Speaking on the very first first night of protests in Madison in May, Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said that the department’s use of tear gas was their best method for dispersing or moving a crowd — even during a pandemic.
Exposure to tear gas, and to pepper spray, can cause burning and teary eyes, sneezing and coughing; all actions that can help spread the coronavirus.
“While certainly using chemical agents and pepper spray is not ideal, it’s the best, least-intrusive option at that point for officers and for the public,” Wahl told reporters.
At its meeting last night, the Madison Common Council voted 16-3 to reject a proposed ban on the usage of several less lethal weapons by the Madison Police Department, including tear gas. The measure was introduced by Alder Max Prestigiacomo — one of the council’s youngest and most liberal members.
“I think it’s perverse to even suggest that allowing these tools will keep our community safer, when we already know they’ve been blatantly used to violate Standard Operating Procedures and cause more harm to the community,” Prestigiacomo said at yesterday’s meeting
While Prestigiacomo’s original measure failed, a watered-down version of the proposal was approved by the council.
Under a version of the resolution amended on the floor by Alder Lindsay Lemmer, the council will commission a study of alternative de-escalation measures to tear gas. That resolution passed 16-3.
The adopted resolution will allow the Madison Police Department to continue using tear gas, for the time being. The council has set a tentative deadline for the study of January 6th.
After reviewing that research, alders will take a final vote on whether the MPD can continue using the chemical suppressant.
But, according to Interim Chief of Police Vic Wahl, removing the Department’s ability to use tear gas would hamstring police crowd-control efforts. Wahl believes that an outright ban would also deter other departments from assisting the MPD in the future.
“Certainly, other departments would probably refuse to come and assist us if this was not an option for them or us to use,” Wahl said.
He added that, despite the Council’s desire to research alternative measures, there’s no real substitute for tear gas.
“There isn’t any other Star Trek phaser, or some great piece of technology, particularly to deal with large crowds.”
In related business, last night the common council limited what equipment the Madison Police Department can purchase under the federal 1033 program.
1033 allows police departments around the country to purchase excess military equipment from the Pentagon. Critics of the program, which was established in the late 1990s, frequently point to it as a source for the militarization of America’s police.
Under the ordinance, adopted 13-6, the Police Department is now barred from obtaining tear gas, bayonets, grenades, grenade launchers, armor piercing firearms, tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones from the military.
It also requires the Department to seek approval from the common council anytime it uses an item acquired through the program that cost more than $50,000. The MPD will also file a bi-annual report on all equipment obtained through the program with the council.
The Madison Police Department has purchased a number of items through the program, including several rifles and an armored vehicle, which one speaker at last night’s meeting described as “an armored mini-van intended to intimidate.”
Chief Wahl says that, outside of a few big-budget items, the Department primarily uses the program to acquire non-weapon equipment such as N95 respirator masks, safety goggles and first aid kits.
Also last night, the council opened an investigation into who said a misogynistic slur during a Common Council meeting on September 2nd. The city allowed up to $10,000 to bring in an external investigator for a forensic examination of that night’s meeting to determine who uttered a phrase we can’t say on the radio, but rhymes with “blunt.”
The misogynistic slur was seemingly directed at Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, a Madison resident and frequent participant in city politics. The September 2nd meeting was conducted via Zoom, and the camera was focused on Mayor Rhodes-Conway at the time — so the speaker remains a mystery.
Some council members, in addition to Kilfoy-Flores, allege that it was Alder Paul Skidmore who said the word. Skidmore has repeatedly denied the allegations.
The common council approved that investigation 17 to 2, with Alders Barbara Harrington-McKinney and Paul Skidmore voting against the measure.
(Photo: Police confront protesters at demonstrations in June. C/o Chali Pittman)