New review recommends path forward in Madison police’s response to protests

The review found 69 recommendations
A study into the Madison Police Department's response to a wave of protests and subsequent violence in the city was released Tuesday.
Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 11:04 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2021 at 7:02 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A newly released study into the Madison Police Department’s responses to the wave of protests and subsequent violence that erupted on many nights after many of the peaceful protestors went home emerged Tuesday with sixty-nine recommendations for how law enforcement could better handle another similar situation, which it summarized with nine umbrella goals.

Several of the goals noted the need for the police department to engage with community members regularly to build relationships between law enforcement and the organizations, explaining that such relationships can help maintain calm during protests in addition to giving MPD a pulse on the city. To that latter point, researchers pointed out that the department did not understand the level of anger against it leading into the first rounds of the demonstrations.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway echoed the report’s desire for an ongoing dialogue between her city’s police force and residents. In a statement released after reviewing the report, she hit on the theme of communication “before, during, and after” demonstrations. “It’s apparent that clearer communication would build trust and help ensure public safety,” she said.

Rhodes-Conway also expressed her and MPD Chief Shon Barnes’ desire to improve the department and learn from the dozens of recommendations laid out in the report.

“Chief Barnes came to Madison eager to build bridges and build trust,” she continued. “He is already working towards many of these goals and I look forward to working with him and his team on these recommendations.”

The deep dive by the University of Pennsylvania Law School focused on six nights from the protests that were in response to the death of George Floyd, the arrest of activist Devonere Johnson, and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Out of those incidents, researchers found 14 critical incidents that it called “disturbing and undesirable,” thus offering learning opportunities and chances for improvement.

In describing the purpose of the report, which was referred to as a Sentinel Event Review, the authors were explicit about the purpose of the document not to assign blame or determine accountability, as is the case in many other reviews, but to look at how what played out can inform better practices in the future. “[I]ts focus is on a non-blaming inquiry to learn from failure so that systems and institutions can be reformed to minimize the risks of such errors in the future,” they wrote.

It also noted that, while this is a review of how the police department can improve its practices, that many of contributing factors to the violent and destructive outcomes could be attributed to the demonstrators and those who were determined to escalate the situation.

In requesting the review, which was paid for with a 2019 grant, the police department asked researchers to find ways it could improve its response to large-scale protests, “particularly when the police themselves are the focus of the protesters.” The department expressed its interest in protecting demonstrators First Amendment rights while preventing criminal acts during the events.

A MPD squad car on fire on Saturday
A MPD squad car on fire on Saturday(NBC15)

The Protests

When protests began on May 30, 2020, the police department was not prepared for the size of the protests that were coming and its leadership did not realize how angry many members of the public were against it. Additionally, they were unprepared for the size of the protests that were coming.

“While MPD was prepared for anti-police sentiment from the crowd, it was surprised by the degree of anger directed specifically at MPD officers observing the protests,” researchers explained. While the officers deployed repeatedly tried de-escalation tactics, they were unsuccessful and calls for more officers to assist the 42 original deployed continued throughout the day.

Devonere Johnson
Devonere Johnson(Dane County Sheriff's Office)

The study echoed police and media reports at the time regarding the escalation from peaceful protests during the day into violence late at night, placing the blame at the feet of “a small group of instigators within the larger crowd.” Researchers detailed the failures and miscommunications that occurred once the confrontations and violence began.

After the initial round of protests, the report noted calmer ones continued, until the arrest of Devonere Johnson, who later pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge similar to allegation levied in the incident that led to police being summoned. Those protests included the firebombing of the City-County building and the toppling of two statues outside the state capital.

An image from Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi appears to show protesters about to throw a...
An image from Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi appears to show protesters about to throw a firebomb at the City County Building, in Madison, Wisconsin, on June 24, 2020. (Source: Dane Co.)((Source: Dane Co.))

Following the late August shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer, the Madison Police Department’s tactics again changed. Protests had continued through the summer and heated up again after the incident. Officers followed the protests from a distance and only intervened in cases where property or individuals were at risk. It specifically cited an instance in which officers had let protesters march on E. Washington St. and only moved on a group who tried to start a fire at the Wisconsin Manufactures’ building and Chalmers’ Jewelers.

“Once again, some damage was sustained, but a larger, more prolonged violent engagement was avoided, and the lack of significant violent engagement with MPD created emotional space that allowed the anger of the community to gradually dissipate,” the report stated. It also credited police outreach with developing relationships with community members who were among the crowds of protesters and helped keep the demonstrations peaceful.

Protesters brought down two downtown Madison statues, including the landmark Forward one, as...
Protesters brought down two downtown Madison statues, including the landmark Forward one, as demonstrations that started early Tuesday afternoon raged late into the night. (WMTV)((WMTV))

The Recommendations

The report went on to list all 69 recommendations, which can be found here, but researchers additionally outlined nine points (listed below) that the authors described as “important themes,” and which serve as an umbrella for the concerns and aims of its review.

The authors acknowledged that the “quality improvement initiative focused on improving the police response to crowd protest events can feel like moving a few grains of sand from one part of a beach to another part of the beach,” but assured readers that the community members and law enforcement personnel who participated in the review, while sometimes disagreeing sharply, were able to come together to find areas of mutual respect.

“The recommendations generated in that atmosphere represent small changes that the Stakeholder Group feels can have great impact on the community, increasing the mutual understanding between the diverse views held throughout Madison and a Police Department committed to facilitating the expression of those views in ways that ensure the safety of all,” the executive summary concluded.

  1. MPD should emphasize a “less is more” approach to protest events, particularly when police themselves are the focus of the protest;
  2. MPD must communicate more effectively with community before, during and after protest events;
    1. MPD should work constantly and diligently during periods of time when no protests are occurring to build bridges to the community;
    2. MPD should regularly education the community about its strategy and tactics for supporting protests;
  3. MPD should improve its ability to engage with community leaders before individual protest to facilitate protest objectives with minimal MPD engagement, while prioritizing public safety for protesters and others;
  4. MPD should provide additional crowd control training to all MPD officers, and Incident Command training to all senior MPD officers;
  5. MPD should work with community leaders to create Community Dialogue Representatives (CDR) who can improve communication on behalf of protesters while protests are occurring;
  6. MPD should focus on proportional reactions to intercede against instigators of violence, and where it can be done without increasing the risk of harm to individuals, against instigators of property damage. In crowd settings, MPD should avoid using CS gas or other methods of group dispersal whenever possible, using them only when MPD is unable to safely de-escalate a situation through targeted arrests or interventions and the use of such materials is necessary to prevent imminent injury to individuals;
  7. MPD should continue to refine its tactics for responding to protest events, including emphasizing mobility, proportional reaction focused on instigators only, and real-time, plain language communication with observers explaining the public safety rationale that is causing MPD’s actions.
  8. MPD should track uses of force carefully and review them promptly. Immediately after protests are over, MPD should engage in internal reviews with participating officers to continually reinforce, improve and refine its tactics. These processes and the outcomes they generate should be made public to rebuild trust and legitimacy with the community;
  9. To ensure transparency during crowd events and to permit appropriate reviews of MPD behavior, the City of Madison should consider requiring MPD officers to wear BWCs during crowd events.
A Madison Police Dept. cruiser sits burnt after the first night of protests in downtown...
A Madison Police Dept. cruiser sits burnt after the first night of protests in downtown Madison, on May 30, 2020. NBC15 cannot confirm if this is the same cruiser from which the rifles were stolen. (Submitted)(NBC15)

To the last point, the authors described the city’s prohibition on body-worn cameras (BWC) as a “substantial challenge” in creating its report.

“From the perspective of reviewers trying to understand the protests and be clear on how MPD actions may have affected tensions during specific events, BWC would be a very useful tool,” they wrote, explaining that the footage would have provided details about “moment-to-moment interactions” and the times when police used force.

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