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Blows to head of teen in mental crisis were “objectively reasonable,” but not best practice, investigation finds

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An investigation of a June 3 incident in which Madison police put a hood over the head of a Black teenager and struck his face at least three times finds that the officers’ actions were legal, but that the officers “missed opportunities … as the incident unfolded that may have led to a different and more desirable outcome.”

Portions of the incident were caught on home security video.

A Madison Police Department incident report released at the time says the police had been collaborating with Journey Mental Health “in determining that a 17-yr-old young man was exhibiting threatening behavior, consistent with someone in a mental health crisis,” and made the determination to place him in “protective custody” and take him to a local hospital.

When the teen attempted to walk out of the room, video shows an officer violently slamming him into a wall and then two officers forcing him down onto a couch.

The police incident report says the teen “refused to comply with their requests and subsequently resisted handcuffing.” It’s not clear from the video what requests he refused to comply with as there is no audio.

While he was being held on his back, a third officer put a bag — referred to as a “spit hood” — over his head and then punching the side or back of his head three times. The officers then brought him to the floor and took him into custody.

This video may be upsetting.

The investigation released Friday, conducted by UWPD Lt. John McCaughtry, found that the officers’ actions fell “within and procedures currently taught by the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice Training and Standards and is objectively reasonable.”

However, through interviews as well as reviews of documents and video, McCaughtry found several decisions the officers made were not ideal.

First, when the call first came in, Sgt. Joe Engler was nearby and responded to the home, but was “waved off” by Sgt. Andy Slawek and went to lunch instead. McCaughtry notes that this resulted in a longer wait time for backup when the two officers who remained on the scene, Slawek and Sgt. Chad Joswiak, needed assistance in detaining the young man.

McCaughtry also notes that the teen was using language consistent with someone in a mental health crisis, including threatening language. In police incident reports, Joswiak wrote that he saw the young man’s arm tensing up, and decided at that point to place him in custody forcibly. He initially used what McCaughtry calls a “vertical stun,” meaning an attempt to pin the young man against a wall; however, McCaughtry notes that Joswiak did not communicate his intention to Slawek, and that Joswiak failed to push the teen against a wall but rather a folding door, which rebounded, causing both the teen and the Joswiak to fall onto the couch. At this point, officers called for backup and pinned the young man onto the couch on his back, not face down as is standard procedure.

In interviews and reports, officers said the teen attempted to spit on them, so they put a towel over his face, which McCaughtry notes is also not ideal. Officers also said the subject was looking at and reaching for their tasers and firearms — something McCaughtry notes would not have happened had they properly secured him face down.

When backup arrived, Engler, who had previously been “waved off,” brought a spit hood and attempted to place it over the teen’s head, which was preferable to the towel because the hood is designed to prevent spitting while allowing the subject to breathe. Still, this prompted a strong reaction in the young man, who still was only being held down by two officers on his back and was not handcuffed.

“The urge to resist something being placed over the head/neck area is a strong instinct, especially in subjects in an altered mental state due to intoxication or mental health issues,” McCaughtry wrote. For this reason, he wrote, it is preferable to employ a spit hood only when the subject is properly restrained.

When the teenager reacted to the spit hood and Slawek lost control of his arm, Engler delivered three blows to his head — one with a fist and two with his forearm. While McCaughtry found even these strikes to be legally allowable, he noted several alternatives were available, including “pressure points, decentralization, multiple-officer ground handcuffing, or one of the officers applying targeted strikes to a different available target area …”

In a statement on the release of the investigation, Police Chief Mike Koval wrote, “The disposition of this investigation does not mean the outcome in this case was desirable.” He said MPD’s internal investigation found two minor violations of MPD policy. He pledged that the officers involved would get additional coaching and training, and that the department would review internal use-of-force training.

“We in the City of Madison aspire to higher performance standards than simply not violating the constitutional rights of those we serve,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “We aspire to performance excellence and holding ourselves accountable to continually striving for best-practice level performance. I appreciate the Chief’s stated commitment to doing better – to improving future outcomes through improved training, and adherence to our best-practice policies related to de-escalation, use of force and the police response to those suffering from mental illness.”

Representatives for the family of the teenager could not be reached immediately Friday.