The Madison woman whose videotaped arrest in front of East Towne Mall sparked widespread outrage was ordered released from jail Thursday evening.
Genele Laird, 18, was released at about 7:45 p.m. following the order from Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, according to Dane County Sheriff’s Lt. Krista Ewers-Hayes.
Earlier in the day, Laird’s friends and family members expressed frustration after they gathered at the Dane County Public Safety Building for an anticipated initial court appearance that they hoped would lead to Laird’s release on bail, but were told by court officials that Laird wasn’t on the schedule.
“We came here to see her and to try to get her out and then they changed their minds,” said Laird’s sister, Deirdre Thompson, 35, of Danville, Illinois, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “So we can’t see her, we can’t talk to her. It makes no sense.”
Laird was readied by Dane County Jail staff to make her court appearance and they weren’t told why she was never called to appear, according to Ewers-Hayes.
Ozanne would not comment on Laird’s release Thursday night and said more information would be released on Friday.
Madison police Sgt. Nick Ellis said he was unaware of Laird’s release.
Police Chief Mike Koval did not return calls Thursday night.
Laird was tentatively charged with disorderly conduct while armed, resisting arrest, battery to a police officer and discharge of bodily fluids after an incident at the mall’s food court where police say she flashed a knife while confronting a person she thought had stolen her cell phone and then threatened security officials. They called police, who took her outside the mall, where she was arrested.
Ewers-Hayes said she did not know if any of the tentative charges against Laird had been dropped.
Video taken by a bystander showed Laird resisting police by kicking her legs as they tried to handcuff her. It showed another officer entering the scene and he helped to forcefully take Laird to the ground before striking her several times with his knee and fist as she struggled with the officers. It then showed the officer using a Taser on Laird while attempting to handcuff her with her hands behind her back.
Koval has defended the officers’ actions and called for an internal review of the arrest.
But some community leaders and local elected officials have called the video brutal and the officers’ use of force excessive.
Chris Ahmuty, executive director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement the force used in the video appeared to be excessive and called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident to “begin restoring public confidence in the MPD.”
Community leaders continued to weigh in on the viral video of the arrest Thursday, with open letters from City Council members and Mayor Paul Soglin and a community meeting.
A statement posted online around 4 p.m. that was signed by 11 council members said they “cannot see past what seems like excessive aggression” in the video of the arrest. The statement also acknowledged the incident has created a division among community members and said it’s possible that complete wrongdoing cannot be assigned to the police officers or to Laird.
“However, we cannot disregard the power imbalance between a young person and trained law enforcement officers,” the statement said.
The statement was signed by Alds. Matt Phair, Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Ledell Zellers, Amanda Hall, Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, Marsha Rummel, Zach Wood, Maurice Cheeks, Sara Eskrich, Denise DeMarb and Rebecca Kemble.
Soglin, who issued a statement 15 minutes after the council’s statement was posted, said the most important issue is reviewing the specific actions of Laird and the arresting officers. But he said a community that cares should respect both sides’ humanity and dignity regardless of the results of a review.
Soglin said race will be a central point of discussion when moving forward. Laird is African-American, and the arresting officers are white.
The mayor said his administration will continue discussing topics around race that can cause divisions, including “deep-seated institutional racism in this county, to the behaviors of each of us as individuals.”
The council members said the arrest “affirms that a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review of the Madison Police Department is warranted and should be welcomed.”
On June 7, the council approved $400,000 for a study to examine the policies, procedures and practices of MPD, which was met with criticism by Koval.
Laird, who is called “Nellie” by her friends, was described by them Thursday as outgoing, upbeat and popular and respected for toughing out a life for herself after she dropped out of Madison La Follette High School during her sophomore year.
Most of her jobs have been at East Towne, where she has worked most recently at Lids, located close to the mall’s food court. She was promoted to assistant manager but relinquished those duties because she felt too much pressure, according to co-worker C.J. Jackson. “She just wanted to chill,” Jackson said.
Laird could make a shift go by quickly because of her constant chatter, Jackson said. “She’ll walk into the store and tell you about the underwear she bought at Pink or the perfume she just bought and she’d spray it on me, which was annoying but all in good fun,” he added.
She is the youngest of 11 children, including eight step-siblings, but all but one sister have moved away from the Madison area and most, if not all, had lost touch with Laird in recent years, according to Thompson, her sister.
“She was closer to her friends,” said Thompson.
Thompson said she found out about her sister’s arrest on Facebook because nobody from Madison contacted her or any other family members.
Laird talked non-stop about everything but she never mentioned her family, according to Collin Davenport, 21, who has known Laird for more than six years and worked with her briefly at the Sprint kiosk at the mall. He also said Laird had been living with her boyfriend but they broke up recently and she moved out. “That had no bearing on how she acted on Tuesday,” he added. “She just made a mistake and so did the police.
“It’s just that she has gone through some stuff and when that happens you develop that shell. While she tried to keep up a tough exterior, we can all see that she is a sweetheart,” he said.
“Crazy scenes like that are not common in this mall but they aren’t rare, either, and I’ve never seen any situation handled the way Nellie’s situation was handled,” Davenport said.
“I worry that this is going to have a negative effect on Nellie. I just wish this situation was handled more quietly,” he said.
“The people who care about her are worried about her future, what happens next,” Davenport said. “Things like this that go viral usually disappear when the next big thing pops up. But when that happens we can’t forget about helping Nellie. That’s when she needs us most.”