Learning From an Arrest

imageThe arrest of Genele Laird in June at East Towne can be a teachable moment for the Madison community. Many of us have seen the video of her arrest and, perhaps, the news conference in which the police department appears to defend the force used in her arrest.

Most everyone who has viewed the arrest has an opinion. Some conclude the police acted properly given the circumstances. Others conclude that the amount of force was not appropriate. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Let me suggest there is another way of looking at this incident. It is through the eye of community-oriented policing. This view sees police as members of the community who are given special authority to do the will of the community. This is one of Robert Peel’s central principles of policing issued over 150 years ago in London. It was on the eve of forming the first group of police officers organized to serve a democracy.

Another Peelian Principle that may be pertinent to this discussion is his observation that the more physical force police use to prevent crime and disorder, the less support they have from community members. Sound familiar?

Keeping these principles in mind, along with the basic idea of community-oriented policing, is that police and citizens are to work together to accomplish the police mission.

Now, we have the matter before us of Genele’s arrest. While her arrest may be legal, and in keeping with police policy and training, it is the people who ultimately decide whether this is the way in which they want people to be handled. Her arrest may be lawful, but is it appropriate? Is it the way in which we want others to be treated? Those are the real questions and it is up to the police to comply with standards set by the community, not by persons or agencies outside the city, or solely by the police.

That means our police should adapt and conform their uses of force, especially deadly force, with our wishes. They, after all, should be experts in the use of force. But that will require open, honest, and respectful dialogue within the Madison community; a dialogue in which all voices must be heard, even those which tend to make us uncomfortable.

We must also remember that this is not a new idea in Madison. Years ago, when state law permitted police to use deadly force to apprehend any fleeing felon, regardless of that person’s dangerousness, Madison said no. And the policy and training in the police department reflected that. The police department raised the state standard and Madison permitted its police to use deadly force only when apprehending fleeing felons who posed an immediate threat to others.

Other police behaviors permitted by state or federal law were also raised with input from elected officials and community leaders such as prohibiting police shooting at fleeing vehicles, disengaging dangerous high speed chases, not arresting persons possessing small amounts of drugs, and using citations in lieu physical arrest for minor offenses.

If it is officially determined that the officers who arrested Genele acted in accordance with the department’s policy and training, then the bar must be raised. It is what police in a free society strive to do when they are closely connected with those whom they serve.

[This article first appeared in the Madison “Capital Times” on August 5, 2016.]


  1. One of the challenges the public faces is the broad divide between stated policy, and in-the-field practice. Advocates for improved police practices often find socially-acceptable conduct (courtesy, de-escalation) defined in directives. After-action reports often mirror this language. Following actual assessment of officer conduct, one realizes the terms are merely conventions, not highly prized behavior. (Consultants now offer training, on how to appear in video: it offers a whole new meaning to evaluation of officer performance.)
    ‘Community-oriented policing’ has become an outworn term, more evocative of targeting than anything else. Consider the power dynamic. To be oriented toward community expectation, officialdom would likely extend authority to community, and insist that policing become responsive until attaining consent of the governed. Consider how far afield public involvement is from any influence over actual police conduct. Police culture resists the transparency necessary for civilians to make accurate assessment, independent of officer’s mere assertions. (Oregon made video from body-worn cameras almost impossible for even the press to receive, with court order. Contract negotiations are expected to prevent anyone at the City from randomly viewing officer behavior, looking for training improvement opportunities. Now imagine an assembly line, running without any error detection mechanisms.)
    Even if actionable facts were assembled; even if community input were framed in institutional jargon a police force might recognize, I have a hard time imagining those who run a training unit taking copious notes from civilian input.
    One crux forms from an absence of volitional, institutionalized feedback loops. Neither local authority nor police ‘detectives’ seem particularly curious, in assessing paper policy for real world outcomes … or citizen perspective on the matter. Negative loops, born of civilian complaint, need not be the only communication channel. Police might be expected to police themselves … until one discovers an absence of whistle-blower protections.
    I live in an Orwellian world. Local authority in Portland have negotiated an arbitration process with the police union. When civilian authority recommends an officer be fired – and the Chief concurs – for conduct at variance with policy, the Training Unit will – to a man – testify at arbitration that the officer acted as trained: “You can’t fault a man for doing what he’s told, can you?” Never has officer termination been upheld in this scenario: a settlement usually accompanies back pay, and we engender a perverse incentive system.
    The feedback loop never closes. If the Training Unit failed to produce behavior which aligned with stated policy, you’d think some heads would roll.
    [Out of curiosity, are they felons while fleeing … or does this classification depend on trial of fact, in an adjudicated process?]


  2. What is the role of a professional in a democracy? The profession of arms has struggled with the issue and still does. The current controversy surrounding retired flag officers’ involvement in the political process is indicative of the power of professional membership. Even retired members of the profession are debating the issue. Perhaps the power of a profession comes from that level of introspection and not so much the answer.

    Many polls indicate that the majority of Americans support, or at least don’t object to, the use of torture in the Global War on Terrorism. The profession of arms has stood steadfast in its refusal to use torture, and has dealt effectively with those who have crossed the line.

    The police now face a similar dilemma. Can policing become a profession and practice use of force that many citizens, perhaps even a majority, believe to be excessive? A profession is responsible for establishing its best practices. We should debate those questions, but at some point members of a profession may have to tell the client to either accept those best practices or not call upon the profession.

    In Federalist No. 51 Madison said that a government’s central challenge was controlling the citizens and itself. Somehow we have to strike a balance.


  3. Very well presented & said; it’s a timely message and we’ll needed in today’s society to know that no one should be above the law and in some part from the top down we are all law breakers and deserve to be put to death for our many crimes.

    Everyone from the top down when confronted will ask for mercies so I guess we should all be interested first in making sure we give it out.

    If you Don’t think you are doing something wrong and deserve the full judgement of the law then you can be brutal towards others but that act will get out of control and you will step over the line and someone will be there to put a stop to your hard heart and actions.

    I strongly feel that there is an escalation process and someone should be monitoring officers behaviors in the field and pull them out before something happens to them and the public.

    Not talking about bad people; criminals, bullies or racist who become cops, that’s another story all together.

    Thanks for you service it’s encouraging. GBY!

    Sometimes we all need a break from;


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