How Much Is Enough?
Mark Thomsen says it’s high time to do something about police misconduct
Published in 2020 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on November 17, 2020
Updated on November 18, 2020
In Mark Thomsen’s 33-year career, he has handled a number of high-profile civil rights cases—including, most recently, that of Bucks player Sterling Brown, whom police tased and pushed to the ground over a parking violation in January 2018. So when Thomsen watched the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, he saw it as another example of America’s failure to address racist policing, and the product of society’s “deliberate indifference.”
“When I first saw the video, I was profoundly saddened, and then just angry at white America’s inability to get over this callousness, disregard and hatefulness,” Thomsen says. “There was no reason a human being should be treated that way, much less killed while they’re begging, ‘I can’t breathe.’
“The question for America and white folks like me is: Are we going to take the steps that are required to deal with this?”
As the nation reckoned with race relations throughout 2020, Thomsen identified several steps local governments and law enforcement agencies could take to prevent the kinds of police shootings that have provoked national outrage. The most important of those, he says, is increased discipline and accountability for officers who engage in misconduct.
While four officers were charged in Floyd’s death, charges—or even disciplinary measures—for officers involved in police shootings have not been common.
In Brown’s case, body camera footage showed that the Bucks’ shooting guard did not appear to threaten, raise his voice or resist officers. Yet what began as an interaction about illegally parking in a handicapped spot quickly escalated.
Three officers received unpaid suspensions and five others were disciplined, but only one was fired—for personal social media posts mocking the incident, not for misconduct.
“Until police departments and cities insist that officers are disciplined for this conduct, we’re not going to see a change,” Thomsen says. “The reason the officers in Minneapolis did what they did is because it was treated as OK and it didn’t matter. That means they’ve got a green light. That means they have been using similar conduct over and over again, and there hasn’t been any discipline.”
Thomsen says departments need to review existing policies and adopt new ones that specifically prohibit racist conduct. In addition, damages in line with the civil rights violations that occurred should be awarded to victims of excessive force, he says.
Thomsen also calls for abolishing chokeholds, making body cameras mandatory, and routinely auditing body camera videos—even when nothing of note is reported—to ensure officers’ conduct is appropriate.
“You can use the George Floyd tapes and say, ‘This is racist policing at its worst,’” Thomsen says. “These are officers that stood by and failed to intervene and allowed an officer to kill a human being for no legitimate reason. Police chiefs have to say, ‘If you do this, you’re not going to be a police officer.’”
Thomsen’s practice also includes representing clients injured by medical and legal malpractice, nursing home neglect, vehicle collisions, defective products and general negligence.
Besides Brown, Thomsen’s clients have included the family of Adam Trammell, a West Milwaukee man diagnosed with mental illness who died after a police tasing; and Robin Anderson, who was waiting in her car for a job interview when Glendale police misidentified her as a robbery suspect and smashed her car window, pointed a gun at her and placed her in handcuffs, according to a lawsuit. Both cases settled in 2019—Anderson’s for $100,000 and Trammell’s for $2.5 million.
As for Brown, he read a statement to the press following the Bucks’ decision to boycott playing following the killing of Jacob Blake. He also led a Floyd-inspired protest in Milwaukee as proceedings on his lawsuit against the city continued over the summer. The Floyd killing had a “visceral” impact on Brown, Thomsen says.
“But for pure luck, that could have been him. He’s been in the press and he’s reported, ‘Look, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just thought I was another young African American that was going to die.’”