‘First Amendment Right vs. Safety’: One City’s Analysis of Police Response to George Floyd Protests

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George Floyd Protest on June 1st, 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Ken Fager via Flickr.

During the civil unrest in America last year following the murder of George Floyd, the city of Madison, Wisconsin was rocked by seemingly endless weeks of  community protests occurring on a daily basis.

In the wake of  protests that led to an unprecedented scale of violence and property destruction in the Madison community, the Madison Police Department (MPD) agreed to participate in a Sentinel Event Review (SER) — one of the latest tools in the justice arsenal to look at questionable incidents through a qualitative and quantitative lens. 

Sentinel Event Reviews bring together participants and “stakeholders” in incidents involving allegations of misconduct, excessive use of force by police, wrongful convictions or other cases involving the justice system. An SER was conducted last year on the deaths of two men in the custody of Tucson police.

Engaged with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School to facilitate the SER after being the recipient of a collaboration grant, the MPD provided researchers with more than 1,600 pages of documents related to the protests, as well as more than 625 hours of CCTV video, more than 30 hours of radio recordings, and offered the researchers the ability to interview all MPD officers.

A final SER report released by the Quattrone Center Wednesday identified 133 factors that contributed to the violence, and made 69 concrete recommendations for change, the full report outlines. 

“Last summer, the MPD, like many police departments across the country, faced the challenge of how to support First Amendment rights to protest while ensuring the safety of communities during the mass demonstrations that erupted across America in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd,” said John Hollway, Associate Dean, Lecturer in Law, and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center, who specializes in conducting SERs in criminal justice.

“The escalation of violence that occurred formed the impetus for MPD to request a Sentinel Event Review.” 

Contributing Violence Factors 

As a prelude to the protests, the researchers uncovered that prior to Floyd’s death, and even though it played no role in his killing, Madison police had a troubled relationship with the city’s Black community. The existing distrust of the police was a catalyst to much of the unrest in further incidents. 

Another contributing factor to the violence identified was a lack of communication and understanding of the sheer amount of people attending the Madison protests. While the MPD officers were stationed in downtown Madison to monitor the protests, the number of people noted to be attending from Facebook figures was only a fraction of the amount who actually showed up, the report outlines. 

Some 3,000 people on Facebook indicated that they would attend a protest and another 5,500 said they were interested in attending, but the total number of MPD officers at the protest was just 42. 

This resulted in the police department flying blind — not being able to accurately predict crowd size, intended routes, or anticipated activities.

Another factor was the COVID-19 global pandemic: people who may not have been able to protest previously due to work or other commitments were now available and at home due to the closed workplaces or unemployment. Because of this, crowd sizes grew exponentially.

Lastly, an additional contributing factor to violence cited in the report is the lack of tactics and procedures available to the MPD, which resulted in reactive behavior — like deploying CS gas or other methods of group disbursement like OC spray — rather than proactive crowd control behaviors.

Recommendations for Meaningful Change

“The Quattrone SER process was extremely valuable in bringing members of the department together with members of the community to talk about difficult and challenging topics,” said MPD Chief Shon Barnes.

“These conversations were instrumental in helping MPD identify areas for improvement.”

Of those areas of improvement outlined, many fall into the categories of communication, training and equipment.

In terms of communication, the SER report says that MPD must communicate more effectively with civilians “before, during, and after protest events.” Stakeholders suggested that MPD look to newer community organizations designed to promote MPD transparency and accountability, such as the Civilian Oversight Board, to assist with this work, while also engaging with the community directly to prioritize public safety. 

An increased need for training was apparent following the review, noting that crowd control training and incident command training was insufficient for the level of protesting and violence seen in the weeks and months of unrest. 

Because of this, the Stakeholder Group recommended that every officer at and over the rank of Sergeant should receive Incident Command training to lead officers in communication skills, logistic skills, and negotiation skills, according to the full report. 

When looking at the equipment used by police during the unrest in Madison, many were appalled to see copious amounts of CS gas or other methods of group disbursement like OC spray. This, the review said, is not a safe way to de-escalate a situation. 

For the future, the review suggests minimizing the use of chemical munitions and “react more effectively to the individuals who are causing the damage, while reducing the outrage of protesters who understand the rationale for MPD’s use of force.”

Other noteworthy recommendations include: 

    • Creating community dialogue representatives (CDR) who can improve communication on behalf of protesters during protests;
    • Tracking uses of force carefully and reviewing them promptly; and, 
    • Ensuring transparency during and after crowd events via body-worn cameras. 

The report concludes, saying, “The recommendations generated in that atmosphere represent small changes that the Stakeholder Group feels can have great impact on the community, increasing the mutual understanding between the diverse views held throughout Madison and a Police Department committed to facilitating the expression of those views in ways that ensure the safety of all.”

Additional Reading: TUCSON: Report of the Tucson Sentinel Event Review Board (SERB) on the Deaths in Custody of Mr. Damien Alvarado and Mr. Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, Sept. 18, 2020

The full report can be accessed here. 

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