The incident was recorded in early June on a home security camera. A 17 year old black teenager, having left school, was exhibiting the signs of a mental health crisis. The Wisconsin State Journal reported the police as responding to a mental health crisis call, sending officers to commit a teenager the Madison Police Department’s spokesperson described as “exhibiting threatening behavior” such as cussing and agitation, to a hospital for treatment.

Community activist Brandi Grayson, who spoke with the teen’s family and guardian said he was complying with law enforcement. She also released three video clips of the incident on Facebook. 

In the first, the grainy footage shows the teenager picking up an object, which Grayson said was a cell phone, and walks past three officers, only to be seized from behind by one and pinned to the wall. A struggle ensues that results in the officer and the teen tipping over onto the sofa. 

The second shows the teenager pinned down by two officers as a third applies a spit hood — a mesh hood designed to prevent spitting or biting by resistant detainees. After the officer finishes hooding the restrained teenager, who strains against the people holding him, the officer hits him three times with a closed fist. It isn’t clearly visible where the strikes land.

The last clip is less chaotic, but no less striking. Three white, adult officers holding down a black minor, muzzled and handcuffed. The teenager in question no longer resisting, simply laying prone, stomach-down on the floor. According to Grayson, the teenager had passed out due to repeated strikes to the head; the police maintain that he neither reported nor showed injuries after being taken in. 

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The scene of violence provoked a flurry of response. Grayson organized a fundraiser on the teenager’s behalf for legal representation. Freedom Inc., a community group which advocates for the removal of police from public schools, called the officers’ actions an “act of terror.”

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called a meeting of community leaders and released a blog post vowing to do better and outlining plans for policy changes. Rhodes-Conway wrote that irrespective of the action’s legality and compliance with MPD policy, “police actions in this incident are not and will never be acceptable as best practice in the City of Madison.” 

The Madison Professional Police Officers Association drew the line at the blog post. They issued a response condemning the mayor’s “judgmental” language for rebuking the use of force before the completion of an investigation, for drawing only on the incomplete videos as context, and for creating “doubt and hesitation.”

Here is the problem with that response.

To ask the public and their elected officials to reserve judgement in the face of violence is to suggest that there is something which would make the violence okay — that if the teenager was resistant to instruction, or a threat to those around him, it would simply become an ugly necessity of a dangerous job. But we don’t want teenagers to be hit, pinned and hooded under only certain circumstances — no, we do not want it at all.

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The MPPOA fails to understand that the controversy is more than a matter of law, it’s a matter of justice. If our city has no other way to help a teenager get the healthcare he needs, it’s a failure of the city for creating no alternatives for those in mental health crises than use of police force.

While MPD has placed the officer who allegedly repeatedly struck the child in the head on restricted duty pending the investigation’s completion, neither the mayor nor the Common Council has called for the officer’s firing, or made a judgement on the action’s legality.

When a democratic society creates a law, it is a protection of certain principles with the resolution that these principles should be protected on an official, societal level. Police can only exist when vested with the power to use violence to enforce those laws. Sometimes, this violence is subduing an individual to take into custody, in extremis, it’s the taking of a life to protect life. 

The MPPOA views officers’ hesitation to use force as an obstacle to doing their job. Hesitation to use violence, however, is a heroic quality.

From Caracas, where an armored van drove over a crowd of protesters, to Hong Kong, where demonstrators are assaulted with clubs and pepper spray, there are no shortage of societies where the state dispenses violence unhesitatingly. America, too, is no stranger to the scourge of police violence, where the advent of the internet and easy recording has laid bare the ugliest examples of law enforcement behavior for all to see. The space of seconds and half-seconds, however dangerous, where an officer of the law waits to confirm violence’s absolute necessity before deploying it, even at personal risk, is the space between dictatorship and democracy. 

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I write as someone whose interactions with the police have ranged from sitting down at UW-Madison’s Police Advisory Board to voice student concerns or shaking the hand of an officer who sat on my Eagle Scout Review Board. I write as someone who has significant respect for law enforcement. Police have not just been my protectors, but my friends and mentors. But the police aren’t just charged with protecting me — they had equal responsibility to protect the teenager that we saw brutalized beyond all reason.  

If law enforcement wants to live up to their values, I would implore them to face outrage with the bravery that self-reflection demands — with an open heart to those rightly angry at seeing white mass shooters peacefully moved to custody while black children are hooded and beaten. As Grayson said, “if you’re interested in real community work, and real community policing, it is important that you actually take into consideration what the community is saying.”

But while I believe in the honor of the police who risk themselves to protect others, and the courage that the profession of law enforcement demands, I can’t say I feel the same for the MPPOA, whose motives are made clear by the members-only section of their website advising officers on “avoiding discipline.” 

Let them be “disappointed” at the people being disturbed by what they saw in the video. If the members of the MPPOA aren’t disturbed by what they saw in it — if the use of such force on a child is what they think is necessary — that’s not disappointing. That’s a disgrace. 

Ethan Carpenter ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science.