More On Cops and Crowds

Protecting American’s Constitutional Right to “Assemble and Petition” their Government.

Aggressive policing escalates violence at protests, research shows. A former Madison police chief touts a better way.

By Clara Neupert

Wisconsin Watch, December 9, 2020

Police arrest Paul Soglin on Mifflin Street in Madison, Wis., in May 1969. The protest of the Vietnam War erupted into a weekend of unrest that injured dozens after officers in riot gear arrested people for minor infractions while responding to a noise complaint. Soglin, who entered politics as a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, sat on Madison’s Common Council at the time of his arrest. He later served a total of 22 years as Madison’s mayor between 1973 to 2019. (Photo credit: The Cap Times)

At least 1,500 young people gathered on Madison, Wisconsin’s Mifflin Street in April 1973 for a block party. People drank beer, smoked weed and tossed Frisbees in a neighborhood near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Police officers observed the party from a distance, greeting attendees and directing traffic away from the event. They didn’t wear police caps, nor did they make arrests. The Saturday unfolded peacefully, in stark contrast to Mifflin Street parties of the past.

The annual event began in 1969 as a dance and protest of the Vietnam War, erupting that year into a weekend of unrest that injured dozens. Officers responded to a noise complaint and began arresting people for minor infractions.

Posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi hung in David Couper’s office during his tenure as Madison’s police chief from 1972 to 1993. The posters carry the messages: “No man is free until all are free,” and “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Couper — now an Episcopal priest, poet and peace activist — says the assassination of King in 1968 helped him realize police “had to do something different” to keep the peace and earn residents’ trust. (Photo courtesy of David Couper)

The police action spurred people in the crowd to toss rocks at the officers. As tension escalated, police raided homes, launched tear gas and rammed barricades with squad cars. Madison officials would view subsequent Mifflin Street parties as nuisances in need of quashing, refusing to issue permits to close streets.

In 1970, Vietnam War protests escalated, culminating in the deadly bombing of UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall. When the Mifflin Street block party rolled around in 1971, then-Mayor William Dyke dispatched a riot squad to control the crowd.

Enter David Couper. Appointed police chief in 1972 at age 35, he sought to change the narrative surrounding the party — and his department. The city permitted the event, and it “went off without a hitch,” Couper recalled. It would continue to do so throughout his 21-year tenure.

That was due to a strategy that would forge the department’s reputation for overseeing protests that stayed peaceful. Couper’s philosophy of respecting free speech and assembly offered a blueprint for police to ditch militarized crowd control tactics that, decades of research shows, more often escalate violence rather than prevent it.

“Why does it have to be the police versus people who want to protest? Why can’t police be there to facilitate protest?” Couper told Wisconsin Watch.

Summer of unrest and escalation

Those questions are resonating in a tumultuous 2020. Several Wisconsin cities — including Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Wauwatosa — saw police don body armor and fire crowd control weapons during protests that, at times, turned destructive. The events unfolded during a summer of nationwide unrest following police killings and shootings of Black people.

The national spotlight has shined most brightly on Kenosha, where a police officer during an Aug. 23 domestic disturbance shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back seven times, sparking consecutive nights of protests.

A protester stands in front of an armored Bearcat vehicle
as law enforcement sought to clear an area early on Aug. 26, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis.
The city faced consecutive days of unrest after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Experts say law enforcement’s response in Kenosha — including the early use of armored vehicles and the decision to arrest protesters en masse for curfew violations — ran counter to established best practices for policing protests. (Photo credit: Angela Major / WPR)

Violence and property damage rapidly escalated in the hours following the shooting after law enforcement began firing lung-damaging tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Officers continued such tactics during subsequent nights, including on Aug. 25 — when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shot two people and injured another after responding to calls for vigilantes to protect property in Kenosha.

The Madison model of dialogue may not have prevented the mayhem in Kenosha, because police lacked training and did not first do enough to gain Black residents’ trust in the deeply segregated city, said Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a history professor at the UW-Eau Claire with expertise in civil rights and the military.

The Kenosha Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment about tactics used with protesters. The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Office declined to respond to emailed questions.

Law enforcement’s response in Kenosha — including the early use of armored vehicles and the decision to arrest protesters en masse for curfew violations — ran counter to established best practices.

“History has taught us that the premature or ill-advised use of force against protesters, particularly the use of riot control techniques, often amplifies conflict with protesters and can instigate violence,” Edward Maguire, a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University, wrote in a 2015 study.

A crowd disperses as police deploy tear gas during a protest in
downtown Madison, Wis., on Aug. 24, 2020. The protest came in response to the police shooting of
Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., one day earlier. (Photo credit:Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch)

The pillars of Couper’s philosophy remain embedded in the Madison Police Department’s standard operating procedure“We protect people first and property second,” the document says.

But after Madison this summer saw its own smashed storefronts and chemical clouds during confrontations between police and protesters — interspersed between weeks of peaceful demonstrations — Couper is among those questioning whether his former department retains public trust…

— You can read the full article HERE.


  1. Funny how the police were heavy-handed on the BLM protestors and on elderly folks protests Social Security disability cuts; however, they treated the Michigan and Washington DC right-wing, conservative white folks with kid gloves.

    I will say it again, the police have played and will continue to play their important part in the political, social, and economic aspects of this country and take responsibility for what has happened.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.