If the way Madison police officers arrested Genele Laird last week at East Towne Mall was legal, the law needs to be changed, speakers said Tuesday at a spirited news conference questioning police practices and calling for an independent review of the incident.
“Let’s never let that type of behavior (by the arresting officers) become standard in Madison,” said Ruben Anthony, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, at the gathering of elected officials and community leaders on the steps of the City-County Building. “All legal policies are not necessarily just.”
Brandi Grayson, who leads the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, said Laird “didn’t deserve to be treated like an animal in the street,” and accused officers of handling Laird, who is black, more roughly than they would a white woman who resisted arrest.
“This is damn sure about race,” Grayson said. “It is time for community control over the police.”
Dane County Board Sup. John Hendrick said the fatal shootings of Paul Heenan and Tony Robinson by Madison police in 2012 and 2015, respectively, and the force used in Laird’s arrest, show “the training needs to change, the person responsible for the training needs to change and the leader of the (police) department needs to change.”
Laird, 18, was forcefully arrested June 21 by two white Madison police officers outside the mall, where she works. Police were called after Laird reportedly brandished a knife at employees of a Taco Bell in the mall food court and threatened mall security officers in a dispute over whether someone stole her cellphone.
A video of Laird’s arrest taken by another person at the mall rapidly went viral and divided those with strong feelings into two camps. One group — including some who spoke at Tuesday’s conference — sees pure police brutality in the aggressive takedown of the struggling, screaming, 105-pound Laird, including one officer using knee strikes, a closed-fist punch and a Taser to help handcuff her.
Others fault Laird alone for displaying a knife inside the mall and then for not following police commands and for kicking, scratching and spitting at officers.
Two days after the arrest, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne ordered Laird, who was facing tentative felony charges, released from jail. On Friday, he announced that Laird, who has no adult criminal record, would not be prosecuted for the mall incident if she completes a community restorative justice program designed to divert low-level, first-time offenders who accept responsibility for their actions from the criminal justice system. The officers who arrested Laird and the people she reportedly threatened inside the mall agreed to that approach.
But speakers at the press conference Tuesday said Ozanne’s solution was too one-sided — holding Laird accountable but not the officers they believe went too far in her arrest.
“This needs to be more balanced,” said Anthony, who acknowledged police “have dangerous and important work to do” but maintained they sometimes can do it better.
“We need public education around this,” he added, so that young people know not to resist arrest and so that officers do arrests appropriately. “Both sides need to do work.”
Another speaker, state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said police need to behave less like “warriors” and more like “guardians of our safety.” She cited the recommendations for progressive policing in President Barack Obama’s recent Task Force on 21st Century Policing as a road map for improvements and a needed push-back against a trend toward increased militarization of U.S. law enforcement seen since the 9/11 terror attacks.
“The state standards (for use of force) are minimum standards,” Taylor said, maintaining Madison should aim for better than the minimum. “Communities (being policed) have to be listened to and collaborated with.”
David Couper, who helped bring more women and minorities into the Madison Police Department when he led it from 1972 to 1993, echoed Taylor on eschewing a warrior model for policing. He also argued that U.S. judicial standards for the use of deadly force should be set higher, so public trust in police is not undermined.
“Without trust, police cannot be effective or safe in their jobs,” Couper, now an Episcopal priest, said. “We must demand this (change) and the police must comply.”
In a statement provided to the Wisconsin State Journal, the Madison Police Department praised Couper for “changing the Madison Police culture in the early 1970s,” noting he was “owed a debt of gratitude” for that.
But the statement also maintained the police department already supports and does much of what the speakers suggested, including a detailed dissection and reported embrace of the recommendations in the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. A link on the police department’s website lists each of the task force’s many recommendations, followed by a statement in blue assessing where Madison police operations stand in comparison to the recommendation.
“In recent decades, the MPD has embraced community-based, trust-based policing philosophies and the current command staff remains committed to best practices and continued improvement,” the statement said. “In January, the MPD responded to the (task force) recommendations, looking at each pillar while applying MPD’s current practices in adherence to the recommendations.”
“It should be noted that Chief (Mike) Koval has been talking about the guardian mindset since the moment he first took office in 2014,” the statement added.
Koval has expressed support for the officers involved in the Laird arrest, defending their actions as necessary to make the arrest while also ordering a use of force review by the department’s Professional Standards and Internal Affairs Unit. The review will examine whether officers’ actions during the arrest were in compliance with state standards for training and use-of-force rules.
Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain confirmed Tuesday that internal reviews are done for every use of force incident, making Koval’s decision to order one in the Laird arrest not unusual. What is different for the Laird case is that Koval also asked the Dane County Sheriff’s Office to supervise the review, adding an outside set of eyes.
But speakers at the press conference said the Sheriff’s Office could not be trusted to provide an impartial review of actions by the Madison Police Department.
“They really operate as allied agencies,” said Madison Ald. David Ahrens, adding he is planning to propose a city resolution calling for an outside investigator to look at the level of police force used in the Laird arrest.
Longer term, Ahrens said the city should explore creating a “public investigation body” to review controversial police arrests or incidents, below the level of police-involved killings, that would have police and citizen members and would operate transparently. State law already requires an outside investigation when a person is killed by police.