In the wake of clashes between Madison police and protesters following the death of George Floyd, City Council members are proposing police be banned from using tear gas, mace and devices that fire less-lethal projectiles such as bean bags or sponge-tipped rounds to control unruly crowds.
Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said the department opposes sudden moves to prohibit non-lethal measures but welcomes study of the police response to protests and alternative ways to deescalate situations and control a large-scale, violent crowd.
Recent moves to remove police school resource officers from Madison schools and the new council proposals, particularly those that could be enacted with no time for thorough study, show that “right now, there’s no room for reasonable, fact-based discussion on topics that have to do with police,” Wahl said, adding that quick decisions to hamstring police could complicate the ongoing search for a permanent police chief.
Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, who represents the campus-area 8th District, plans to introduce an ordinance Tuesday that would prohibit use of the forceful crowd-control measures in Madison. The limitations would also apply to any officers employed by another law enforcement agency responding to a request for help from Madison.
Prestigiacomo is also proposing an ordinance that would prohibit the Police Department from obtaining equipment and supplies through a federal program that allows law enforcement agencies to acquire military gear, which can range from armored vehicles and night-vision equipment to flashlights, respirator masks and first-aid kits.
Separately, Alds. Patrick Heck, 2nd District; Shiva Bidar, 5th District; and Keith Furman, 19th District, are offering a resolution requesting a study of alternatives to tear gas and prohibiting the use of tear gas, starting Nov. 17.
The proposals will be considered by city committees and decided by the council at a later date.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway declined to comment on the proposals but said she’s asked the City Attorney’s Office and Public Safety Review Committee to review the department’s use-of-force policies.
“There is a legitimate conversation to be had about what methods are appropriate under what circumstances, but it has to be done in a thoughtful and comprehensive way,” the mayor said. “Chief Wahl has also requested that the Quattrone Center, at the University of Pennsylvania law school, do an independent review of MPD’s response to the events of late May. That review will be an excellent resource to inform any public policy response.”
Prestigiacomo and Furman could not be reached Thursday.
In the early evening of May 30, five days after Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Madison erupted in protests just like other cities across the country. Madison police and other officers began using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters on State Street after some in the crowd looted Goodman’s Jewelers and were throwing rocks, water bottles and soda bottles at police officers in riot gear.
The following night, hundreds of protesters clashed with police Downtown after a city-imposed curfew failed to prevent a repeat of the chaos that followed peaceful demonstrations the day before.
On June 1, another protest was peaceful with no visible police presence until about 1 a.m. when a group of about 400 to 500 protesters camped at the intersection of State Street and Capitol Square. A group peeled off and began looting State Street stores, prompting police to form a line and march down the street, throwing tear gas at the looters and using pepper spray on a few of them.
Wahl has told the council that 19 officers were injured in the early days of the protests, none seriously.
Wahl called Prestigiacomo’s proposed ordinance impractical and unrealistic.
“It doesn’t reflect any understanding of the tools we need to do our job to deal with a large-scale, violent crowd,” he said. “What would you have us do? There isn’t anything other than leaving. We’d be very concerned.”
As less lethal options, the department has tasers, shotguns that fire bean bags and launchers that fire sponge-tipped rounds at 40 mph.
Prestigiacomo’s other proposal would prohibit the Madison Police Department from obtaining any property from the federal Defense Logistics Agency under the National Defense Authorization Act’s 1033 Program.
The proposal, Wahl said, is “shortsighted” and doesn’t seem to understand the equipment they receive and how the city saves hundreds of thousands of dollars on items “absolutely critical to do our job.”
The program, he said, has allowed the department to acquire a supply of N95 face masks in recent years that have been invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic, mundane things like flashlights, and some big-ticket items such as robotics that allow police to minimize the risk of direct encounters. Many think of big armored vehicles, but the department has long done away with the military vehicle it acquired under the program and replaced it with a civilian model, he said.
Second resolution targets tear gas
The resolution by Heck, Bidar and Furman says the council “is committed to support deescalation alternatives to the use of tear gas” and calls for prohibiting the use or purchase of tear gas by Madison police or any other city department beginning Nov. 17.
The proposal asks the Police Department to submit a study by Oct. 20 that includes a history of its tear gas usage from 1990 and explores alternatives.
The resolution focuses on the weapon used by police that has caused the greatest concern and gives the department time to study options, Heck said.
“We are reacting to the events of May and June when tear gas was used,” Heck said. “We’re also concerned about how those events unfolded and are not necessarily convinced the use of tear gas was appropriate. We want to understand the choices that were made, the options available and what options available they had considered.”
Bidar added, “We heard very strongly from many people, including people in the medical field, that the use of tear gas has very negative impacts.”
The resolution asks for a study and delays a ban until the fall because “we want to give the Police Department the opportunity to consider options,” Heck said. “We want to explore all de-escalation techniques fully and no longer rely on tear gas.”
Wahl said he supports doing a study and the topics are “perfect for discussion” but he was concerned that the resolution already has a date to ban the use of tear gas before the study has started.
The council has already moved to block the police from acquiring certain weapons, voting on June 16 to deny the department’s request for $50,000 to purchase less-lethal weapons including projectile launchers that were used on crowds after local protests turned violent.
Prestigiacomo, who proposed the amendment to prevent funding the launchers, said then that “less lethal” does not always mean non-lethal, and that the department violated its own policies by using the sponge projectiles as a crowd-control measure.
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