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.