An in-depth review of the Madison Police Department’s response to the summer 2020 protests following George Floyd’s death found police presence escalated tensions, and recommended a “less is more” approach for future protests.
Released Tuesday, the review identified 14 “disturbing and undesirable” incidents and gave 69 recommendations to the department. Funding for the report primarily came from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The mere presence of MPD officers exacerbated tension and contributed to the escalation of protests into violence,” the review said.
It specifically examined the arrest of a Black man who was dancing on his car during an evening of protests. The man was approached by four officers — a number reviewers said was “far more than would be necessary if one were trying to de-escalate the situation.”
"In short, many (community leaders) saw a substantial use of unnecessary force against a single Black man without any provocation other than not obeying the officers," the report stated.
The report, from University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center, a research hub created to examine the criminal justice system, recommended a number of techniques to minimize police’s physical presence while still maintaining public safety. It went on to recommend a reduced physical presence of officers when police are the focus of the protest, as it can minimize escalation.
“It's important to acknowledge that opportunities for improvement are not the same thing as failure to do things professionally at the start,” said Professor John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center, at a news conference on Tuesday.
Some other recommendations from the report included:
More effective communication before, during and after protests
Avoiding the use of tear gases and other methods of group dispersal whenever possible
Using body-worn cameras
Removing squad cars from active protest areas
Engaging more with community leaders before protests to set up minimal police engagement while prioritizing public safety
More crowd control training for all officers and additional incident command training to senior officers
Hollway said some of the recommendations came from community feedback from more than 180 people. Reviewers noted that in some situations officers were not doing anything outside of policy, but the community didn't feel the action was just.
“The distinction between what's legal and what the community perceives as just is what’s important for MPD to understand so it can modify its actions in ways that the community thinks is proportional,” Hollway said.
Police Chief Shon Barnes said he intends to implement all 69 recommendations, some of which are already in effect.
“If we can get the communication correct and the trust and legitimacy correct, everything else will be smooth,” Barnes told the Cap Times.
Downtown protests and Madison Police's response
On May 30, the first day of protests after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, the Madison Police Department had a “substantial information deficit and (was) not properly staffed to respond effectively,” according to the report. Officers were prepared, however, “for anti-police sentiment from the crowd,” though officers were surprised by the degree of anger directed specifically at MPD officers.
On May 30, following a peaceful protest, a group of about 150 people clashed with Madison Police officers, smashing windows in the downtown area and looting stores. One MPD car had two rifles stolen from inside and was subsequently set on fire and driven down the block while in flames.
Madison Police officers used tear gas and pepper spray throughout the night of rioting and at other protests throughout the summer.
In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, officers removed themselves from the scene, the report said, describing the tactic as unsuccessful. State lawmakers criticized both the police department and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway for minimal police intervention.
The report noted police response was more successful when officers moved away from the fixed-line formations and instead used smaller, more mobile teams to confront small groups.
Hollway said during a news conference on Tuesday that it was a challenge to take 90 days of protests and reduce them into useful recommendations that MPD can actually implement.
But, if done successfully, it can be a “healing process,” he told the Cap Times.
“It brings community voices in with law enforcement voices, and then it creates space for both of those perspectives to analyze really challenging events. There’s always surprises when that happens,” he said. “Those moments where we miss each other, moments that have unintended impact, those are always the really valuable learning moments.”
Hollway commended MPD for initiating the review, as did Rhodes-Conway. Out of the approximately 18,000 police departments in the country, Madison was the first to reach out to the Quattrone Center to examine the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I appreciate the Madison Police Department for requesting the review — my office was told they were the only police department in the nation to make such a request,” the mayor said in a statement to the media. “I hope that our residents, boards and committees will take a look at the report and tell us what they think.”
Barnes and Hollway presented the Quattrone report to the Common Council Executive Committee on Tuesday evening. Some recommendations, like body-worn cameras — which the report said would be “a very useful tool” — would need approval from the City Council before they could be implemented.
Ald. Patrick Heck, who represents the district just east of the Capitol building, suggested he and Chief Barnes work with the Public Safety Review Committee to further implement the recommendations.
Creating a "sense of culture and responsibility"
With the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse — the Illinois teenager charged with killing two people and wounding a third during violent protests in Kenosha last year — in its 12th day, Barnes said the timing of the review was opportune.
He said the police department is expecting peaceful protests following a verdict. The jury for the trial began deliberation on Tuesday. The department plans to communicate with the public in preparation of any protests and has already been in conversations with community partners.
“We also understand that people may not understand the verdict either way,” Barnes said. “A guilty or innocent verdict means different things to different people, and you don’t discount anyone's voice in your preparations. That’s one of the things that was overwhelmingly apparent to me reading the report.”
Barnes, who joined the department as police chief in February of this year, said Madison police officers are still trying to find their way back to their version of normalcy. For some officers, he said, it means understanding they are part of a greater system.
“In my opinion, this is the most difficult time in the history of policing,” Barnes said. “There’s never been a time where you have a pandemic, social media, civil unrest, distrust in government, distrust in police all working at the same time.
“You have to have resilience. … That’s the only way it works.”
Hollway said the biggest change that could come from the report is the ability to continue to do reviews and make continuous improvements to the department.
“If the organization can hear the opportunity to improve doesn't mean we weren’t good when we started, that really allows for freedom for all the officers to begin saying, ‘(these) are the things we can do better,’” he said. “It creates a sense of culture and responsibility … then you start getting better in a hurry."