A viral video of the forceful arrest of a young black woman Tuesday outside East Towne Mall sparked outrage from Madison’s black community and has local leaders and elected officials calling for a review of whether police officers used excessive force.
Genele Laird, 18, was arrested outside the mall after she allegedly displayed a knife and threatened to kill security staff after she said her cellphone had been stolen.
Video taken by a person outside the mall shows Laird resisting police as they try to handcuff her. Two officers then forcefully take her to the ground, where she continues to struggle and kick her legs and allegedly spits in an officer’s face.
The officer strikes her several times with his knee and fist before using a Taser to get her to comply with demands to put her hands behind her back.
Dozens of leaders from Madison’s black community joined the Young Gifted & Black Coalition for a protest Wednesday outside the Dane County Public Safety Building, where they collectively condemned the officers’ efforts to control Laird.
“Here is a 120-pound kid, 18 years old,” said Caliph Muab’El, executive director of Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc. “She was thrown to the ground, bag put over her head, punched, kicked and Tased ... If that isn’t excessive force, I don’t know what is.”
At an early afternoon news conference Wednesday, Police Chief Mike Koval said he met with several people close to Laird on Tuesday night and said they were “moved to tears, to anger” by what he acknowledged “looks like a very one-sided transaction.” But he defended his officers’ actions, saying one bystander’s short video can’t capture the context of the “15-minute narrative” of alleged threats by Laird that led to police being called.
Koval said Laird threatened a fast-food employee in the mall’s food court who she believed stole her phone. Laird allegedly displayed a knife and didn’t cooperate with the mall’s private security officers, prompting a call to police.
“The charge ... at that point was disorderly conduct while armed,” Koval said. “If things had gone according to Hoyle at that point and she had gone with the program and surrendered her liberty at that point, at the officers’ request, none of the other things that occurred would have been transpiring.”
“At the end of the day when called to deal with a behavior ... it is our obligation to restore order. That’s what we do,” Koval said. “When you ... spit in the eye of a police officer, that’s a felony. When you resist arrest and you cause soft tissue injury to an officer, that’s a felony.”
Koval declined to immediately name the officers involved, saying the 911 center had received death threats against them. They will be named, he said, but for the moment he said he wanted to provide them with “sanctuary and a cooling off period.”
Video of the arrest, which had been viewed online more than a million times by Wednesday night, shows one officer holding Laird on a sidewalk shortly after the incident inside the mall. A second officer approaches in an attempt to get Laird’s hands behind her back for cuffing, at which point Laird yells out that the officers are being “so (expletive) forceful, for no (expletive) reason.”
A struggle ensues as at least one officer repeatedly yells commands to “get on the ground.” One of the officers strikes Laird several times with a knee to the abdomen before all three fall to the sidewalk.
The struggle continues on the ground with one officer yelling at Laird, “Stop kicking me,” while he delivers three more knees and a punch to the abdomen.
Laird then rolls onto her back as one of the officers continues to try to restrain her hands. The other officer then removes a Taser from his belt and delivers at least one shock to Laird’s abdomen. He holds the device to her left leg, but it’s unclear if it continued to fire.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Madison Police Officer Chris Masterson said Tasers only work when two probes make contact with the skin, completing a circuit and creating an electric shock. In Tuesday’s arrest, Masterson said, only one of the probes hit Laird, which is why the officer was seen repeatedly pressing the device against her leg to complete the circuit.
Just before Laird is shocked, one of the officers can be seen holding one of Laird’s hands behind her back and struggling to pull her other hand behind her. Laird shrieks as the other officer repeatedly yells, “Put your hand behind your back. Do it now,” and the struggle stops briefly as she is handcuffed.
Asked what Laird, who was on the ground and being kneeled on, could have done differently to comply with officers’ demands, Koval said: “Stop resisting.”
In video of the arrest, Laird briefly pops up again, at which point the officer with the Taser pushes her head back down to the pavement and yells, “Keep your face down. Don’t spit at me again.”
Laird responds to the officer, “I will bite you. I will (expletive) bite you.” The officer threatens to use the Taser again if she bites him, and Laird responds, “Let me go. I can’t (expletive) breathe.”
Police then put a “spit hood” over Laird’s face, which Koval said consists of a loose, breathable material, and carry her to a squad car.
Koval said one officer received spit in his eye, while the other officer was put on workman’s compensation leave for back spasms related to the apprehension. Laird was treated with ointment for a cut and was seen by medical professionals from the fire department, a local hospital and the Dane County Jail, he said.
Koval ordered an internal review of the arrest to evaluate whether department policies, procedures and professional standards were followed during the arrest. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has agreed to have his department oversee the internal investigation.
While video of a forceful arrest can be alarming, Koval said it’s not the norm for Madison police, adding that records show such encounters constitute well below 1 percent of all police calls.
“I’m going to be looking at with a critical eye the rights of this woman to ensure that we did not exceed the bounds of reasonableness that we are entitled to use,” Koval said. “Force when administered, especially when somebody is motivated not to be taken into custody, can be very ugly.”
‘Outraged to my core’
But many people, particularly members of the black community, sought better answers for why two male officers needed to resort to kneeing, punching and using a Taser to control a slight young woman.
“I am outraged to my core,” Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The abuse this young woman faced at the hands of these police was savage and excessive,” Anthony said. “As a community, we must make it clear that we will not tolerate this type of barbarism.”
The Black Leadership Council met Wednesday morning and agreed to help find Laird an attorney, said Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, 5th District, was part of a group of local leaders and elected officials who met with Koval, Laird’s aunt and several of her friends Tuesday night to discuss the altercation.
Bidar-Sielaff applauded the chief for meeting with them but said the meeting provided few concrete answers.
“I don’t think there is a way of seeing this video and not feeling disturbed,” she said. “My reaction is that the community deserves a full investigation and an explanation of the level of force used that we can see in the video. It also speaks to the need for leadership in looking at our policies and practices for the Madison Police Department.”
The incident comes on the heels of a high-profile feud between Koval and local elected officials over the City Council’s decision to spend $400,000 to hire an expert to help a city committee review the operations of the police department. Koval challenged the need for the study in a blog post laced with sarcasm and frustration.
Bidar-Sielaff said the incident confirmed her belief that the money was well-spent.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, was also at the meeting and called the police treatment of Laird “brutal” and “extremely disproportionate to any threat posed.”
“As our country has experienced, too often videos like this one have exposed violent mistreatment of people of color at the hands of the police,” Taylor said. “We deserve a full and impartial investigation of what occurred.”
Deirdre Thompson, 35, an older sister of Laird, said she was traveling with her parents from Danville, Illinois, where they live, to Madison on Wednesday afternoon to try to get answers.
“We just want to see Genele released, because regardless of what she’s done, we really believe she did not deserve that treatment, and that, in itself, should be enough to persuade them to release her,” Thompson said.
“None of us have seen that kind of behavior where she would just lash out at the police, because that’s one thing I’ve always tried to tell her, you know, respect the police no matter what and just try to get justice,” she said.
Laird has no adult criminal record, but Dane County Jail records contain a mugshot and fingerprint set of her from 2010.
Lt. Kerry Porter, of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, said there was no charge attached to the file. Records for minors are kept with the Juvenile Jail and are confidential, he said. Juvenile photos are typically related to criminal activity, but Porter said they are sometimes taken for runaway children.
Laird remained in the Dane County Jail Wednesday night and was expected to have an initial court appearance Thursday, Porter said.
State Journal reporters Bill Novak and Logan Wroge contributed to this report.