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Couper at press conference

Former Madison Police Chief David Couper speaks during a June 28 press conference calling for better policing in Madison.

Plenty of people were outraged after seeing the videotaped arrest of Genele Laird in Madison last week. And how couldn’t they be? The kicks and fist-strike to her side, the Tasing, the spit hood over her head, her cries of “I can’t breathe!”

What I haven’t heard, though, is what would have been a better way to deal with a woman who had reportedly just pulled a knife on someone and was trying to flee, then responded to officers’ attempts to put her in handcuffs by spitting, scratching and threatening to bite them.

So it was nice to see one local activist step up and spell out exactly how police could have better “de-escalated” the situation.

In a Tuesday blog post, former Madison Police Chief David Couper writes that officers “could have allowed time for things to settle down. They could have held Genele in an office within the shopping center until this occurred. They could have called for a supervisor, or a female officer of color, for help before they attempted to move her from the shopping center.”

And finally, he said, they “could have let her go, obtained a warrant and arrested her later.”

In practice it’s not clear that Laird or any other suspect would be interested in allowing “time for things to settle down” or in waiting for an officer of the same gender and race to arrive — especially if it means she’s still going to get arrested.

Laird’s attorney has admitted Laird tried to leave the scene, and police say it was only then that they moved to physically detain her.

Critics of the arrest have made much of the fact that Laird was up against two larger male cops.

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“Are police trained to knock down resistance with knee strikes?” Couper said after a Tuesday press conference. “Yeah, they are. And then there’s proportionality.”

Although Couper acknowledged — and the video shows — that despite having the advantage of size and numbers, police weren’t having an easy time controlling Laird.

Simply letting a resistant suspect go would be a last option, Couper emphasized.

In Laird’s case, “if I knew who she was, I’d rather let her go and go back and get her later if I had her ID,” he said, but “if she didn’t want to give her name or address well then no, you can’t let her walk away.”

Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said “only after (Laird) was in custody was she identified.”

The obvious question in letting a suspect go is whether it would send a message to other suspects that if you resist, police will let you walk. And if the person walking has threatened to hurt people — as Laird reportedly did — should police give her the chance to make good on those threats?

Then there are the questions of whether it’s a wise use of public resources to issue warrants and track down and arrest suspects police could have arrested the first time they contacted them, and whether those suspects are simply going to resist arrest again.

Should Madison decide to make changes to policing, maybe the most important questions are whether those changes should be focused on what’s best for the very small group of people who commit serious crimes, or on what’s best for the much larger group of people who don’t.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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