Dane Co. community leaders, police discuss death of George Floyd

Published: May. 28, 2020 at 5:34 PM CDT
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Many of the black community in Madison are hurting following the death of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police custody.

Michael Johnson, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, called on local law enforcement leaders to condemn the behavior of Minneapolis police.

“I also wanted our law enforcement officials to publicly go on the record that this behavior is not appropriate, should be tolerated or accepted in our county,” Johnson said. “What we witnessed is sickening, unbearable, and heartbreaking.”

Other black leaders in Madison echoed these sentiments in a virtual town hall hosted by Madison 365.

Pastor Marcus Allen of Mount Zion Baptist Church says he is angry and upset.

“I am so disgusted,” said Allen. “This is not our first instance or our first time seeing something like this happen.”

Anthony Cooper, Sr. of Nehemiah Center Re-entry Services says deaths like these happen too much.

“It becomes too much of a norm,” Cooper said. “As a black man, this is our norm. We have to figure out different ways to navigate and to figure out how we live life.”

Following Allen and Cooper, local police chiefs in Dane County joined in the conversation. Chiefs from Fitchburg, UW-Madison, Sun Prairie, Middleton, and Madison shared their own disappointment and dismay for how an incident like this affects public trust with police.

“Public trust with law enforcement is very fragile,” interim Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl said. “Nothing can shatter it more than use of force by police.”

Diversity in Departments

Other topics discussed by area police chiefs is the hiring practices within their departments and the effort made to recruit diverse members.

Fitchburg Police Chief Brad Brecklin says his department has made major changes including expanding the applicant pool and removing the standard written test as part of a first screening.

“We are using a process that better measures life experiences and background,” Brecklin said. “We really hope to find those candidates that bring different perspectives to the table.”

UW-Madison Police Chief Kristin Roman said ensuring diverse officers have a chance to succeed is also crucial.

“Once you get diverse candidates within an organization, you need a mechanism and processes and structures in place to support that diversity,” Roman said.

Preventing the Use of Excessive Force

Many of the police chiefs shared they began reviewing their own excessive force policies after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney says he expects his deputies to step in when excessive force is not warranted in a situation.

“The courage to stand up to your fellow law enforcement officer to intervene when something you know is wrong is occurring,” Mahoney said.

Sun Prairie Police Chief Mike Steffes says this is why four police officers in Minneapolis were fired.

“Three of them stood by and blocked the crowd from being able to render any aid and didn’t listen when they were saying to take his pulse,” Steffes said. “I think the first safety net and mechanism that we should have in law enforcement is to make sure that our officers understand their duty to intercede if they observe anything like this happening.”

Training Techniques

Middleton Police Chief Troy Hellenbrand also works as certified state of Wisconsin instructor to train other officers.

He says what Minneapolis officers did is not something taught in the state of Wisconsin.

“It’s concerning to me,” Hellenbrand said. “I’ve never taught that technique of placing any type of weight on an individual’s head or neck area.”

Sheriff Dave Mahoney says use of physical force is only authorized when a deputy believes an individual is not following valid requests.

“Deputies are not only responsible to ensure that their use of force is appropriate, but also to prevent misuse of force by others,” Sheriff Mahoney said. “Deputies are expected to intervene and report any misuse of force or authority by any other deputy sheriff.”

Starting the Conversation

Both police and community members agreed no change will happen overnight.

“Nobody has the right answer right now, but it’s going to take intentionality and commitment and passion to bridge these gaps,” Allen said.

Sheriff Mahony said the preservation of life should be at the forefront of law enforcement officers.

“The reality is that every incident like we saw occur in Minneapolis chips away at the community trust that law enforcement across Dane Co. has worked hard to build,” Mahoney said.

To read the full statement from Kristin Roman on behalf of the Dane County Police Chiefs Association, click