Settlements: An Integral Part of our System of Justice

Today, I settled a case on behalf of my clients. As is typically the case in settlements, neither side got everything they wanted, but both sides agreed to settle their dispute understanding that the unpredictable nature of allowing a judge to determine the outcome of the case made the risk of continuing litigation too great for both sides to bear.

handshake

While settlements invariably involve compromise, they are an integral part of our system of justice. Our system of justice is designed to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner instead of resorting to vigilante justice. Although rulings from courts are key pieces of our system of justice, they actually represent only a small minority of the results of litigation. In fact, roughly 95% of all civil cases result in a settlement before trial.

Recently, a friend expressed concern over Tony Robinson’s family’s decision to sue the City of Madison over the fatal shooting of their son by a Madison police officer, as he thought that it would only result in a settlement. Ironically, this lawsuit was brought just a day after the City of Madison settled the lawsuit brought by the family of another victim of a fatal police shooting, Paul Heenan, for $2.3 million.

I explained to my concerned friend that although it was impossible to predict the outcome of the Tony Robinson lawsuit, odds were very high that it would result in a settlement, and there was nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is what happened just before the trial in which I represented a Sun Prairie Middle School student against a police officer who assaulted him at school.

While the City of Madison claimed the settlement in the Paul Heenan case was not an admission of liability, and technically that is true, I can assure you that no party settles a case for $2.3 million without knowing that it has a very good chance of losing a lot more if the case goes to trial. As the Heenan family’s attorney Mike Fox said,

We want policing to be something other than a reaction to unreasonable fear and unreasonable anger, and we hope that this case is a testament to the fact that a shooting of an individual who is unarmed and who we allege did not pose a threat to the officer is simply wrong.

They hope this settlement and the work it took to achieve this settlement will become part of the national conversation that is currently dealing with relationships between police officers and their respective communities and a dialogue between police officers and their respective communities that seems to be dreadfully out of sync.

Civil rights attorneys, such as myself, hope that every settlement brings about systems change resulting in improved future behavior by both the perpetrator of the civil rights violation, and perhaps more important, by others who learn about the settlement. As an attorney who continues to battle the schools to prison pipeline, I sincerely hope that my Sun Prairie settlement, and the Paul Heenan settlement take us a couple of steps closer to living in a nation where our police officers protect us rather than injuring or killing us.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Ubuntu: I Am because You Are

My wife and I recently attended a wonderful concert performed by the South African musical legends Hugh Masakela and Vusi Mahlasela.  During the concert, these musicians, who played key roles in South Africa’s struggle to break free from apartheid, and are now touring to celebrate 20 years of freedom, introduced the concept of Ubuntu.  While the literal translation of this Nguni Bantu term is “human kindness,” Masakela and Mahlasela presented it as a Southern African existential philosophy: I am because you are.

Vusi_Masekela

I have been thinking of this strong belief in connectedness as my community struggles with the recent police shooting of Tony Robinson, an unarmed African-American teen, just a few blocks from my home, which has led to peaceful protests and calls for change in police practices.  Much has been written about this tragic event, which is still under investigation.  One of the best statements comes from the YWCA, which concludes by stating:

we need to remember that justice for Tony isn’t only about Tony. It is about justice for all.

There are many ways in which our community can move forward.  As I have written previously,  Ending Racism Requires Systems ChangeThe racial disparities in Madison are among the worst in the nation, but that should only motivate us to work harder to change that equation.  I have previously proposed the concept of Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model and  perhaps transforming Justice for Tony into the change we want to be is the best way to create Justice for All.

However, until each one of us recognizes the core value of UbuntuI am because you are, through which everyone understands that we will never overcome hatred and racism and achieve justice for all until we all recognize that each of us exists for each other, the hopes and dreams of all those who want to transform Justice for Tony into Justice for All will remain elusive. Everyone is responsible for building the community we want to be: police, civic leaders, our neighbors and the strangers amongst us.  Everyone is because we are.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Dialogue: Now more than ever

We live in perilous times.  On the domestic stage, Americans continue to protest police violence.  Around the world, terrorists continue to engage in horrific murderous acts like the Taliban’s recent rampage killing nearly 150 school children.

While such peril can and does easily lead to violent acts of retribution, attempts to justify torture, or on the personal level, sinking into depression, unless we choose to allow those who commit these horrific acts of unjustified violence to prevail, we must find ways to keep our sanity and allow the best parts of humanity to rise to the top.

At a basic level, if individuals, communities and nations are unable to talk with each other, then their ability to resolve grievances is severely compromised.  Today, we finally see the end of a failed policy through which the United States refused to talk with Cuba, as President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations after 50 years.  While each nation continues to have grievances with each other, with normal diplomatic relations, the opportunity now exists to solve problems rather than exacerbate them.

In the Middle East, we have seen that the inability of Israel and the Palestinians to successfully negotiate a resolution of their longstanding grievances has fanned the flames of violent acts committed by extremists on both sides.  The world watches anxiously as Israeli elections in March may determine whether a path towards a peaceful resolution can be achieved.

At the local level, I continue to work to engage in dialogue with whomever is willing on difficult topics.  In the Jewish community, talking about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians is a touchy subject, which splits friends and family.  Fortunately, as I have written previously, there is a way to engage in safe & meaningful dialogue, through the methods developed by the Jewish Dialogue Group.  Utilizing these methods of facilitated dialogue, I helped bring the Madison Jewish community together earlier this year for 3 such sessions co-sponsored by my own synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, Madison’s other two synagogues, Temple Beth El and the Beth Israel Center, the University of Wisconsin Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Madison.  Each session had about 12 participants, including members of all 3 synagogues, as well as unaffiliated Jews.  Feedback after the sessions was overwhelmingly positive with the only significant critique being that many wanted to participate in additional sessions.

cover_image_for_constant_contact_eGiven that success and the desire for ongoing dialogue, with my coordination, these same 5 organizations came together to obtain an Innovation grant from the Jewish Federation of Madison which will allow us to convene dialogue sessions on a monthly basis throughout 2015. We will gear some sessions for those who have never participated in such a dialogue and other sessions for those who want to deepen their experience by participating in additional sessions.  In addition, some sessions will target affinity groups, including young adults, college students, interfaith couples, Jewish institutional leadership and Camp Shalom staff.

The first 2 sessions are scheduled to take place at UW Hillel on:

  • January 28th-7-9 PM for young adults (20-30 something); and
  • February 12th-7-9 PM for college students.

Additional sessions will be announced in the coming weeks.

RSVPs are required and space is limited to 15 participants to ensure that all participants have a full chance to engage in meaningful dialogue.  You can get more information and register by e-mailing: office@shamayim.org .

From the local to the international, through dialogue, we can achieve peace & justice.

coexist

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Sun Prairie Police Brutality Case Headed to Trial

Last summer, I filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of my client, a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, middle school student, who without provocation, was forcefully taken down to the hard floor at his school by police school liaison officer Brandon Lingle, suffering a concussion and black eye, as well as emotional distress.  My client and his mother retained me not only to obtain justice for him, but to make clear to both the Sun Prairie Police Department and others who are taking note of this case, that police officers simply cannot use excessive force against children in our schools and get away with it.  You can read more about the media coverage when the lawsuit was filed and see the TV broadcast of the school security video showing the takedown of my client in my previous post on this case. Although my client and his mother have always been willing to resolve this matter through a fair and reasonable settlement, to date, Officer Lingle and the City of Sun Prairie have refused to enter into any negotiations, choosing instead to try to have the case dismissed before trial.

Late last week, presiding federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker, issued an important decision which affirms my client’s right to have a jury decide whether Officer Lingle used excessive force when he took my client down to the hard school floor.  Based on the written submissions by both parties, Judge Crocker stated that:

I cannot find that Officer Lingle’s takedown was reasonable as a matter of law….As a result, a jury will have to hear the evidence, find facts and resolve this claim with a verdict.

Unless the parties resolve this case through settlement, trial is scheduled for 4 days in federal district court in Madison, from October 27-30, 2014.  My clients will continue to seek justice for school children through this case, whether by obtaining a fair settlement or presenting their case to a jury next month.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Establish an Independent Review Process in Cases of Police Caused Death

MY TESTIMONY IN FAVOR OF AB 409

December 12, 2013-Wisconsin Assembly Criminal Justice Committee 

It is with great pleasure that I come before you today to testify in support of AB 409.  This bill represents an important first step to insure that law enforcement officials respect the Constitutional rights of the people of Wisconsin.  While the vast majority of law enforcement officials indeed serve and protect residents, citizens and visitors in Wisconsin, sadly and occasionally, rogue police officers violate the state and US Constitutional guarantees to be free from unwarranted abuse by police.

AB 409 represents merely a first step in providing an appropriate safeguard in the worst-case scenario of Constitutional abuse by law enforcement officials, i.e., the taking of someone’s life by such officials.  From my perspective, such independent review should happen in all cases of police brutality.

For example, I represent a middle school student with emotional disabilities in Sun Prairie who had his Constitutional rights violated when Officer Brandon Lingle slammed his head to the hard school floor without provocation earlier this year, giving my client a concussion and bleeding in his eye.  It also traumatized my client, who now is fearful of this police liaison officer who continues to maintain his post at Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School.  Fortunately, this incident was caught on a school security camera providing an excellent view of this Constitutional violation.

My client’s mother, who is a low-income single parent, sought an investigation by the Sun Prairie police, but that department merely informed her that Officer Lingle’s actions were appropriate.  As a result, she retained me and I have filed a federal lawsuit (Case No. 13-cv-414, W.D. Wis.) on my clients’ behalf to enforce his Constitutional rights.  In order to successfully prosecute this case, I have obtained an independent expert police conduct report, which has identified multiple violations of my client’s civil rights by Officer Lingle and the Sun Prairie police department, which clearly failed to provide appropriate supervision and discipline in this case.

The citizens of Wisconsin should not be forced to file a federal lawsuit to protect their Constitutional rights when police officers abuse them, especially when law enforcement officials kill them.  AB 409 takes an important first step to protect everyone from rogue police officers who kill anyone in Wisconsin.  I urge the Committee to promptly pass this bi-partisan measure.

Sun Prairie Drops Resisting Arrest Charge in Police Abuse Case

I have previously written about my case in which a Sun Prairie police officer violently slammed my middle school student client’s head to the ground at school, giving him a concussion and black eye.  While my client’s case against the officer, the Sun Prairie Police Department and the City of Sun Prairie winds its way through the federal court system, I was forced to defend my client in Sun Prairie Municipal Court because the police officer issued tickets to my client for resisting an officer and disorderly conduct. Sadly, it is not uncommon for a police officer who uses excessive force to claim that he had to subdue the victim because the victim was resisting the officer.

The Municipal Court trial on those charges was scheduled for today. However, at the outset, Sun Prairie’s Municipal Attorney stated that the City had decided to drop the resisting an officer charges.  In return, my client agreed to plead no contest to disorderly conduct because he swore at the police officer, which meets the technical grounds of disorderly conduct.

My client, his mother, and I are very pleased that the City of Sun Prairie recognized that it was likely to lose the resisting an officer charge as my client was simply trying to call his mother as his school behavior plan permits him to do.

Now we move on to getting justice for my client for being abused by the police officer.


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

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.

Fighting the School to Prison Pipeline (Update)

In April, I posted this TV story about my client, a 14 year old boy with disabilities in 8th grade in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who was given a concussion and black eye when he was slammed to the school floor by a school based police officer, without provocation.  Prior to that TV story airing, on behalf of my clients, I wrote the Sun Prairie Mayor and Police Chief asking them to investigate the incident, discipline the police officer, and enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for this act of police brutality.  We proceeded with the TV story because the City of Sun Prairie refused to investigate the incident, discipline the officer, or enter into good faith negotiations to resolve the matter quickly and quietly.

My clients and I decided to allow Sun Prairie some time to reconsider its intransigence after the TV story aired, but sadly, to date, Sun Prairie remains firmly committed to refusing to conduct an independent investigation, discipline the police officer or enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for the violation of his Constitutional rights to be free from unwarranted police brutality.  This leaves us with only one conclusion.  The City of Sun Prairie and its police department apparently believe that it is ok for its police officers to give concussions to their young residents without provocation.  Accordingly, yesterday, on my client’s behalf, I filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to bring this matter to the courts.  The Wisconsin State Journal covered the story in today’s paper.

My clients and I hope that filing this lawsuit will finally force Sun Prairie to retain attorneys who will recognize that it would be better to use this case as an opportunity to address problems in its police department’s interaction with teenage students rather than engaging in a protracted battle in court.  However, at this point, whether or not Sun Prairie will change its tune remains to be seen.  Until then, both my clients and I are ready, willing and able to assert my young client’s right to be free from unprovoked and unwarranted police brutality while attending school.

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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.

Video

Fighting the School to Prison Pipeline

http://www.wkow.com/story/22081512/2013/04/25/concern-over-student-hurt-by-sun-prairie-school-officer

This is a new case of mine clearly demonstrating why it is often inappropriate to have police in our schools, particularly when they abuse the children they are supposed to protect and do so without provocation.


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