Madison alders to introduce proposals banning tear gas, projectile crowd-control weapons for MPD

Madison interim chief shared blog post giving his reasons why nonlethal weapons should be put in city's budget

MADISON, Wis. — Protests following the death of George Floyd have raised questions and concerns about police departments’ use of force policies nationwide. Several Madison alders will introduce two different proposals at Tuesday night’s city council meeting regarding the banning of tear gas and projectile crowd-control weapons.

In a unanimous vote on June 16, alders voted to remove $50,000 from the budget that would have allowed the Madison Police Department to purchase nonlethal projectile 40mm launchers to equip all squad cars with.

On Monday, interim Police Chief Vic Wahl wrote a blog post describing an incident where non-lethal weapons helped deescalate a situation.

The post describes how police responded to a call Friday about a man going though a mental health crisis with access to a gun, threatening to harm himself. Officers who responded to the scene were able to use a non-lethal 40 mm projectile launcher and sponge rounds to safely disarm him of a knife and take him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.

Wahl wrote that this situation was “A product of training, culture, policy, hiring, and having the right equipment (in the right place at the right time). Here’s where budget actions have consequences.  I see no higher priority than doing everything I can as Chief to reduce the likelihood that MPD officers will be involved in deadly force encounters.  One critical component of this is ensuring that officers have the right tools immediately available to them in a crisis.  My goal is for every front-line MPD vehicle to have a less lethal launcher (40mm) in the vehicle, so we know that these tools will be readily available in a crisis when seconds count.”

Wahl said because the council members denied the budget funds to equip all cars with these tools, it makes handling circumstances like this more challenging.

District 8 Alder Max Prestigiacomo responded to Wahl’s blog post and said, “I don’t like them pointing at one situation and saying this justifies the whole usage across the board. Like, yes, I’m glad this situation ended the way it did but at the same time, there could have been other methods of deescalation that are not talked about in this blog post.”

Wahl responded saying, “Well go ask this individual what he thinks about it and what his family thinks about it. This was a real person with a real life who was very likely saved because we had the right tools there at the right time. Whatever you might feel about the big picture and whether you like the police or don’t like the police, and think we handled a particular crowd situation rightly or wrongly, it’s not reason to throw the baby out of the bath water and say we are going to make decisions that are going to have very adverse impacts down the road. It’s very predictable that we are going to be called to these high-risk encounters with people that are not making rational decisions and they are not going to be in a position where they can be negotiated with or reasoned with and that’s just the nature of our work. To have those tools in critical and can save lives like it did last week.”

Prestigiacomo is presenting a proposal at Tuesday night’s council meeting that will prohibit crowd control tools and end a program that allows the Madison Police Department to access military equipment.

“The situations police are going to be using don’t give it justification for their use. What it is really is justifying is how the police institution itself is flawed. Police are inherently violent. We need to reassess MPD entirely. This proposal isn’t just a one and done ban on these weapons. We need to talk about demilitarization, deescalation.”

Alders Patrick Heck, Shiva Bidar and Keith Furman are introducing a proposal Tuesday night that will ban tear gas.

“We are asking to ban tear gas in general for any use, not just crowd control. Heck said. “There are physician groups nationally that are asking for tear gas to be banned, especially in the times of COVID-19 because it can exacerbate lung problems and make you more susceptible to COVID-19.”

Heck said he is also interested in Prestigiacomo’s proposal to ban crowd-control weapons.

“Those certainly are problematic in crowd control situations,” he said.

Wahl said although the launcher used in Friday’s incident is the same tool they would use in a crowd-control situation, the applications are different.

“What you saw on Friday is much more common,” Wahl said. “That’s the type of situation these tools would typically be used in. Riots and unrest are very uncommon here in Madison. It’s the individual crisis where these things are really critical.”

The proposals are being introduced for referral at Tuesday night’s meeting to move to the Public Safety Review Committee, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Common Council Executive Committee.

Heck said he wants to have further discussion on these topics and allow the public to weigh in. Additionally, he said he would like to give police the opportunity to present alternative deescalation techniques if they vote to ban tear gas. Prestigiacomo believes this will be a contentious discussion over the next few months.

“It’s going to be next to impossible to get a police institution that’s been untouched for so many years to conceive that they can think out of the box to come up with new deescalation techniques. They clearly don’t have an open mind,” Prestigiacomo said.

Heck said common council likely won’t vote on these issues until September and that they are hoping to ban tear gas by November 17.

“We want to give an opportunity for police to tell us about when they use tear gas,” Heck said. “We’ve requested that they do a study telling us all the different types of incidents in which they’ve used tear has, how many people were involved. We also want them to talk to us about what other deescalation techniques are available when tear gas is banned. We’ve asked them to study other agencies.”

Prestigiacomo said, “These are just the beginnings of new discussions on policing and crime control in Madison.”