The Madison mayor’s office is pursuing changes to police practice and training — including the possible implementation of a “mental health ambulance” program — two months after the forceful videotaped arrest of a black, mentally ill 17-year-old sparked outrage among some residents.
In an email Friday to staffers and City Council leadership, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway criticized the department’s response before internal and external reviews of the incident have been completed.
“The officer’s actions may or may not have violated the law,” she wrote, “and may or may not have violated (Madison Police Department) policy; however, police actions in this incident are not and will never be acceptable as best practice in the city of Madison.”
Video of the June 3 incident — taken from inside the foster home where the teen lived — shows Sgt. Joseph Engler delivering three blows to the teen’s head as three other officers try to restrain him.
Earlier in the day, the teen had been sent home from West High School after threatening staff, and once there threatened his foster father, a workman and police, according to police reports. He also spat at and struggled with officers for some 20 minutes before he was subdued by the blows to his head, the reports say.
At the time, the teen was under an involuntary mental health commitment, and the foster father and Journey Mental Health Center, which handles such cases in Dane County, had authorized police help in taking him into protective custody, police said.
MPD procedures allow officers to hit, or deliver “diffused strikes” to, suspects in a number of circumstances, including “when an officer reasonably believes it is necessary to control a person” being taken “into custody for emergency detention or protective custody.”
Engler was put on “restricted duty” after the incident. Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said there is no timeline for the MPD’s Professional Standards and Internal Affairs office to finish its investigation which, when completed, will be sent to an outside agency for review. Police chief Mike Koval on Tuesday declined to name that agency.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Mary Bottari, pointed to the Eugene, Oregon-based crisis intervention agency CAHOOTS as one example of a mental health ambulance service. Under the program, anyone concerned about a person experiencing a mental health crisis in the Eugene-Springfield metro area can call the local non-emergency police and fire dispatch number 24 hours a day and a crisis worker and medic will respond.
“Lots of cities are dealing with the question of who should be the first responder to a mental health crisis,” Bottari said.
‘We can do better’
Other “next steps” Rhodes-Conway’s office is pursuing are involving a “black mental health practitioner” in MPD training, partnering with “local education institutions to grow (the) black practitioner pool for future community engagement,” and appointing Jacqueline Boggess, executive director of the Madison-based Center for Family Policy and Practice, to the city’s Police and Fire Commission.
In an email, Koval said his department “has been and will continue to be receptive to undertaking systems improvements that promote transparency, accountability, and trust with the constituents we serve.”
But he also said “’process’ matters,” and “I cannot be viewed as making any judgments or rendering an opinion before all investigatory and review steps are complete.”
Madison police union president Kelly Powers said the mayor’s proposals were largely news to him and that her willingness to condemn the June 3 police response before the investigation and review are completed “smells of a sense of lack of due process.”
The mayor’s criticism of the police response also concerned Alds. Zachary Henak, 10th District, and Paul Skidmore, 9th District, both of whom reviewed the Aug. 2 email, which the mayor posted in a slightly edited form to her blog Tuesday following the State Journal’s inquiries.
Henak said the mayor is “commenting on an ongoing investigation” but that he is willing to learn more about her proposed changes.
Asked why the mayor opted to criticize the police response now, Bottari said, “You are going to hear the phrase ‘we can do better’ a lot from this mayor with regard to the provision of many city services.” City Council president Shiva Bidar, 5th District, and vice president Barbara Harrington-McKinney, 1st District, were sent the Friday email but did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Skidmore, the council’s most vocal police advocate, also worried the mayor was undermining police training and law enforcement more generally, and could cause officers to have to second-guess their decisions in dangerous, rapidly evolving situations.
“It sends a terrible message,” he said.