightmarish experience has given him a heightened sense of responsibility:
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” the people.
He points to recurring themes in all of these cases: racism, power, and a lack of police accountability. Sterling also acknowledges that “there must be mutual respect and both sides have to figure out how to accomplish [reform].” He confirms that he will be suing the police department, and promises to work diligently and peacefully to combat similar police-based injustices in his community.
The Milwaukee Bucks released their own statement, condemning the “abuse and intimidation” of Sterling, calling it “shameful and inexcusable”. The organization vehemently acknowledges that this isn’t an isolated incident, and calls for police accountability on a nationwide scale.
Incidents like this remind us of the injustices that persist. As an organization, we will support Sterling and build on our work with local leaders and organizations to foster safe neighborhoods and better our community.
By acknowledging that professional athletes falling through the cracks of a broken police system is a symptom of a greater disease, the Bucks organization has positioned itself as eager and willing to devote significant energy to combat the damaging systemic racism that afflicts all Black people.
In an official statement issued in conjunction with the video of Brown’s arrest, Police Chief Alfonso Morales said, “I am sorry the incident escalated to this level,” and revealed that an internal investigation had concluded. Members of the department “acted inappropriately” and were recently disciplined, though it is unclear to what extent.
Face covered in bruises, Sterling played 27 minutes in a home game against the Brooklyn Nets on the evening following his arrest. When questioned about the incident prior to the game, the rookie asked for respect for his privacy around the “personal issue”; subsequently, Bucks interim head coach Joe Prunty expressed unconditional support for Brown on behalf of the team.
Charges against Brown were never pursued. An internal police department investigation was opened up, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett publicly expressed hope for “a transparent process here for the public”. In a curious, since-deleted statement issued in January to city officials calling for unbridled support of the officers in question, Milwaukee Police Association president Mike Crivello insisted, “to be clear, the offender was not arrested solely for illegally parking a vehicle — his action determined the outcome.” But earlier in the statement, Crivello acknowledged a lack of familiarity with the situation, griping, “Buck’s [sic] leadership is supporting their guy – quite honest [he] looks to be 100% in the wrong! Of course, that is my non-investigated opinion.” Crivello’s frantic scrambling now looks a lot like a litmus test for guilt.
In another peculiar move by Milwaukee PD representatives, Assistant Police Chief Michael Brunson Sr. addressed a Black church on May 20 with a telling warning and odd plea:
“There’s going to be a video that is going to come out soon, in the next couple of weeks, involving the department. I’m going to be honest with you. We’re going to need your support during the challenges.”
Nearly four months after the initial incident, it was not immediately clear that Brunson was referencing the footage of Brown’s arrest in particular. Knowing what we do today, Brunson was confident that the evidence would be damning.
On Monday, May 21, it was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that video of Brown’s violent arrest would be made available to the public “soon”. Mayor Barrett told the media Monday, “I definitely have concerns after watching that video”, and called the evidence “disturbing”. An unnamed source who also viewed the footage ahead of its release said, “this could be bad … the player doesn’t appear to be provocative at all.”
Milwaukee’s police officers have long been notorious for their high-volume use of tasers, marketed not as “nonlethal” but as “less-lethal” than firearms. Earlier this May, a 25-year-old man named Demetrious Lowe was violently taken down by at least six Milwaukee officers and arrested during a mental health episode; a taser was involved. One officer was subsequently suspended, while three others were placed on administrative duty.
Overall, Milwaukee has a pitiful track record when it comes to use of force. According to the Sentinel, “police misconduct has cost Milwaukee taxpayers at least $17.5 million in legal settlements [from 2015 to 2017], forcing the city to borrow money to make the payouts amid an ever-tightening budget.”
Tuesday, May 22 saw another substantial development when it was announced that Brown is planning to file a civil lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department. In the same report, more sources confirmed to the Sentinel that Brown was visibly compliant in the body camera footage. At the time Tuesday, no officers had been disciplined and the internal review remained open. Strategically, Milwaukee PD released a pandering, pro-police video message–laden with citizens and officers of color and basketball imagery–the same day. Chief Morales rather ominously emphasizes, “in those instances where we have made mistakes and are wrong, I’m sorry.”
On ESPN’s The Jump Tuesday, retired NBA player Stephen Jackson put the reality of this plainly: “you can have all the money in the world, you could be successful, you could be an NBA or football player, but you’re still Black at the end of the day.” Sterling Brown did not pose a discernible threat to the police officers who arrested him. He was compliant and nonviolent. Yet, he was brutalized and arrested over a parking spot based on his appearance. Brown has money, is a recognizable face in the city of Milwaukee, and had a great rookie season–these attributes mean nothing so long as he’s perceived as a danger to society.
Paul Pierce adds, “this is what young Black kids, young Black adults have been going through in America. … I’ve been a victim of being handcuffed for no reason by the police.” Jackson acknowledges the theme of respect between Black citizens and police officers, or the lack thereof: “As a man, if I’m doing something wrong, somebody can tell me that I’m doing something wrong, and I can understand that–without you putting your hands on me.”
Sterling Brown sings happy birthday to Bucks Assistant Equipment Manager Eric…TWICE!! 😂🎉🎂 pic.twitter.com/W0CiU7PV52
— Milwaukee Bucks (at 🏠) (@Bucks) April 11, 2018
Sterling Brown’s choice to sue the Milwaukee PD is a courageous step. He is setting an example for those who may be afraid to take legal action, and hopefully he will set a new precedent for police accountability.
In October 2015, Brown’s teammate John Henson was racially profiled in nearby Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. While attempting to shop for watches at a jewelry store, employees locked the front door and called the police. Henson was not arrested, but called the experience “degrading”.
In April 2018, another teammate of Brown’s, All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, was refused service at a local restaurant following a playoff game.