MPD chief opposes proposal to prohibit tear gas use for crowd control

Two demonstrators kneel in front of dozens of police officers on Madison Street Richmond.
Two demonstrators kneel in front of dozens of police officers on Madison Street Richmond.(Hannah Eason - The Commonwealth Times)
Published: Sep. 14, 2022 at 8:25 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Ahead of discussions for a proposed Madison ordinance that would not allow police to use tear gas or mace for crowd control reasons, the city’s police chief is objecting to the motion.

Madison Police Department Chief Shon Barnes weighed in on the proposal Wednesday in a statement.

“I believe in evidence-based policing, and have sought to implement progressive, nationally recognized best practices at MPD,” Barnes said. “This is why I am gravely concerned that members of the Common Council are now seeking to impose a punitive and regressive policy onto our Department as it relates to crowd control circumstances and the measures our officers take to preserve life and protect our community.”

The ordinance change, proposed by Alder Juliana Bennett, would ban the use of chemical munitions and indiscriminate weapons, including tear gas, pepper spray and impact projectiles. The change will be discussed during Madison’s Common Council meeting on Sept. 20, Bennett said in a blog posted over the weekend.

Chief Barnes said that while he wasn’t in Madison at the height of the protests in the summer of 2020, he understood why citizens took to protesting to call for racial justice.

“As a Black man in America, racial injustices are not lost on me,” Barnes said. “On balance, the Madison community experienced hundreds of days of peaceful protest, with MPD officers facilitating protests without any kind of enforcement or intervention. However, there were several instances of severe property damage, violent behavior, arson, and other criminal acts in and around what would otherwise have been peaceful demonstrations.”

Barnes explained that the use of chemical munition, such as tear gas or pepper spray, is used as a last resort and for special circumstances, including crowd control. MPD has also authorized the use of these devices instead of higher levels of physical force, such as the use of a baton.

He also argued that Madison’s crowd control method is being replicated nationwide and said the ordinance is opposed by law enforcement associations. This includes the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, Badger State Sheriff’s Association and Dane County Chiefs of Police Association.

“Now, what I ask is that the community and our Common Council place their trust in the research, in national best practices, and in your police department,” Barnes said.

Bennett pointed to a University of Pennsylvania Law School analysis that focused on six nights from the protests in Madison that were in response to the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Researchers found 14 critical incidents that it called “disturbing and undesirable,” thus offering learning opportunities and chances for improvement.

In one of the recommendations, the group said that “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.”