A Madison police officer who intervened in a street fight Wednesday evening was quickly surrounded by a crowd, some of whom voiced anti-police sentiments, including, “We need to start killing these officers,” according to a police spokesman.
In trying to break up the fight on the city’s Southwest Side, the officer was punched in the face and grabbed by the throat by a woman involved in the fight, said police spokesman Joel DeSpain.
The incident alarmed and dismayed local police officials, especially because the officer involved, Caleb Johnson, has spent years reaching out to residents in the area as the neighborhood officer.
“He’s done tremendous work there with things like youth basketball tournaments and bike repair clinics,” said West District Capt. Vic Wahl. “To be treated like that for his contributions to the neighborhood? Everyone should be angry about that.”
Dan Frei, a Madison officer and president of the department’s police union, said that while it is not uncommon for police to be the target of name-calling and derogatory remarks during the course of their work, the rhetoric has coarsened.
“To hear a crowd actually start saying things that suggest they are contemplating extreme violence toward an officer — that’s new within my frame of reference,” he said.
The incident played out amid heightened tensions nationally and locally between police officers and some civilians, especially those in minority neighborhoods. Those tensions began with the August 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and have increased with the police shooting deaths of other unarmed black men, including Tony Robinson in Madison in March.
In Wednesday’s incident, which occurred around 6:30 p.m., Johnson had stopped his squad car after spotting a large number of people in the street on Prairie Road at Jacobs Way. As Johnson approached the group, he saw a woman — later identified by police as Latonya James, 40, of Madison — punch a man in the face, DeSpain said. Johnson could see James was holding a can of pepper spray.
Johnson went to arrest the woman, which was when the anti-police sentiments began, DeSpain said. A citizen who saw the crowd converge on the officer became concerned and called 911. The witness “felt the officer was in trouble,” saying it appeared someone had gone for the officer’s gun, DeSpain said.
Soon, James’ daughter, Nanyamka James, 20, was grabbing the officer, trying to free her mother, DeSpain said. The officer tried to defuse the situation by explaining to the crowd that the older woman had just punched someone and was armed with pepper spray.
The officer’s words were ignored, and the struggle with the two suspects continued, DeSpain said. At one point, he said, Latonya James punched Johnson in the face and grabbed him by the throat. Backup officers arrived and the two women were arrested.
Latonya James was arrested on tentative charges of battery to an officer, possession of pepper spray, disorderly conduct and resisting/obstructing arrest. Her daughter was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and for a suspected probation violation.
On the way to the jail, Latonya James threatened many times to kill Johnson, DeSpain said.
DeSpain said Johnson was not seriously injured but expressed feeling pain. Johnson reported that several people in the crowd were recording the incident on their cellphones as it unfolded, and that some accused him of misconduct and of using excessive force, DeSpain said.
Two people from separate nearby residences who saw the incident unfold both put the size of the crowd in the street at 20 to 25 people.
Tamara Bradley, 30, a nurse’s aide, said she was playing piano in her living room when she saw the backup officers arrive. She said she saw the officers throw the older female suspect to the ground “like a football tackle.” At that point, she walked outside, she said.
Bradley said she did not hear any threats toward officers.
She placed fault on both sides.
People shouldn’t be allowed to congregate on the streets like that, she said, adding that such loud disturbances are not unusual in the neighborhood. Yet Bradley, who is black, had no sympathy for police, either, saying distrust of officers runs deep among her black neighbors.
She said this particular crowd had been milling around in the intersection for maybe 45 minutes or so. “The police should have been here earlier, and they should have just dispersed everyone with a bullhorn,” she said.
Joseph Tremain, 42, who works in information technology, said he watched from his kitchen window as Johnson approached the woman who had punched the man.
“From what I saw, he didn’t approach her in a threatening way,” said Tremain. “It was in a casual manner. When he started to restrain her, she resisted.”
At that point, Tremain said he felt the crowd “swarmed a little.”
“I thought, Oh, no, this could be trouble,” he said.
He was just about to call 911 when the backup officers arrived and the suspects were arrested, he said.