State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, presented her research Tuesday on police officer use of force, proposing more specific city regulations for the Madison Police Department to protect both officers and members of the community.
The Common Council Organizational Committee Subcommittee on Police & Community Relations heard Taylor’s proposal at the Goodman Community Center, while also welcoming Madison residents to come to the table and join the discussion.
Taylor argued Wisconsin’s policy is too broad and lacks some of the language present in other cities’ policies. Her attorneys concluded nothing specifically prevents cities from requiring enhanced use of force elements, leading to her investigation.
Taylor plans to introduce a bill in the next session setting standards for body cameras, which she said has already garnered bipartisan interest and is the lengthiest bill she’s ever drafted.
Taylor said Madison has seen an upward trend in officer-involved shootings over the past 15 years and seeing this violence prompted her to explore Wisconsin’s use of force law. She said one problem with Wisconsin’s state law is that it explains what an officer in a potentially dangerous situation must do. However, it doesn’t provide guidance for what an officer should do.
Common Council can influence the police chief’s policies but cannot set the policies, according to state statute.
Though some states have broadened their use of force standards, a Wisconsin appellate court said there is no constitutional standard of using the least harmful method of enforcement, so long as the force used is reasonable.
Taylor said her main goal in working on state and city legislation is to reduce deadly incidents.
She saw consistently in her research that many cities’ policies recognized the police’s duty to preserve life as a top goal, Taylor said. She argued Madison’s policy states MPD recognizes the value of human life but not the responsibility to preserve it.
While other policies state use of force is permitted when there is no other safe alternative, she said Madison policy is less clear, stating it is permitted when there is no other sufficient option.
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Taylor also stressed the need for specific laws regarding proportionality, which describes the degree of force to be used as equal to the threat level. This means an officer cannot respond with deadly force in response to activity like a minor infraction.
One of the most important reasons for these changes to policy language is to set a tone in the policy, Taylor said.
While she commended MPD for its de-escalation training, Taylor said the city needs to include the need for de-escalation in the policy as an expectation. She also advocated for best practices requiring officers to intervene when other officers are using excessive force and policies about how to handle cases with mentally impaired citizens.
MPD Captain of Investigative Services James Wheeler stressed the importance of understanding the context in which an officer has to make the decision to use deadly force.
“We have to listen to the other side, and we have to put these things in perspective,” Wheeler said.
As an officer with 25 years of service, Wheeler said he is afraid of being judged by people sitting at a table assessing the situation with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight rather than seconds to make a decision.
Wheeler also described a situation where an officer recently handled an armed shooter situation successfully by utilizing tactical training as an example of cases which don’t receive as much attention.
“There’s a lot of good things that officers do every single day where we de-escalate, where we use less lethal means,” Wheeler said.
A committee meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 10 at the MPD training facility.