Independent Oversight of Police Brutality

Thankfully, in the United States, we live in a nation which provides Constitutional guarantees which are designed to protect citizens from police brutality.  Yet, like all Constitutional and legal guarantees, occasionally these guarantees are not honored.

In my own practice, as reported previously, I am currently litigating a case involving a police officer who, without provocation, slammed my middle school student client’s head to the school floor, giving him a concussion. This litigation became necessary when the Sun Prairie police failed to investigate or discipline the abusive officer, and failed to engage in meaningful settlement negotiations prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

Litigation is usually the last resort of citizens seeking to redress their Constitutional rights, as it is expensive, time consuming, and stressful. Moreover, in police brutality cases, most jurors prefer to believe that police acted reasonably, making it harder to prove that they acted abusively.

In the worst case scenario of police abuse, the victim is killed by a police officer.  In my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, police officer Stephen Heimsness shot and killed a local musician, Paul Heenan, in November 2012, not far from where I live.  Only recently, Heimsness has been forced to resign, but according to the police department, it was not because of this shooting.  To date, there has been no independent third-party investigation of this shooting. This failure to acknowledge wrongdoing or otherwise compensate Heenan’s family has led them to file a lawsuit to enforce his Constitutional rights.

In Wisconsin, police discipline is governed by Wis. Stats. 62.13.  Police and Fire Commission members are appointed by the Mayor, which makes it less than independent, since the police department is operated by the City.  As a result, this built in conflict has made it highly unusual for Police & Fire Commissions to dismiss officers who have engaged in police brutality, and the statue does not provide for such Commissions to provide compensation to individuals who are victims of police brutality.

Given the obstacles to enforcement of the Constitutional guarantees against police brutality, it is time to give serious consideration to creation of a panel of independent experts who understand these Constitutional protections and have to power to discipline police officers who violate them and compensate individualized who are victimized by police.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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Hope: Essential, but not Sufficient for Systems Change

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, those who recognize that the status quo is never fully satisfactory for most of us would do well to analyze the essential elements of progressive systems change.  At the very core of Dr. King’s message is a message of hope.  After all, when people lose all hope, they give up trying to make progress, or worse yet, engage in desperate acts of terror, because they have no hope of making progress without the use of such horrific means.

In his first campaign for President, Barack Obama captivated a majority of Americans with his message of hope.  However, those who listened carefully to that message also understood that hope alone does not achieve progressive systems change. Indeed, he started using the theme of hope in his 2004 Senate campaign.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?

Indeed, in his victory speech after his Presidential re-election in 2012, President Obama made clear that:

I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

To those who felt downtrodden by the struggle for justice, Martin Luther King made clear:

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

As I have written previously, in addition to hope, the following elements are critical to advancing systems change:

  • Truth
  • Education
  • Organization
  • Litigation when necessary, and
  • Persistence

Most of all, using all of these elements strategically and effectively will capitalize on the power of hope to effect progressive systems change.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Giving Tree Builds Community

Over many years of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, it has become very clear to me that society only makes progress through building and sustaining communities. Many of us belong to multiple communities: through work, our neighborhood, a religious community, or one or more social communities. Communities create a sense of caring and belonging where people do good for each other out of genuine desire, rather than guilt or obligation.

Government can play an important role in building communities, whether through zoning or police protection.  For example, vast suburban sprawl where subdivisions are built without sidewalks creates barriers to community building as neighborhood children have no common space to play with each other, nor do adults have a common space to meet while walking.  On the other end of the economic spectrum, neighborhoods rife with crime where residents live in fear of illicit drugs, guns and gangs, also prevent community building.

For over 21 years, my family has lived in a very special neighborhood.  Sidney Street is a one block street with older homes.  While many of our neighbors have lived here as long as we have, or even longer, new neighbors are welcomed each year. On Sidney Street, we ask other’s children why they aren’t wearing their bike helmets. We have regular block parties on holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4th. People even move from house to house on the same street (some as many as 3 times) if a larger house becomes available.

Shel Silverstein wrote a wonderful children’s book, The Giving Tree, in 1964, in which a boy develops a beautiful relationship with a tree, which keeps giving and giving to him through manhood, until he becomes an old man who rests on the now dead tree’s stump.

991On Sidney Street, our long-time neighbors, John and Lauren Bell Bern have a living Giving Tree in their front yard.  This Crabapple tree is suitable for small children to climb and we have watched children climb it for over 21 years.  Despite the fact that this tree has lost many branches due to children’s climbing, and despite the fact that John and Lauren’s children are all adults now, they graciously permit children to continue to climb their tree year after year.

Unlike Shel Silverstein’s book, the Sidney Street Giving Tree continues to live and indeed thrive, despite the weight of many children’s bodies over the decades.  The Sidney Street Giving Tree is where friends are made, and caring communities are created.  As I write this, I hear neighborhood children playing outside and they gladly accepted my invitation to allow me to take their picture in the Sidney Street Giving Tree. One girl asked me to wait until she got onto “her branch.”

IMG_1529The smiles of these 5 girls on the Sidney Street Giving Tree assure me that this tree continues to build community.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

In Search of Statesmanship

Perhaps the greatest loss in the current fire & brimstone version of American politics is the virtually complete absence of genuine statesmanship.  The dictionary definition of “statesman,” is:

a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.

Note that there is no reference to political party or partisanship in this definition because a true statesman has the wisdom and skills to lead and not just the crass skill to win elections.

While there has been a long term American trend minimizing the value of statesmanship, the trend worsened after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United in which the majority held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited.  This decision unleashed a torrent of campaign spending such as the nation has never seen before in which corporate interests spend as they please to buy the politicians that serve their interests.  Such an atmosphere makes principled statesmanship extremely challenging.

Fortunately, there are a few statesmen left, although at the federal level, one statesman who stands out has wisely chosen to stay out of electoral politics, perhaps to preserve his ability to be a statesman. Retired Gen. Colin Powell served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and yet due to his statesmanship, despite being considered as a possible Vice-Presidential running mate for Presidential candidate John McCain, shortly before the 2008 election, he endorsed Barack Obama during a Meet the Press interview, citing “his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities,” in addition to his “style and substance.” He additionally referred to Obama as a “transformational figure“.  Crossing party lines is a true marker of statesmanship.

At the local level, Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz, a long time Republican, has also shown that he is a statesman.  He has been in the Wisconsin legislature since 1982, and  his overall voting record is generally that of a conservative Republican, earning him high marks from Right to Life groups, the NRA and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.  But ever since 2011, when he voted against his party’s budget proposal to strip union collective bargaining rights, as well as against a bill that would fast track mining in Wisconsin, he has earned the ire of many in his party and may well face a challenging primary if he chooses to run for re-election.  I worked closely with him in helping to kill and ALEC sponsored special needs voucher bill in 2012.

Wisconsin is a better place because of statesmen like Dale Schultz, and America is a better country because of statesmen like Colin Powell.  The national challenge is to make our political environment more conducive for more statesmen to practice their skillful craft.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Inclusion as a Path to Friendship: Time to End Segregated Schools

During the past few weeks, I have been blessed to reunite with old friends going back over 3 decades.  In England, I reunited with friends from England, Scotland and France, with whom I worked as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel during the winter of 1979-80.  In Idaho, I reunited with an old high school friend who lives in Delaware now, as we hiked in the White Cloud Mountains.

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These reunions helped me recall how important friendships are not only in my own life, but how critical they are for anyone who desires to live a fulfilled life in what can often be a challenging world.  Yet, through my many years of advocacy for children with disabilities, I have learned that one of the biggest challenges for them is whether typically developing children will welcome them into their circle of friends.

In their book, Friends and Inclusion, the authors correctly describe a significant flaw in our disability service system:

People who are at risk are often seen by the public, community organizations, and families as first and foremost needing services and the help of professionals. While this response is sometimes useful, it can impede the development of meaningful friendships. Our society for the most part still assumes that people with disabilities mostly require services rather than a rich life in community with friends.

They go on to point out that:

The opportunity to have real friends occurs through participation in family, school, neighbourhoods, and other places where people gather. Real friendships are genuine caring relationships where people share common interests, love and respect each other, and want to spend time together. Contrary to the idea that these kinds of friendships can only happen naturally, our experience is that discovering and building real friendships often requires intentional or deliberate action.

Recently, a child therapist who works with many children with disabilities expressed shock to me that Wisconsin still has publicly funded segregated schools in which all the children who attend those schools have disabilities.  Indeed, there are 3 such schools, Lakeland School, in Walworth County, Syble Hopp, in Brown County, and Fairview South, in Waukesha County.  While these schools and the parents who send their children there will certainly extol their virtues, among the reasons I have represented many parents who do not want their children with disabilities to attend these segregated schools, is that they deny the opportunity for their children to make friendships with typically developing peers.

As educator Helene McGlauflin notes:

Establishing friends for students with severe and profound disabilities is best done intentionally. Like most schools, our school has always grappled with how to integrate students with very special needs into the regular classroom and the entire school with dignity, respect and an awareness of their particular educational needs.

Purposefully creating a group of friends for each student has given our inclusion efforts more structure and focus. It has required special education teachers and regular education teachers to more carefully coordinate when, how and why the special needs students are in the classroom, examining times and activities when the friends can help with the integration process.

Thus, placing children with disabilities in segregated schools denies them the opportunities to make friendships with typically developing peers.  Indeed, this can have long lasting economic and safety implications, as it is common knowledge that most people gain economic success through networking with friends, and it is far more likely that a friend will assist a person with disabilities in a time of need than a stranger.

In the name of friendship, which we all treasure, it is time to end the public funding of segregated schools.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.