Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne made an exception for the Madison woman who was arrested in a violent incident outside East Towne Mall Tuesday to participate in a restorative justice program.
Genele Laird, 18, will not be charged on six counts — three felonies and three misdemeanors — if she successfully completes a program through the Dane County Community Restorative Court.
“Restorative justice is not a place for me to use or send a case to sweep things under the rug or to avoid making difficult decisions,” Ozanne said. “It is a place for this community to work with its young people to build a more just and peaceful community.”
The arrest of Laird was captured on video and widely circulated on social media, sparking outrage among many community members.
In the video taken by a bystander, Laird, an African-American woman, is seen resisting arrest by one Madison Police Department officer. A second officer entered the scene to assist with the arrest and can be seen forcefully taking Laird to the ground and striking her with his knee and fist. One officer used a Taser while attempting to handcuff Laird with her hands behind her back.
Ozanne said an officer told Laird she couldn't leave the area until an incident from the mall's food court was investigated. Laird did not comply and the officer attempted to detain her.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, spoke on behalf of the officers involved and said their decision to pursue a restorative justice option for Laird is not an admission of wrongdoing.
“The officers are confident that their actions were entirely in accordance with their training, departmental policy, the law and the standards for the use of non-lethal force,” Palmer said.
Palmer also said the two main officers in this incident felt this outcome is an opportunity to disrupt an “unproductive cycle.”
Prior to the arrest, police say Laird allegedly displayed a knife to confront an individual she thought had stolen her cell phone. She is also accused of threatening private security officers at the mall.
“Had she not created a disturbance, had she not brandished a knife, had she agreed to stay at East Towne Mall while the police investigated, to be taken peacefully into custody, to not physically resist and to not use spitting and digging her nails into an officer’s arms to resist arrest, this case would not have happened at all,” Ozanne said.
Ozanne said all the victims in the incident, including an individual at the mall, security officers and police officers, supported Laird taking the restorative justice route.
Police Chief Mike Koval emphasized that these officers are the reason for pursuing an alternative justice method but that this is not the “new normal” when officers are lawfully carrying out their duty.
“But for the fact of their willingness to take that sort of a courageous look that would otherwise be a traditional perfunctory criminal intake, we wouldn’t be here today,” Koval said.
Laird was not eligible for the program because of the tentative felony charges and the location of the incident, but Ozanne decided to make an exception because of the victims’ input and Laird’s willingness to complete the resorative justice program.
“Restorative justice does not work without victims having a voice in the process,” Ozanne said.
Dane County’s restorative justice program began as a pilot project in 2014. Its mission is to provide alternatives to the current justice system that gives victims a voice in the process, CRC Coordinator Ron Johnson said.
Johnson said restorative justice is an opportunity that can “make things right” for the victims and the offenders, known as respondents in the program.
“In this situation, it’s an opportunity here to help heal this community that has been fractured by the situation,” Johnson said. “This is an opportunity for this young lady to take responsible for whatever she did that involved this situation but also to be provided with human and community service opportunities to help her straighten out her life so she can … move her to the next level.”
If Laird does not complete the program, she will be charged with throwing or discharging bodily fluids at a public safety worker, battery to a law enforcement officer, resisting officers and causing soft tissue injuries, obstructing an officer, disorderly conduct while armed and disorderly conduct.
Laird’s arrest, which became highly publicized due to the video spreading on social media, sparked community outcry and brought tensions between the police department and communities of color to a forefront.
Speaking from the perspective of a black mother and grandmother, retired prosecutor and volunteer Barbara Franks said she understands the “palpable” anger in the black community.
"This incident has the potential to define who we are as a community and to perpetuate the anger and distrust between communities of color and the institution that is sworn to protect and serve all communities," Franks said.
But Franks said it takes both sides to move forward.
“It is going to take a willingness on both sides to acknowledge our own complicity in the state of the contentious relationship between the police and the communities of color that allow these types of heartbreaking incidents to occur,” Franks said.
To do this, Franks said law enforcement officials need to move away from militarization techniques, something she said the MPD has done with its community policing focus, and communities of color need to prepare youth on how to act in situations of intense conflict.
“It is also going to take an acknowledgement by some individuals that the us against them mentality, which some officers default to, invariably serves to deepen the wedge between law enforcement officers and communities of color,” Franks said.
While Franks said she believes restorative justice can start to heal the “rift” in the community, M Adams of Freedom Inc. was not as confident.
“We think it’s the least they can do, and it’s not good enough,” Adams said.
Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5, who has been involved since the night of Laird’s arrest, said she was pleased with the restorative court outcome but that a community dialogue needs to occur.
“There needs to be further conversation about better trust,” Bidar said.