Republican candidates for state and local office gathered in front of the Hans Christian Heg statue today to decry the proposed tear gas ban going before the Madison Common Council tomorrow night.
The ordinance, brought forward by District 8 alder Juliana Bennett, would ban the Madison Police Department from using tear gas, pepper spray, and impact projectile devices, including pepper balls, bean bags, and sponge rounds.
The ordinance is not a total ban on chemical munitions. An amendment allows the use of chemicals in situations that bring urgent and imminent physical harm to the public or law enforcement, or when significant property damage exists and escalation is threatened.
It also calls for the police department to issue a written report to the Police Civilian Oversight Board within 30 days of chemicals being used.
Bennett says currently, police can use chemical weapons whenever they declare a protest an unlawful assembly. These exceptions, she says, allows the police to continue to protect people and property without having to resort to chemical weapons whenever they please.
Speaking before the Madison Common Council in January 2021, before she was elected, Bennett described what the use of chemical weapons felt like to her:
“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,” Bennett said.
But Eric Toney, Republican candidate for state Attorney General, says that this exception is too broad – and puts an unnecessary burden on police officers.
“We have law enforcement agencies from across Wisconsin that have said ‘we will not send mutual aid to the city of Madison because of this proposed ordinance.’ That makes people who want to peacefully protest less safe, that makes residents and community members here in Madison less safe, and we care calling on the city council to abandon this proposal here in Madison, because it is the wrong direction for the city,” Toney says.
Also in attendance at today’s press conference was Republican candidate for Dane County Sheriff Anthony Hamilton, Dane County Supervisor Jeff Weigand, and Jeff Twing with the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police.
Supervisor Weigand says that he fears the outcome if the resolution is adopted by the Council.
“I’m here today because what happens in Madison has a ripple effect across all Dane County. A less safe Madison means a less safe Dane County. Rather than looking to take away the tools of law enforcement officers, we should be looking to give them more tools, and equip them to do their job,” Weigand says.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the Madison Police Department deployed 62 cans of tear gas in just three nights. That’s more than the entire 16 years prior.
In January of 2021, Interim Chief of Madison Police Victor Wahl issued a report on the city’s use of tear gas from 1990 until August 1, 2020. In that report, Wahl outlined several other crowd control measures available to police, such as use of batons and loud noise devices. The report stated that both of these methods can cause permanent damage, while tear gas has a much lower risk of causing serious injury.
But even with the lower risk for serious injury, even police officers complained of the discomfort caused by tear gas in the 2020 protests. In an internal report gathered by WORT in 2020, several officers outlined their experience with chemical weapons. One officer wrote, quote, “My skin felt like it was on fire from the gas. My breathing was hyper-active and I could feel the muscles in my legs starting to give into cramping and possible failure,” end quote.
While an ordinance banning the use of tear gas failed to pass the council in 2020, Bennett says that now, the ban may have legs. Bennett says that, at the time, council members wanted more information on the use of tear gas by Madison police before they could confidently vote on it.
But now that Wahl’s report, as well as an independent consultant’s review of the 2020 protests have been released, Bennett says that there’s enough evidence that tear gas should be banned.
Toney, however, says that tear gas is needed to protect Madison. Today’s press conference was in front of the Hans Christian Heg statue on the capitol square. Heg was a Union soldier during the Civil War, and an abolitionist.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, protesters tore down the statue and threw it into Lake Monona. Toney said that the statue, which was later repaired in 2021, was the reason why tear gas is needed in Madison.
But Bennett says that, instead of using chemical agents, police should be working with the community to gain their trust.
Toney is not the only one against the tear gas ban. The Dane County Chiefs of Police Association, The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, and the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association have all officially registered against the ban. Additionally, Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes released a statement saying that he is against the chemical munitions ban last week, calling the ban quote “punitive and regressive,” end quote.
The tear gas ban will go before the Madison Common Council at their meeting tomorrow night.
Photo courtesy: WORT Flickr