Photo by Mainzer-Einsatzfahrzeuge on Pixabay.
The City of Madison is reviewing the standard operating procedures for its police force.
Standard operating procedures are the guidelines for officers to follow while on the job. And they cover procedures for de-escalation, conduct during protests, and use of force.
Last night, some members of Madison’s Public Safety Review Committee discussed the state of those procedures with Vic Wahl, Madison’s Interim Chief of Police.
Wahl has served in the role since last October, after the abrupt resignation of former police chief Mike Koval last fall.
The department’s operating procedures are posted on the Madison police department’s website, but are currently not advertised outside of that.
When the committee asked Chief Wahl about this, he said that they could look into changing that.
“We’ve talked to IT about that,” said Wahl. “I think you would have to do some sort of email opt-in list, which, I think certainly is technically feasible. I think one of the challenges it the IT’s capacity to add stuff. Particularly right now, they’re pretty much at capacity. It’s something we can look at.”
The Committee meeting is being held in light of the June protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. During the first three nights of protest in late May and early June, during which State Street businesses were vandalized and looted, Madison Police deployed in riot gear and used tear gas against the crowds. They also used pepper spray and projectiles.
Committee member Brenda Konkel said she was concerned about how liberally tear gas was used.
“It seemed like there’s a go, no go order,” said Konkel. “They don’t do it until they say that they can and then that order just is on and they can do it for the rest of the night. I wonder if you sort of reevaluate as events go along or when reading the reports they’re like, ‘we were told from command center we can go ahead and use tear gas so we did.’ Did that order go from six o’clock at night until 2 o’clock in the morning and there was never like a reassessment?”
Wahl said that he expects police officers to continually reassess the situation throughout the night. He says they are still looking over what happened during the nights where the police used tear gas.
Madison alders are considering two proposals to ban less-lethal weapons, including teargas.
Konkel says while she understands the SOPs directing how police officers behave at events, she thinks that they can end up making the situation worse. She says one of the primary issues is that there is a lack of communication between the officers and the protestors.
“I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, over and over and over again: It seems like the public that is out there in the street has no idea what the cops want them to do,” said Konkel. “And you’re watching this row of police officers that are not communicating with you and trying to guess what they want you to do. Some people are there to resist, some people are there to back up people who are resisting, it’s really super confusing if you’re standing there on the street. And even if you communicate once, the chances that the whole crowd heard it doesn’t seem very likely.”
She also said that an SOP directing police officers to behave neutrally at events makes them look indifferent to the protestors, which she says makes the situation more tense. She says that officers who did break the neutrality rule and did interact with protestors likely improved the situation, but in doing so they violated the rules, and thinks that should be changed. Wahl said he agreed that it could help defuse issues, but did not know how to write a uniform policy for those instances.
When asked by committee members about people who were injured during the protests, Wahl said that it is difficult to get medical attention to people in the middle of a large crowd. He said there was currently no procedure in place for this situation.
“This kind of situation, where you have large crowds, neither MPD nor MFD nor just about anybody is set up to provide mass medical care,” said Wahl. “The policies are set up to more customary use of force encounters that involve one subject who will be taken into custody, and that’s what that is geared towards.”
Wahls also addressed concerns about organized white supremacist activity in Madison during the protests. Many protesters believe they have been targeted by white supremecists and have reported guns and dangerous trucks to W-O-R-T reporters on the ground. But Chief Wahl says there is no evidence of that.
During the meeting, there was a particular emphasis on de-escalation procedures. Chief Wahl says that in light of the COVID pandemic, officers have been instructed to avoid making arrests and instead provide citations. Konkel said that, while she liked the SOP, she did not always see it being observed in practice.
“There’s definitely a disconnect between that and what goes on in the street when you’re on the other end of it,” said Konkel. “The words are really great, and they look really good, but the practice, or how it goes from the website here to the street doesn’t seem to really translate very well, somehow.”
According to Chief Wahl’s blog posts, Madison police arrested 34 people on the first three nights of protests.