Mark Thomsen has thought a lot about how to make the legal process more fair — especially this year. Thomsen and his firm, Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, have taken up a number of high-profile civil rights cases in recent months.
“We’re a statewide firm committed to representing people who have been injured,” Thomsen said. “We are taking those cases and helping those people try to find justice.”
Thomsen is representing Sterling Brown, the Milwaukee Bucks guard tased while waiting for an illegal parking citation, in a civil suit against the city. He also represented the family of Adam Trammell, a man with mental illness tased to death in his West Milwaukee apartment, and Robin Anderson, a woman profiled by police and handcuffed while parked at Bayshore Town Center. Anderson’s case settled for $100,000 and Trammell’s family received $2.5 million.
Most recently, he’s working with the victim of a hate crime that made headlines in early November. A white man threw acid at Mahud Villalaz’s face outside a Milwaukee restaurant and accused Villalaz of being in the U.S. illegally. Thomsen and his firm are investigating if an outside organization encouraged the alleged attacker to carry out the racially motivated violence.
“If we can identify an organization that was on the Internet promoting or encouraging the defendant to act out his hate, we’re going to see if we can have a civil conspiracy,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen invited the Wisconsin Law Journal to Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs’ new in-progress office space in Milwaukee’s Third Ward (see next page) for a conversation about his work.
Wisconsin Law Journal: Why is it important to you to take up civil justice cases?
Mark Thomsen: Everything I’ve done as a trial lawyer is in the category of civil justice. Civil rights cases also attracted me in the sense of how do we make our world a better place? It’s a very unique opportunity to be able to make a living representing people and helping create a legal infrastructure that’s more fair and just.
WLJ: What needs to be done to create an infrastructure to make the legal process more fair?
Thomsen: I represented a woman, Robin Anderson, in Glendale. She’s an African-American woman who was parked in her car waiting for a job interview when the police surrounded her. They have the wrong license plate, wrong model car, but they handcuffed her. They let her go after 10 minutes, but it’s the kind of situation that wouldn’t happen to my children. This wouldn’t happen to my white daughter or my white son. What do we have to do to address this?
Part of that discussion was there was a one-on-one with the chief of police with my client talking about how we can better those relationships. The chief had a chance to apologize to her, and she had the chance to talk about how to do better training with officers so it doesn’t happen again. That kind of context helps frame the legal infrastructure.
WLJ: Have you seen improvements within the city of Milwaukee over the course of taking these cases?
Thomsen: I have had a lot of discussions with different people in Milwaukee. There is an openness to how do we get better. There is an institutionalized resistance to getting there. We’ve obtained testimony from officers that they in fact violated Mr. (Sterling) Brown’s constitutional rights, and when there’s sworn testimony to that fact, it should be easy enough for the city to say, “Yes we did wrong.” Once you admit that, it allows the community to figure out how to heal. There has to be a legal infrastructure that when a city knows it has violated someone’s civil rights, they admit it, not just turn around and blame the victim. We’re not going to heal if it continues that way.
WLJ: What steps should the city of Milwaukee take to acknowledge this institutionalized problem?
Thomsen: I think the first step is, when the city, as an institution, knows its officers violated someone’s rights, they say, “We did that wrong, and we’re not going to do it again.” And then they’re going to look at what happened wrong here and how to fix it. They could use the video (of Sterling Brown) in training saying, “This is what you can’t do. If you act like Officer Grams and surround young black men, take them down and tase them, we’re going to discipline you, and we’re going to fire you.” If (officers) know that’s the case, we’re going to reduce that rate.
When we reduce that rate, citizens are going to have more respect and more trust for officers.
We have to figure out how to work together and build a city for the new millennium. It’s almost 2020. This is like Jim Crow stuff. This impacts every business in Milwaukee. There are major companies that want a diverse workforce and can’t keep people in the city because they’re worried their kids are going to get attacked by police on the streets. We are not going to become a modern, world-class city without solving this problem. There is a world focus on us now, and this creates an opportunity to do something right with Mr. Brown that also sends a message to every other young African-American in this city that this city will provide them with a safe future. If the city does that, it puts Milwaukee in a very positive light.