I’m not sure why, but since the video of Sterling Brown’s mistreatment was released no one on FtB seems to have covered the malicious violence police committed against Brown, a rookie NBA player who may not be a superstar (yet) but is already playing a large contributing role for his team in his first year. From that, we can guess he’s making significant money and had significant local fame even before this incident put him repeatedly in the news. (BTW: I Have Forgiven Jesus spoke about this in anticipation of the video’s release, but we did not yet know what it showed.)
It’s been hard for me to start this piece. This story falls in an awkward place for me. It lacks the immediate, universal concern that appears to exist here on FtB when cops kill someone, but it’s also far more serious than the quotidian racism in policing that I also cover.
Brown is ridiculously well educated about law enforcement’s perspectives on interactions with the Black public: his father was (or possibly still is) a cop in a town not far from Milwaukee. I watched the entire video released by Milwaukee PD and he shows himself to be annoyed that the cop is hassling him for parking across two reserved accessible parking spaces. It’s a move that shows the arrogance of youth, wealth, and fame that Brown has internalized.
But that arrogance is limited, tempered. This isn’t a man outraged to be subject to police attention. While he doesn’t instantly obey every request of the officers, he’s not complaining that he’s going to get a ticket. he’s not resisting law enforcement authority or doing anything to prevent them from accomplishing their jobs. Rather, the cop seems clearly intent on interrogating Brown where Brown expected a more business like encounter, and Brown takes some small, polite exception to the aggressiveness of the first cop on the scene.
He doesn’t plead for leniency. He doesn’t ask that the cop not give him a ticket. But near the beginning of the encounter the cop approaches Brown as Brown approaches his driver’s side door where the cop is waiting, thus approaching the cop. The cop takes offense, asking Brown to give him more space. Brown shifts backward but takes no large step away. The cop wants more space, but instead of acknowledging that Brown has shifted back and stepping a bit back himself, he leans into Brown and insists on more space. Then he gives Brown what appears to be a light push.
Brown asks then, and several times during the video, why the cop touched him, and it’s clear that without making a specific or open criticism, he’s distressed about the confrontational tone the officer took from the moment the interaction started. The behavior likely seems odd to most people watching the video not because anything Brown does is out of the ordinary, but rather because all the behavior seems so ordinary. Here’s a professional basketball player in his team’s home town and not far away from the high school (just across the border in Illinois) where he was certainly a celebrated sports hero. Does he ever mention his employment with the Milwaukee Bucks? Nope. Does he ever take the entitled stance that the ticket he deserves shouldn’t be issued? Nope. Does he every try to establish sympathy by mentioning that his dad’s a cop? Nope.
As much as the original offense shows the entitled thoughtlessness of youth, celebrity, and money, his responses to the first officer on the scene and every officer that comes later show him to be quite normal. And perhaps that’s the truth of this encounter, because as much as his parking offense might show entitled thoughtlessness, it’s the kind of thoughtlessness that doesn’t require one to be a Paris Hilton or a Kanye West. Other than his car, the lot was entirely empty when he arrived and parked. It was a dead hour of the night, approximately 2 am, and it was unlikely that any other customer might arrive during the short time he intended to be in the store. While this behavior is wrong, it’s not an offense that requires exceptional thinking.
I remember waiting at a rural stop light that simply would not change. It was a dead hour of the night then, too, and by the time seven minutes had passed I was convinced that the light was unlikely ever to change. I decided to wait ten minutes, then I made sure no one was coming and ran the red light. It was only later that it occurred to me that I could have legally taken a right turn on red, driven the wrong way until I found a driveway or another street I could turn down and used that to reverse course. Looking back, I think I was young and stupid both to wait that long and not to take the legal means at my disposal to solve the problem of being trapped at an unchanging light. Though I’ve never parked across two accessible spaces, I’ve done my share of stupid things. I keep thinking that if I had been caught running the red that night, I might have acted very similarly to Brown.
Was Brown’s behavior perfect? Oh, I don’t know. The nits I would pick are completely trivial. I don’t think I would ask a cop to explain why he pushed me. I don’t think that was helpful in avoiding a bad outcome here. But it certainly wasn’t wrong. There’s simply nothing that Brown does that’s wrong other than park illegally.
That’s what makes the video so painful to watch. I worked for a brief time as a 911 dispatcher. I’m not an expert on policing, but I have some small insight into when and why an officer might call for backup. It looks to me like the first cop on the scene was always intending to escalate the encounter with Brown. There’s no clear reason at all why backup was necessary. The cop never pulls out a ticket book and tries to complete the citation before backup arrives. But that’s not the worst of it.
The worst of it? We have all this video because it’s on body cam, and that was no secret to the first officer on scene. As he pushes Brown, as he demands that Brown give him space (while stepping forward into Brown’s space), he repeatedly insists that he’s got all Brown’s misbehavior on video. To that cop, the clearly non-confrontational behavior of Brown and the avoidance of his job shown by the lack of any attempt to write out the required citation all clearly did justify everything that came later. It justified calling backup. It justified tasing Brown. The video was this cop’s vindication.
And that’s why we should be discussing this case. From the cop’s perspective, his aggressiveness and violence was quotidian. When I think of everyday police harassment, I think of cases like Kash Alpha. But there were multiple cops present with many years’ experience. Two sergeants were present for the tasing. The first cop on scene likely had a few years’ experience himself and knows far more about backup and use-of-force decisions than I ever will. And yet, for these officers, especially but not only the first, the full awareness of ongoing video recording dulled their aggression not at all. Despite my naive assumption that the treatment of Kash Alpha is an unremarkable, every day event in the lives of the Black public and the cops who harass them but that the malicious violence deployed against Brown is somehow unusual, the behavior of the cops on video shows them to be almost religiously certain that the beatdown they deliver is exactly what they’re supposed to be doing all day, every day.
Brown is a basketball player, and a good one. That’s brought him some small measure of fame. When he was arrested he spent most of the night chatting with others going through booking and enduring pre-arraignment detention. He contacted the Bucks who helped him make bail. He went to the team’s facilities to talk with management about the incident and get ready for that night’s game. He played with obvious injuries to his face, racking up a career high 9 rebounds against professional athletes who’d actually gotten some sleep the night before. The injuries caused reporters to ask around. Brown gave them nothing: he wasn’t looking to punish the cops in the press or to make the situation worse. He told them only that the injuries were derived from a “personal matter”. It seems he would have been perfectly happy to let them think the worst of him. There’s no indication, at least, that any of what followed occurred at Brown’s instigation or request.
But when you have a local pro baller chatting with everyday folk inside a jail cell, that information is going to get out. This is especially true when reporters get curious about why a player shows up for a game with a broken face and no explanation. Some cops involved were disciplined. Two sergeants were suspended for double-digit days. One other officer was suspended for two days. We don’t know if that’s the officer who fired the taser or the one who initiated the confrontation. We do know that at least part of the suspension resulted from the cops lying on their incident reports.
Think about that: the cops who tased a pro basketball player from the local team felt confident enough that they lied on official reports about events that were captured on video and audio.
The terrible truth about the beating of Sterling Brown, his defamation in false police reports, and his unwarranted and unlawful arrest is that the only thing unusual in this entire sequence of events is that a few of the officers involved got punished.
Don’t look for better from Milwaukee PD in the future. These officers committed crimes in their falsification of records, and if there was any desire to actually make the force better, they would be prosecuted rather than merely suspended.