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.


3 thoughts on “Independent Oversight of Police Brutality

  1. I like what you have to say. It rings so true and unfortunately this type of brutality cannot be eliminated all together to avoid having to even go to court. I am fighting the fight up here in Canada just by starting and . Check it out . like to hear from you. Wes

  2. All three police killings in Madison in 2013 have been of people with substance abuse or mental health problems.

    At the time unarmed Paul Heenan was killed, he was extremely intoxicated. He was struggling with a serious substance abuse problem.

    The second killing was of a man probably suffering from a psychotic form of mental illness. After a prolonged period of bizarre behavior, he came out of his home lightly armed with a sword which he probably was not competent to use effectively.

    The third was of a man who was in a suicidal crisis from his from chronic depression. He had cut himself and his wife had called 911 for help.

    Formerly, police were skilled in the use of their billy clubs to quickly deal with inebriated people. The person usually ended up with no more than a few bruises.While not the best that was a far better outcome than death by police gunfire.

    Now police seem to be trained to perceive everything as potentially life threatening. If they do not get immediate and complete compliance with their orders to cease the threat, they open fire.

    The reality is that all communities have people struggling with substance abuse and mental health problems. They will have crises, exacerbations, or relapses. During such periods their judgement and inhibitions are impaired and they have a decreased ability to understand and cooperate with police orders.

    In most cases, police will be the first responders. In such situations they need a different perspective and protocols to assess and intervene.

    The police hostage protocols may be a better and proven effective way to approach these incidents.

    Rather than a victim, the person has taken themselves hostage..The goal of the police is to get the person to release themselves unharmed for transport to a mental health or substance abuse treatment facility.

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