The Madison Police Department deployed more tear gas during Black Lives Matter protests in late May and early June than they did in the prior 16 years combined. Over just three days and nights from May 30th to June 1st, officers deployed 62 clouds of tear gas: 53 canisters of tear gas thrown by hand and 9 lobbed with a projectile launcher.
During the prior sixteen years combined, the MPD deployed 43 rounds of tear gas — largely during high-risk incidents involving an individual target. And in many cases, uses of tear gas were directed at a single subject— 17 projectiles in one February 2019 incident and 15 projectiles in another January 2016 incident.
And the last time officers used chemical suppressants on a crowd was eighteen years ago — after Halloween partying on State Street led to widespread property damage in 2002.
That’s all according to a new report released on January 4th compiled by interim Chief of Police Vic Wahl, which examines the Madison police’s use of tear gas from 1990 to August 1st, 2020. It comes as the Madison Common Council is poised to decide on a potential ban on the use of tear gas.
In October, after shooting down a more comprehensive ban on crowd control weapons, alders ordered the MPD to compile a detailed study of the department’s use of tear gas, internally referred to as CS gas, and to recommend alternative options.
In the report, Wahl writes that the MPD only uses tear gas in cases involving large-scale crowds, or in tactical operations to neutralize barricaded subjects who pose a significant threat to themselves or others.
And the MPD maintains both pepper spray and tear gas are a critically important option for resolving high-risk incidents. Speaking to reporters on the first night of protests in May, Wahl argued that tear gas is the only real effective crowd-control method at their disposal.
“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,” he said.
The report also examines other options for crowd control like batons, noise, water cannons, mounted officers and others – all of which are deemed ineffective, inappropriate, or likely to cause injury.
But Madison’s protest organizers, as well as some members of the Common Council, have criticized MPD’s use of the chemical weapons. And at a Council meeting last Tuesday, community activists painted the devastating effects the ‘less lethal’ weapons can have.
One of those activists was Juliana Bennett, who recently tossed her hat in the ring to represent the UW-Madison campus, and its surrounding areas, on the council.
“When they tear gassed us, I cannot tell you what it feels like to have this come into your eyes and throat. I threw up all over my mask, all over my friends,” said Bennett.
“And it just incites more distrust of police and, at the end of the day, wasn’t an effective way of crowd control because we were still out there protesting.”
Tara Stangler, a local protest organizer, said that the indiscriminate nature of the gas-based weapon can affect passive bystanders.
“On the third night of the protests in Madison, I spent three hours in a house on Gilman Street, frantically scrubbing tear gas out of strangers’ eyes and off their skin as they screamed in pain, begging me to make it stop in between fits of coughing and gagging as they struggled to breathe,” Stangler said.
“One of them was barely sixteen. He had contacts in because he wasn’t planning to be out, but got caught in the crossfire while walking a friend home. I had to call his grandmother to explain what was happening and she had to listen helplessly as her grandbaby was screaming in agony in the background, begging anybody that was listening to get the pain to stop. We couldn’t get the contacts out of his eyes and he had to go to the emergency room,” she continued.
“Do you know what that’s like? To have a sixteen year old grabbing onto you for dear fucking life, because he can’t see because one of your officers just sprayed his face within six inches?”
In their report, the Madison Police Department acknowledges that certain chemical weapons are banned both by the Geneva Convention and a 1992 United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.
The department argues that neither convention specifically bans CS gas, but instead broadly bars asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases. Tear gas is well-known for its asphyxiating effects and can cause runny eyes, choking and vomiting — among a variety of other side effects.
Additionally, the authors add that both agreements only restrict chemical weapons during warfare, not domestic policing. The UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention explicitly excludes law enforcement during domestic riots — meaning the United States is barred from deploying chemical crowd control weapons on foreign militaries, but is free to do so against its citizens.
Despite the international ban on chemical weapons for use in warfare, several MPD officers described the effects of CS gas as “mild.” That’s according to internal officer reports obtained by WORT, wherein officers describe the events of those turbulent nights in late May and early June from their perspectives.
“During my training and experience… I have deployed no less than 50 CS gas canisters,” wrote one officer. “I have been exposed to CS gas canisters on no less than a dozen occasions. I know the effects of tear gas are immediately and significantly reduced as soon as individuals find themselves in fresh air.”
Despite the purported ‘mild’ effects, many officers still donned gas masks to prevent the deleterious impact of the chemical weapon.
Wrote one officer: “There were points at night that I had to wear a full face gas mask due to the release of CS or OC Spray”— OC Spray being the police jargon for pepper spray, another chemical weapon used regularly by the MPD in last year’s protests.
Another officer wrote that “My skin felt like it was on fire from the OC spray and CS gas… I noted that my exposure to the OC and/or CS gas was just about debilitating. My breathing was hyper-active and I could feel the muscles in my legs starting to give into cramping and possible failure.”
Many of the incident reports, corroborating eye-witness statements, reveal that MPD officers, while in full body armor, deployed tear gas after protesters encroached on their defensive line or started tossing rocks, bottles and other small projectiles at them.
In other cases, protesters attempted to lob ignited tear gas canisters back at police officers. But, as one officer noted in his report, the canisters can approach dangerously high temperatures after their dispersal — hence why officers attempt to aim them away from densely crowded areas.
Notably, the MPD’s internal report does not include data past August 1st. Police officers also deployed tear gas and pepper spray — which at least one WORT reporter experienced — during protests in late August, after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey.
That means the report does not reflect the whole picture of fully how much tear gas was deployed by the MPD in 2020.
And the report may not even reflect the whole picture from 1990 to August 1st. Per the document, the MPD “did not maintain a use of force database until relatively recently, and the department has gone through several different records management systems since 1990.”
The proposed tear gas ban, and internal report, were set to be considered by the city’s Public Safety Review Committee last night. But, deliberation on the proposal was delayed after Alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney, one of the committee’s members, experienced a medical emergency during the meeting that required her immediate hospitalization.
(FEATURE IMAGE: MPD Officers deploy tear gas / Chali Pittman)
Editor’s note: We have updated this story to include that 43, not 42, tear gas canisters and projectiles were used in the sixteen years prior to 2020.