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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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