Sunday, June 23, 2024

Court upholds Milwaukee police officer’s firing for posting racist memes after Sterling Brown arrest

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a former Milwaukee police officer was properly fired for posting racist memes related to the arrest of an NBA player that triggered a public outcry.

Officer Erik Andrade was involved in the 2018 arrest of Sterling Brown, who then played for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Brown alleged that police used excessive force and targeted him because he is Black when they confronted him for parking illegally in a handicapped-accessible spot. He was talking with officers while waiting for his citation when the situation escalated. Officers took him down and used a stun gun because he didn’t immediately follow orders to remove his hands from his pockets.

Andrade was not involved with the arrest of Brown, but did transport him after his arrest.

Brown filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, police department and several officers who were involved in his arrest, including Andrade.

In the lawsuit, Brown referenced a series of racist memes posted on Facebook by Andrade. In one post hours after the arrest, Andrade wrote: “Nice meeting Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks at work this morning! Lol#FearTheDeer.”

The lawsuit alleges Andrade also shared a disparaging meme of NBA star Kevin Durant about three months later.

Andrade was fired in 2018 after being suspended for violating the department’s code of conduct related to his social media posts, not for his conduct during the Brown arrest.

Milwaukee’s police chief at the time, Alfonso Morales, said in Andrade’s disciplinary hearing that he was fired because the Facebook posts would be used to impeach his credibility in future criminal proceedings and that he therefore would be unable to testify.

Andrade deleted his Facebook account the day the lawsuit was filed. He sued the Milwaukee Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, which reviewed and upheld the chief’s decision to fire him. Andrade argued that his due process rights had been violated.

A Milwaukee County circuit court and a state appeals court both upheld his firing, leading to Andrade’s appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In a 5-2 decision on Tuesday, the high court said the police chief properly explained the evidence that supported firing Andrade and gave him a chance to respond.

“We conclude the Due Process Clause does not require a more exacting and rigid pre-termination process than what Andrade received,” Justice Brian Hagedorn said, writing for the majority.

The court also determined that the police chief followed the law when he listed the policies that Andrade violated and referenced the Facebook posts that formed the basis for the violations when he submitted a complaint to the Milwaukee Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.

Hagedorn was joined in the majority by justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet, Jill Karofsky and Janet Protasiewicz. Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Justice Rebecca Bradley dissented.

The dissenting justices said they did not condone Andrade’s behavior, but they believed his due process rights had been violated.

Andrade’s attorney, Brendan Matthews, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the ruling.

“It continues a troubling erosion of Due Process, not only for police officers, but for all ‘accused’ people in Wisconsin,” he said in an email. “That is unfortunate and it will surely have dire consequences going forward.”

Brown’s attorney, Mark Thomsen, said the ruling reaffirms the police chief’s power to fire someone for violating the code of conduct.

“Andrade knew he violated Sterling Brown’s rights and he knew his social media posts were racist,” Thomsen said. “He got what was coming to him.”

Under a 2021 settlement, the city paid Brown US$750,000 and apologized. The Milwaukee Police Department also said that it “recognizes that the incident escalated in an unnecessary manner and despite Mr. Brown’s calm behavior.”

Brown’s first three years in the NBA were with the Bucks, from 2017 until 2020. He also played for the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers before joining Alba Berlin of the German Basketball Bundesliga and the EuroLeague in 2023. 

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