Use of force among MPD practices to be reviewed despite SCOTUS ruling

Use of force among MPD practices to be reviewed despite SCOTUS ruling

Madison’s City Council is ordering a review of how its police department runs, but making changes isn’t that simple.

In its Tuesday night meeting, the council voted to create an ad hoc committee of community members to evaluate the policies and practices of the Madison Police Department. Members will then report back to the council, Mayor Paul Soglin and police Chief Mike Koval with recommendations for changes.

“Are there better ways to do things, and if there are, what are they?” council President Denise Demarb said. “We can bring those [ways] forward and decide as a community if we want to try and implement some of them into our own police department.”

Also on the table to be looked at is the department’s policy for use of force, but it may be the hardest practice to change.

“The Supreme Court has established a legal standard that’s used in terms of what is an acceptable use of force, and so you’ve got that standard and you can’t really deviate too far from it,” City Attorney Michael May said.

If the council considers changes to the police department, May and his office will advise alders on the legality of those changes and resulting ordinances. May said there is little room to change use of force.

That’s because a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, Graham vs. Connor, established the “objectively reasonable” standard, meaning the officer’s use of force is considered appropriate if the officer’s actions were such that an objectively reasonable officer would do the same in that situation. Because it is considered federal law, local changes can’t supersede the ruling.

But there is some interpretation as to how to train officers in use of force, May said.

“How exactly you train your officers to fall within that range or standard established by the Supreme Court still gives you some leeway in what you train them to do and how you train them to react,” he said.

Koval has publicly opposed changes to use-of-force practices.

“That’s the standard cops are trained in across the country,” Koval said. “You can’t very well discard it to the curb and say, ‘We’re going to do something different.'”

There are other barriers to change. The committee can only make recommendations to the city based on its findings and cannot make a decision or a change itself. May said state law dictates that the police chief must ultimately decide the use-of-force policy, which potentially leaves the decision up to Koval.

Who will sit on the committee has not yet been decided. Soglin will appoint members, and the council must confirm them.

Soglin said members will be chosen in the next several weeks. The committee will present its findings to City Council next July.