Published February 19, 2016, Written by Steven Elbow
While protesters hit the streets in the weeks after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen on the city’s east side last spring, a group of law enforcement officers, community leaders and activists began to look at how law enforcement could handle potentially deadly encounters differently.
On Friday, the Special Community/Police Task Force on Use of Force released 60 recommendations that could mark a fundamental shift in how officers approach potentially deadly situations. The report recommends a series of steps that police can take to minimize the possibility that an encounter will lead to violence.
“The stimulus that gets people to pull out their guns, we can’t control,” said UW-Police Chief Sue Riseling, a task force co-chair. “But we can try other things before we get there, and I think that’s part of this training: to slow down, to assess in a different way, to get time and distance.”
The recommendations are intended for all Dane County law enforcement agencies. They are an effort to address police use of force with an emphasis on people of color, who have a disproportionate rate of encounters with police. But the 13-member group’s recommendations call for training police to approach all situations with the objective of de-escalation.
The impetus for the task force was the March 6, 2015, shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by a white officer responding to reports of Robinson’s erratic behavior.
But two other controversial fatal shootings in Madison in recent years involved white victims: the 2012 shooting of Paulie Heenan, killed while the severely intoxicated musician grappled with an officer, and the 2014 shooting of Ashley DiPiazza as the distraught woman held a gun to her own head.
Dane County agencies have already begun to put the recommendations into place.
“It’s had an immediate impact here,” Riseling said.
Some of her officers, she said, were taken aback by the notion that they were supposed to slow down when encountering a situation in which tensions are high.
“We’re having this conversation, and they said, ‘It’s so interesting to be told to slow down, because through the police academy all we were ever taught was, speed up,’” Riseling said.
The training recommended by the task force de-emphasizes “close-the-gap” tactics, in which officers confront people who are armed or out-of-control and urges officers to look at other options, such as finding cover from a safe distance to give them time to assess a situation.
Other recommendations call for continual training in implicit bias, development of policies regarding foot pursuits and the fostering of communications skills.
And the task force is calling on government entities in Dane County to provide funding to improve the quality and frequency of police training.
The task force also recommends institutionalizing debriefings of major incidents, creating a data and analysis system, considering the use of body cameras and adopting restorative justice practices.
In addition, the group calls for measures to improve the physical and mental health of officers, developing relationships with community leaders and stepping up community education on safe police interactions.
“The takeaway from me is appreciating the power and value of de-escalation from both sides,” said task force member Harold Rayford, president of the African American Council of Churches. “It’s not going to be automatic. It’s going to be the result of an ongoing effort on both parts to stand down.”
Throughout meetings from May through December, the task force conducted outreach efforts to Latino and African-American communities and sought input from each Dane County law enforcement agency, police union representatives and collaborated with a host of officials and community leaders.
“It’s been a comprehensive discussion,” said Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
He said he sees the report as much as a call for training communities as training police.
“Every day, most African-Americans and Latinos tell their kids what they need to do,” he said. “We’re educating our kids every day about what to do when they encounter police — how to behave, how to make sure that you come home alive. So just as much as it is educating the police, it’s also important to educate the public about what things might cause police to use excessive force, or to use any force in the first place.”
Amelia Royko Maurer is the only task force member who is not representing an organized group. She was chosen despite her consistent criticism of police tactics after the police shooting of her good friend, Heenan.
She was guardedly optimistic about the process leading up to the report.
“I’ve never been in a situation where there are leaders of law enforcement coming forward to sit at a table with community members to deconstruct use of force policy, and all of the ways in which our interaction could lead to force,” she said. “So that’s a really positive thing.”
But she added that the value of the report depends on what happens next.
“What we have on paper could look beautiful and could be a big step forward, but by the same token it all depends on whether or not things are implemented,” she said.
She said she hopes to see an effort to track progress with the kind of data compiled by the 2013 “Race to Equity” report, which revealed vast racial disparities in Dane County and sparked efforts to alleviate them.
“I think that the same brilliant people who came up with ‘Race to Equity’ will be processing those numbers to come,” she said. “And I would sincerely hope that our county would invest in looking at some sort of real-time matrix to see how people are being treated and where are the disparities coming from.”
Riseling said she had asked the United Way to help broker a conversation about police use of force in the wake of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, and other police shootings of unarmed black men across the U.S. that fueled a demand for police reform.
Then came the Robinson shooting, which sparked weeks of heated protests.
“When Tony was killed, it was ‘We need some action steps and how are we really going to take this on,’” Riseling said. “That’s when the idea of a task force, when you really give it a specific mission, came into being.”
The task force’s members include a broad spectrum. Law enforcement members include Middleton Police Chief Chuck Foulke, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Capt. Kristen Roman. With Riseling, the co-chairs were Anthony and Everett Mitchell, a local pastor, UW-Madison outreach coordinator, as well as an uncontested Dane County judge candidate in the coming spring election.
Others members include Dane County communications directorTamara Grigsby, Teresa Sanders from the Black Leadership Council, United Way of Dane County volunteer coordinator Jay Young, Madison school district security chief Luis Yudice and Madison Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes.
Reyes, a former Madison police detective, said that the task force’s work could improve community relations with police.
“I think what has really come out of this whole thing, and I think it’s going to continue, is the community understanding of what police officers are going through, and also vice versa,” she said.
Reyes said she also brought to the table her perspective as a woman who grew up in Madison, and who understands the impact of police on communities of color.
Rayford said there were “major disagreements” during the months of meetings, but members emerged from the process with a deep respect for one another.
“We were all in agreement with the report that is being released,” he said.
Riseling said that the task force recommendations roll back some police practices that developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After 9/11, she said: “Sometimes I think the trainers ran the policy instead of the policy running the training. They should teach and always should teach officer survival, but not to the exclusion of everything else.
She said the tendency to train officers to react forcefully to confrontational situations likely played a part in the current friction between police and the public they serve.
“I think some of the tactics that have been taught over the last decade or so have really alienated the public,” she said. “And I don’t think they’ve made officers safer in the long run. They might have in that quick encounter but not in the long run, because it builds resentment.”