Madison squad car very close shot

Madison’s police union used terms like "judgmental" and "significant disservice" on Thursday to describe statements made by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway about an officer's response to an incident involving a black teenager in a mental health crisis.

On Tuesday, the mayor published a blog post that offered recommendations for how the city can improve its response to mental health crises. She also commented on what she called the “disturbing” video footage of the incident that showed an officer restraining and punching the 17-year-old multiple times 

“The officer’s actions may or may not have violated the law; and may or may not have violated MPD policy; however, police actions in this incident are not and will never be acceptable as best practice in the city of Madison,” Rhodes-Conway wrote in the blog post. “Our city can and will do a better job responding to mental health crises.”

Kelly Powers, president of the Madison Professional Police Association, said in a letter released late Thursday night that the mayor’s comments concerned the union’s members. 

“For you to have rendered such judgments about the actions of a police officer in an incident — presumably on the basis of a singular, incomplete video — while that incident is under investigation, is extraordinarily disappointing,” Powers said in a letter to the mayor. 

Additionally, Powers said the mayor’s statements risk influencing the outcome of an external review of the incident and threaten the public’s perception of it without additional information that a review could provide. Powers also said Rhodes-Conway's comments “create doubt and hesitation” among officers. 

The teenager involved in the incident was under a Chapter 51 commitment, which allows for someone in a mental health crisis to be committed to a hospital, and was “exhibiting threatening behavior,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Officers went to his home to take him into custody.

Police Chief Mike Koval also expressed concerns about using an ongoing investigation as a “mechanism pointing to the urgency for change” in the department. He said the MPD initiated an investigation into the incident several days before the video footage became public and is using an outside agency expert to review the incident. 

“As chief, I feel it is critical to have a fair process and I cannot be viewed as making any judgments or rendering an opinion before all investigatory and review steps are complete,” Koval said in a statement. “‘Process’ matters.”  

However, Rhodes-Conway said in an interview Friday that she is not making a judgement on whether any laws were broken or any policies were not followed. 

“What I’m saying is our policies can be better and that we can and should look at our standards about use of force, in particular, how we handle mental health calls,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I’m talking about a system and how we as a department and how we has a city can do better.” 

Later Friday, the mayor responded to Powers in a letter. She said she is not suggesting, at this point, changes to the external review process and is not prejudging the outcome of the review.

Rhodes-Conway said she appreciated Powers reaching out and the feedback. She also said the police and fire unions will be involved in implementing the recommendations she proposed.

“We all want to have a collaborative approach,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I think — I hope — that there is always room for improvement in policing and, frankly, in every service that the city provides. I think we’re all interested in working towards that.”

Powers was not immediately available for comment. 

The MPPOA endorsed Rhodes-Conway in the mayor’s race. Powers said the union did so because of the belief Rhodes-Conway would “prioritize good results above reactionary rhetoric and unify law enforcement and its critics. 

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“We remain hopeful and ready to work with you and your office should you decide to pursue such an approach,” Powers said in the letter. 

Recommendations 

In the blog post, Rhodes-Conway recommended appointing Jacquelyn Boggess, executive director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, to the Police and Fire Commission. The PFC provides direct oversight to Madison's police and fire departments and has the authority to hire, discipline and fire.

“As mayor, I am deeply committed to creating meaningful civilian oversight that serves to audit police practices and helps ensure our police department serves its role as peace officers—serving the interests of justice and equity,” Rhodes-Conway said. “With this in mind, and with Police and Fire Commission oversight of MPD, know that I am being very intentional in making appointments to the body that most effectively represent the diversity of perspectives, needs, and concerns of our community.” 

Powers said the mayor’s comments imply the PFC has failed in some way and do nothing to “cultivate a responsible public discourse.”

The mayor offered an additional three recommendations that seek to implement long- and short-term change, inform a holistic and multifaceted training for emergency response, focus on trauma-informed care and institutional racism, facilitate mutually-respectful community engagement and increase transparency. 

They include involving black mental health practitioners in MPD training, exploring the reduction of MPD involvement in response to mental health crises through different models like the “mental health ambulance” model and partnering with local education institutions to grow the pool of black practitioners for future community employment.

Koval said the MPD is “receptive to undertaking systems improvements that promote transparency, accountability, and trust with the constituents we serve.” He said these recommendations are worthy of review and collaboration.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.