Anger, frustration and hurt were palpable at a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday addressing the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed on Monday by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during an arrest.
The town hall, organized by Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson and broadcast live on the Madison365 Facebook page, included the voices of black community leaders Anthony Cooper and Mt. Zion Baptist Church Pastor Marcus Allen, and a panel of Dane County law enforcement chiefs.
“I’m hurt,” Cooper, director of reentry services at Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, said of the slaying of Floyd. “It’s happened again. There’s nothing that’s really been done about it. This adds on to the trauma we deal with on a daily basis.
“As a black man, this has become our norm.”
Allen, who was visibly emotional throughout the panel, spoke about the frequency the black community has been in similar situations.
“I’m upset. I’m angry,” Allen said. “My words are filled with anger right now. This is not our first time being here. This is not our first time seeing something like this happening. It’s so sickening and hurtful. I am so disgusted.
“Constantly, during the past three or four weeks, we have seen the vicious disease of racism right on camera in front of us.”
Floyd was killed by officer Chauvin on Monday night in Minneapolis after a store clerk called police when Floyd allegedly tried to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill. In a video recorded by a bystander, Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck even as he complained that he couldn’t breathe. At one point Floyd is heard calling out for his dead mother. The three other officers present do not intervene as bystanders repeatedly plead with Chauvin to stop.
Floyd was out of work, as the restaurant where he was employed as a bouncer was closed due to the coronavirus.
All four officers have been fired and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has called for Chauvin to be criminally prosecuted for murder. Chauvin, according to national reports, has had 18 prior complaints about his conduct filed with the Minneapolis Police Department’s office of internal affairs. Floyd’s death has sparked a fury of protests and riots in the Twin Cities.
During Thursday’s town hall, it was clear that Madison area residents are fed up with far too many incidents involving the killing of or violence toward black victims.
During the discussion, viewers directed questions at law enforcement leaders including Kristen Roman, the University of Wisconsin-Madison chief of police; Vic Wahl, acting chief of the Madison Police Department; Middleton Police Chief Troy Hellenbrand; Fitchburg Police Chief Chad Brecklin; Sun Prairie Chief of Police Mike Steffes and Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney.
At the outset of the town hall, Roman read a letter addressed to the community from the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association as well as spoke about her personal feelings about the issue.
“Words fail in response to this,” Roman said. “This is not right and I am not fine with it and my heart aches along with all of you this morning.”
Mahoney said that he is encouraging all of his deputies to step outside of their comfort zones and learn about other cultures, and be focused on dialogue and getting to know people in communities of color.
“I need to do a better job and ensure that our deputies do a better job and feel comfortable to reach outside their comfort zone and know the people who we ask to trust us,” Mahoney said.
“I’ve watched this incident unfold since the first video was released and my thoughts immediately go to George Floyd’s family,” he said. “We have been in discussions with our communities of color since Ferguson. These incidents dismantle the trust we have built in our community. Every incident like this chips away at the trust chiefs in Dane County have worked hard to build.”
Those words were echoed by MPD’s Wahl who said, “I felt disbelief, dismay and anger when I first saw this video.”
He released a subsequent statement after the town hall further detailing his disgust with the kneeling on Floyd’s neck, and talked about how incidents like this create distrust in the community.
“What we saw on that video is completely at odds with the training, policy, values and philosophy of the Madison Police Department,” Wahl said. “Public trust in a police department can be a fragile thing, and nothing has the potential to damage it like a use of force encounter.”
Wahl said that new training, equipment and policies have been implemented by the MPD in recent years, but that more important are the quality of the officers employed by the department.
“What’s more important to outcomes in these incidents — in my view — are less tangible things,” Wahl said. “What kind of people we hire, what our values are as an organization and what our culture is.”
Middleton’s Hellenbrand, who oversees the training and development of officers, said that Chaupin’s use of the knee was egregious.
“The knee in the neck is not a technique taught anywhere in Wisconsin and is not one that I teach in training,” Hellenbrand said.
During the town hall, topics from police training, mental health evaluations of officers, culture changes within the local police departments and new officer recruitment criteria were broached.
But some who were listening found the discussion lacking in personal substance, given the level of hurt and anger felt by members of the black community.
“As a black mother, watching what is unfolding before my very eyes and happening to other black men everywhere and even in Dane County, is heart-wrenching,” said Jacquelyn Hunt, a mother of a 25-year-old son who she described as going through challenging times.
“And listening to the panel, I’m not sure they have the ability to hear through my ears as a black mother,” Hunt said. “They can’t hear the words that they say, and that to a black mother, they sound like more of the same.”
Hunt said that it was heartbreaking to think that in the moments before his death, Floyd was crying for his own mother and the police officers standing by did not find the compassion to save his life.
“Where is the heart of the person who heard that man say, ‘I can’t breathe! Mama, mama!’ Who in the hell wouldn’t respond to that? What’s going on in their heart? Where does the humanity come in at that moment?
“Because you can always go back to whooping his ass if that’s what you’re gonna do. I worry so much about my sons and not only my sons but my daughters,” Hunt said. “They’re strong, they’re independent, they’re smart, they’re athletic, they have dreams, they have goals. And at any moment, someone can justifiably determine that’s not worth anything and take them out.”
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who spoke to the Cap Times following the town hall, relates. Ozanne said that the fears your own child could be targeted is a real one for parents of color.
“I’m a person of color and also a parent,” Ozanne said. “My mother still worries about me when I leave the house. We want our community to be safe for every member regardless of race. This is where we need to stand up and make a difference, and I think that is happening here. I’m not saying that we’re perfect here. We have a lot of work to do and I think people are trying to engage with each other and make an impact.”
In January, Ozanne oversaw the creation of a hate crimes action team that would handle hate crime cases through implicit bias training. He also decided to re-emphasize hate crime policies that provide “enhancers” to the punishment of perpetrators if the crime is found to be perpetrated by hate.
“It’s very important for elected officials to take a stand to talk about what the values of this community are,” Ozanne said. “It wasn’t that the hate crime enhancer is new to the statute but asking ourselves, is there more that we can do to address issues and saying we’re not going to tolerate this?”
Ozanne mentioned that it would hopefully mean people would intervene instead of walking past a hate-related incident.
That was a topic of debate during the town hall. Police chiefs said they would like to change the culture so that if a fellow officer engaged in improper behavior, officers would not stand idly by, and they would ask the same of bystanders.
But members of the community, like Pastor Allen, pushed back saying that bystanders who attempted to intervene would have been killed, too.
“If a citizen would have pushed past the line officers had made and broke the line (to intervene in saving Floyd’s life), do we know what might have happened?” UW Chief Roman said.
“They would have died also,” Pastor Allen replied.
“The failure was that there were three other officers who heard Mr. Floyd’s plea and did not respond,” Mahoney said. “You had one overreacting and contributing to his death and three that failed to act.”
Allen responded by asking why black people — who make up a small percentage of the population of Dane County — are so over-policed. MPD’s Wahl said that 90 to 95% of the interactions police have is the result of calls for service, and that “We go to great lengths to make sure officers, when they do go to those calls, conduct themselves respectfully.”
But with these incidents, the fears of the black community are justified, Allen said.
“I had a prayer call yesterday with one of my members and she has a grandson who is suffering from mental illness, and continues to have these spurts and outbursts. She’s been calling the mental health clinic and they were telling her to call the police.
“She said, ‘I can’t call the police, because they’re gonna kill my grandson if they come.’ This is the fear that we have in our communities.”
As for BGCDC's Johnson, who quickly moved to involve police chiefs and community members in this dialogue, it has been a stressful week and the work, it seems, is just beginning.
“Some people felt it could have been more direct, others praised the chiefs and thanked them for their comments,” Johnson told the Cap Times Thursday afternoon. “Some thought they were vague, and some thought they were on point.
“But I think given a situation like this when a black man loses his life, the fact the chiefs were able to come forward, I respect that.”
Now, Johnson said, it’s on us to continue the discussion.
“We’ve had officer-involved shootings in this community and have disparities to address in our community, and what happened in Minneapolis could happen here in Dane County, so I’m glad we had the discussion,” Johnson said. “This town hall had 800-900 people watching and got 1,300 comments and I got a hundred emails after.
“This s--- has to stop.”
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