This article has been updated to reflect comments and additional information provided by the Madison Police Department post publication.
When Madison police officers deploy force, nearly half of the time those actions are directed at black residents.
Though they account for just 9% of the city’s population, black Madison residents have been subject to higher rates of force at the hands of police than white people in total over the last four years.
It’s rare for a Madison Police Department official to get physical — ranging from pushing someone to the ground to using a Taser to striking someone with a hand or knee — when they are called to an incident, according to the department’s own data. From 2016 through March 2020, recordable force instances accounted for 0.18% across more than 600,000 calls for service.
But a Cap Times analysis of MPD’s quarterly force reports showed disparities among those at the receiving end of an officer’s use of force during calls for service when compared with the broader population as a whole. Eighty percent of the department’s officers are white.
MPD Acting Chief Vic Wahl said the disparities are one piece of systemic failures that go beyond the criminal justice realm. Wahl said gaps in education and poverty, among other areas, contribute to a broader issue.
“There isn't an easy fix,” Wahl said. “The focus is often on the police and the criminal justice piece of it, but I don't think you can do those things in isolation because I think the other issues are just as impactful, probably much more so.”
Following publication, MPD pushed back on the analysis and said that comparing arrest data is the ”accurate and relevant metric.” That data shows over the last three years, 3.1 percent of arrests involving black residents resulted in recordable use of force compared to 2.6 percent for whites, per MPD.
As protesters continue taking to the streets in and around downtown Madison to denounce police brutality more than two weeks after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, their calls for defunding law enforcement and more are prompting renewed scrutiny of policing procedures across the country.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, is pushing for lawmakers to overhaul law enforcement’s use-of-force policies and standardize them across the state — an unlikely goal given the bill has no Republican co-sponsors and they control the Legislature.
But locally, change is much more likely and even anticipated. Madison is moving forward to create an independent police auditor and civilian review board, which are meant to provide community accountability over the police. Also, a city committee plans to study the MPD’s funding and policies for responding to protests.
MPD's use of force coordinator, Sgt. Kimba Tieu, said the MPD should be accountable to the public’s questions about how officers are using force.
“What we're seeing with the protests is something we all want to be a little bit more circumspect about: how we're using our force and alternatives to force if they are possible,” Tieu said.
Recent outrage over police-involved deaths have emphasized the importance of training officers on their own unconscious biases about race. MPD Captain of Training Jennifer Krueger Favour said the MPD prioritizes implicit bias training and that it informs how new recruits learn how to be police officers.
“In addition to being implemented throughout the course of the academy, a heavy emphasis is placed on implicit bias early in the academy,” Krueger Favour said. “This provides a lens through which the recruits learn all other subject matter for the duration of their learning.”
Disparities in subjects of force amid calls for service
Black residents have been subjected to use of force in between 43.5% and 56.7% of all such instances by Madison police officers in each of the last four years, according to MPD data.
A compilation and review of that data found that while the documented rates of force against black individuals didn’t always outpace those against white individuals, the breakdowns are not proportionate to population figures.
In Madison, 81.2% of people are white, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, while 10.7% are Asian and 9.4% are black or African American.
Tieu said the disparities in use of force contacts are consistent not only with disparities seen in arrest and citation rates but also in education and poverty. He said the use of force contact data may not indicate anything in particular about the MPD’s practices.
“I think it's a culmination of those disparate impacts of a lot of different areas,” Tieu said.
Over the last couple of years, the data also reveals a growing divide between the use-of-force rates deployed against black residents compared to their white counterparts.
In 2016 and 2017, slightly more white individuals faced physical force from police during calls for service that resulted in use of force. But in 2018, the rates tipped and black Madisonians saw force used against them in 47.5% of the contacts that resulted in use of force compared to 44.7% for white individuals.
The gap drastically expanded in 2019, when 56.7% of all instances of citizen contacts where force was used was deployed against black individuals, compared to 32.1% for white residents.
That jump corresponded with an increase in the percentage of times where force was used in calls for service. Between 2016 and 2018, the annual rate hovered around 0.15%. But in 2019, it hit 0.22%.
The 2019 data shows an increase due to an “administrative change in documentation processes,” according to the MPD’s 2019 Accountability Report. “This increase was based on an internal decision in how we count/track incidents, and is not reflective of any change in actual practices in the field,” Wahl said.
During the first three months of 2020, the racial gap remained: black residents saw force used against them in 43.8% of all cases where use of force was used during calls for service compared to 37.5% for white people.
Taken together, from 2016 through March 2020, 526 black people (48.8% of use of force incidents) were subject to force during contacts with police, while 449 white individuals (41.7%) were.
Sixty-eight Hispanic individuals (6.3%) encountered police force stemming from calls for service, while 12 Native American people (1.1%) and 11 Asian individuals (1%) faced force as well, according to the analysis.
Tieu said the majority of incidents involving use of force come during calls for service — meaning someone called 911 for an officer to respond to a scene — and not initiated by an officer. This makes the question about officers' enforcement practices more nuanced, Tieu said, while noting that officers can use de-escalation tactics to reduce the use of force in certain instances.
For example, Tieu said when officers are enforcing traffic, they have discretion over almost every aspect of the encounter: whether to stop, warn or issue citations. But when officers are responding to a call from a member of the public, officers are expected to respond to the scene and resolve the situation.
Whether or not an officer can use de-escalation strategies depends on the subject’s behavior, Tieu said.
Quarterly use-of-force reports prior to 2016, which was the same year that Tieu’s position was implemented, are not available on the MPD website, so older numbers were not immediately available.
The available MPD data also doesn’t show what types of force were used against which people, or which individuals saw multiple uses of force deployed against them during a police encounter. Officers have a series of options for deploying force, the logs show, including pulling or pushing an individual to the ground, baton strikes, K-9 bites, firing a gun, using a belt system to restrict someone’s ability to kick, deploying a Taser and more.
Still, the MPD data shows officer-reported force incidents are rare when responding to calls for service. Of the 613,271 calls for service in the last four years, there were just 1,077 citizen contacts during which force was used.
When MPD officers respond to situations, Tieu said officers always aim for cooperation. But if compliance is not achieved through verbal commands or just by the presence of an officer, police officers move to controlling the situation through force.
“They're trained to overcome active resistance or threat,” Tieu said. “Active resistance is behavior which counteracts an officer’s control and poses a risk of harm to the officer, subject, or others.”
This can include behavior of a subject and the environment in which the behavior occurs.
Broadly, the purpose of non-deadly force is to control a situation and the purpose of deadly force is to stop a threat, according to the MPD’s standard operating procedures.
Officers are authorized to use force, and deadly force, when it is “objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances,” according to the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor. Situations where using force is acceptable are outlined in the MPD’s standard operating procedures.
In Wisconsin, officers are held to the Defense and Arrest Tactics manual, a guidebook of communication techniques combined with physical alternatives — like the use of pepper spray and Tasers — that describe how officers can gain control of non-compliant subjects.
The decision-making process behind using force comes from an officer’s perception of the situation. This is influenced by a variety of factors like the officer’s location compared to a subject and if more than one officer is present.
“Each officer has to make an independent assessment level of threat,” Tieu said.
During the early days of local protesting, decisions to use pepper spray or tear gas were made by commanders and assistant chiefs.
In situations where crowds are involved, Tieu said officers can feel threatened if a swell of people push them backward or if people are surrounding them in a way that makes it more difficult to discern their intent. Also, the closer people get to officers, the greater the potential their weapons could be taken from them, Tieu said.
“We would just just rather have distance, we'd just rather have some space, so that way whatever your intention is, the further you are from my tools, etc., the less likely again I'm going to attribute any movement toward them or near them as something untoward or dangerous or threatening,” Tieu said.
While heightened attention on policing practices, particularly of the black community, have drawn attention to internal biases in police departments nationwide, Krueger Favour said implicit bias training is a “vital component” of the police training academy’s curriculum.
“As national police events unfold, it is paramount for the department to acknowledge the incidents with the current recruits. First and foremost, it is a priority to acknowledge and honor the life and death of George Floyd,” Krueger Favour said. “It is a tragic event, and the newest officers need to see that departmental leadership will not remain silent.”
She also said that addressing these events presents an opportunity for police recruits to understand the historical contexts of law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
During past academy classes, recruits took Harvard’s implicit bias test and learned about the history of policing — plantation police, peak Ku Klux Klan membership in the mid-1920s, the execution of civil rights workers in Mississippi, the Selma marches, Black Panther movement and the War on Drugs in the 1970s — in a program called “Judgment under the Radar.”
Krueger Favour said it is crucial that the MPD provide a platform for discussions on implicit bias.
“Not only is this space needed for officers to reflect upon what their community is experiencing, but it also encourages healthy discussions on topics that may be new to some of them,” Krueger Favour said. “As a result, it builds a foundation where discussions on bias is not a foreign concept.”
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