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ON THE DEFENSIVE: Police misconduct claims deserve day in court

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and previously served two terms on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

It has become common knowledge that a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.

After Brown was killed, the black community began protesting, demanding explanations. As the protests grew, the Missouri governor ordered state troopers to oversee the response.

The images from Ferguson have been striking. Thousands of black protesters appear to be squared off against the police, many of whom appear braced for combat. The officers have military-grade equipment and weapons.

That clash has sparked a national discussion on the increasing militarization of community police forces and the limits on officers’ use of force.

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, money and military-grade equipment have flowed to local police departments, ostensibly to fight terrorism. But few cities have meaningful terrorist threats, so the machinery is used against the local population.

The so-called “war on drugs” continues, but many inner-city neighborhoods now resemble war zones, with officers patrolling with war-grade equipment. The result is an uneasy, if not hostile, existence between the police and the population they should serve.

The events in Ferguson are the culmination of that. But Ferguson is only the most recent place where the lid has blown. If leaders want to prevent that from happening elsewhere, they need to provide an alternative.

Public protests are an effective way to bring immediate attention to a problem. But, over time, emotions diminish.

Politicians can weigh in on the problems, but the legislative process is inefficient. Moreover, the minority communities, which are affected most by police overreaching, usually lack the political clout necessary to create change.

Too often, police behavior changes only when evidence is suppressed or when there is a financial penalty leveled against the city.

In Milwaukee and Chicago, juries recently awarded millions of dollars to victims of police misconduct. There are more than 40 lawsuits pending in federal court in Wisconsin against police officers accused of illegally strip-searching suspects.

A single jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff sends a stronger message to the police than any public protest or bill proposed by a politician.

Lawyers can do their part by listening when clients tell stories of police misconduct. Those claims should be investigated and, if appropriate, litigated. Judges, for their part, ought to ensure that the plaintiffs be given a full opportunity to air their grievances in court.

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