Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Madison City Council votes to study tear gas alternatives instead of ban

Madison City Council votes to study tear gas alternatives instead of ban

George Floyd protest (copy)

Police officers deploy tear gas along State Street after people started breaking windows downtown in June. 

After summer protests raised questions about some methods of crowd control used by the Madison Police Department, the City Council acted Tuesday on several measures aimed at addressing tools used by officers. 

Alders voted 16-3 to commission a study of de-escalation alternatives to tear gas, but did not set a prohibition date for the substance. An original proposal sponsored by Ald. Patrick Heck, District 2; Shiva Bidar, District 5; and Keith Furman, District 19, would have banned tear gas as of Feb. 2, 2021, and requested a study.

Ald. Lindsay Lemmer, District 3, amended the resolution to call for a study first before making a decision on banning tear gas.

“We need to know what the findings of the study are before we do the ban,” Lemmer said. “I’m concerned that without knowing what those findings are, we could potentially be making people less safe rather than what the intent of what this resolution is.” 

According to the proposed resolution, the Centers for Disease Control identifies "chest tightness, coughing, choking sensation, noisy breathing (wheezing), shortness of breath" as effects of tear gas on the lungs and studies have shown that "tear gas can cause long-term harm, by making people more susceptible to contracting influenza, pneumonia and other illnesses.” 

The substance has been banned by the UN Geneva Protocol of 1925 in addition to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. 

Specifically, the resolution asks the study to address the history of the MPD’s tear gas use from 1990 up to and including Aug. 1, including analysis of use by year, incident type and justifications and efficacies of its use compared to other alternatives. Also, it asks for the report to include any suggested recommendations from an outside consultant’s analysis of the MPD’s response to protests that occurred May 30 through June 1. 

The resolution requests the study by Jan. 6, 2021. 

As one of the original sponsors, Bidar said she wanted the city to “go a step further.” However, she voted in favor because a study is important.  

Prestigiacomo, Heck and Ald. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, voted against the final measure. 

A proposal from Prestigiacomo that would have banned officers from using tear gas in addition to prohibiting mace, pepper mace, pepper gas or projectile devices failed on a 16-3 vote.

“I don't think it’s good policymaking to allow people continued usage despite misusing that privilege multiple times,” Prestigiacomo said. “I don’t think that builds trust with the community, especially at a time when we woefully lack it.”  

[Madison committee recommends scaling back police use of military surplus program]

1033 program 

Madison’s City Council voted 13-6 to add restrictions to the police department’s use of a program that allows local law enforcement agencies to obtain surplus military equipment, though Prestigiacomo originally sought to sever ties with the program completely.

The ordinance prohibits the MPD from obtaining tear gas, bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades, explosives, armor-piercing firearms and ammunition, tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones from the Defense Logistics Agency under the 1033 Program. 

The 1033 program refers to the section of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act that allows the Secretary of Defense to transfer extra Department of Defense supplies and equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.  

Under the ordinance, the MPD could still obtain some equipment from the 1033 program, including night vision equipment, rifles, flashlights, respirator masks and first aid kits. It would also require MPD to obtain approval of any item valued over $50,000 before acquiring it. 

Additionally, the ordinance requires the MPD to send a biannual report to the Council. 

Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl previously said he remembers the program being active in the 1990s, but the city approved a resolution in 2012 under former mayor Paul Soglin that the acting chief said jump-started greater use of the partnership.

From 2014-2019, the MPD received items from the program with an average annual value of $160,138. The MPD estimates annual operating supply purchases, including respirator masks and medical tourniquets, of approximately $25,000 and approximately $100,000 in annual capital purchases for larger equipment, like robotics and night vision equipment. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to 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.

Related to this story