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City-Wide Notable Calls

Chief Barnes' Weighs in on Proposed Chemical Munitions Ban

September 14, 2022 11:29 AM

Since becoming the Chief of Police for the Madison Police Department in February of 2021, I have made it a focus of my administration to be data-driven. I believe in evidence-based policing, and have sought to implement progressive, nationally recognized best practices at MPD. 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.

While I was not in Madison in 2020 at the height of protests, I understand deeply the sentiment of citizens who took to the streets to express their freedom of speech and to demonstrate for the cause of racial justice. As a Black man in America, racial injustices are not lost on me.

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. Officers were injured, our City County Building was the target of a Molotov bombing, and over 75 businesses experienced significant property loss. Now the definition of "significant," has come under some scrutiny as some elected officials have applied their own meaning to this term. I would ask you this simple question, "what would you consider significant damage if it were your home or your business?" Is it reasonable to ask the police to protect your home or business?

These specific acts of criminal violence lead to the use of numerous tactics by MPD officers, including the deployment of chemical munitions. These are tools of last resort, and are relied on only in specific circumstances.

Our officers are authorized to use chemical munitions, such as OC (pepper) spray and CS gas in a crowd control environment to protect people from imminent physical harm, and to respond to specific acts of violence or significant property damage. MPD policy also authorizes the use of these tools to avoid the use of higher levels of physical force, including the use of a baton. This policy has been crafted on national best practices, and provides clear guidance on what our officers will do in crowd control environments.

Gone are the days of the 1960's where officers in Madison used batons and fists to strike demonstrators in crowds, and I refuse to go back. However, this ordinance is walking us back to a place in time where this would be the only option to address violent, riotous behavior by individuals in crowds. It doesn't take more than a quick glace through the history of Madison to see that the Dow Chemical riots in 1967 were a tumultuous time exacerbated by ugly, brutal police uses of force. As your Chief, I refuse to bring that into the 21st Century.

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. In the last 30 years, these types of dynamic crowd control environments have presented themselves in Madison very few times. I am hopeful that we will never see the type of violence and destruction displayed during the January 6 insurrection in our City, but I ask that you not limit our use of the most appropriate tools if we do.

Additionally, as this ordinance has been drafted, it is opposed by numerous professional associations in law enforcement. The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger State Sheriff's Association, and the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association all oppose this measure. The reticence expressed by these professional groups deeply troubles me. The availability of other law enforcement agencies to respond and assist in a major emergency hinges on our Department's ability to use the best tools available in these kinds of circumstances. We are also likely to lose logistical and security support from our surrounding agencies in the event of pre-planned major events and dignitary visits. This ordinance strips our community of that valued partnership, and leaves us out of line with our peer communities and state standards.

Madison is currently recognized as a national model in crowd control. Our "Madison Method," has been replicated nationwide, and we should not turn our backs on the techniques and practices we've pioneered that are leading our nation. We believe in selflessly serving the public, and in partnering with our community. We do this best by keeping our citizens and their property safe from violent and destructive behavior. It is imperative that the Common Council defeat this proposal, and allow us to continue to do just that.

Posted by: Chief Barnes

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