At an energetic and emotional midday press conference Tuesday, civic and community leaders, including a former Madison police chief, sharply criticized current chief Mike Koval following the violent arrest of 18-year-old Genele Laird last week, some calling for his ouster.

“Last week the relationship between the Madison police and communities of color was set back immensely,” said Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Ruben Anthony. “Let’s never let that type of behavior become standard here in Madison. We know that the police have wide latitude to employ force, but it was morally wrong to apply it the way they did against Genele Laird.”

Laird was arrested outside East Towne Mall on June 21 after allegedly threatening a fellow mall worker and mall security after she said her cell phone was stolen. In a video captured by a bystander, Madison police officers are seen taking Laird to the ground, pinning her face to the pavement, striking her with their knees and closed fist and stunning her with an electronic control device at least seven times. Police say she was combative, resisted arrest and spit on the officers.

She has since been allowed to enter the new Community Restorative Court program which will allow her to take responsibility for her actions and seek reconciliation with the officers involved, whom Koval and District Attorney Ismael Ozanne refer to as Laird’s “victims.” If she completes the program, no charges will be filed and she will have no criminal record; if she fails to complete the program, Ozanne said Laird could face three misdemeanor and three felony charges, most of which stem from her arrest rather than the initial incident. Koval said Friday that both officers involved supported the decision to refer Laird to the CRC program.

The alternative prosecution did little to mollify many community leaders, especially in communities of color, as indicated by the tone of Tuesday’s press conference.

Nino Amato
Nino Amato

“Either that (officer) was poorly trained, or they hired a real mean person,” said Nino Amato, a former member of the Task Force on Race Relations and the organizer of Tuesday’s event. “Had that officer done that to a dog, he would have been arrested for animal cruelty.”

Alder David Ahrens questioned the efficacy of an internal investigation, which Koval ordered the day after the arrest, after Koval had already declared his opinion that the officers had acted properly and lawfully.

“Is there a lieutenant or anyone subordinate to the police who’s going to say the chief was wrong?” Ahrens asked. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Others said such an investigation would ask the wrong questions anyway.

“We’re not asking for people to review whether it’s lawful,” said Young Gifted and Black founder Brandi Grayson. “It is not about laws, it’s about justice. It’s about humanity, it’s about ethics, it’s about morality.

“Let’s stop playing, Madison,” Grayson added. “Let’s stop being the nice white liberal Madison that likes to partake in niceties and nice conversations that are comfortable. Because what’s happening to our children in the street is not comfortable. They’re dying. They’re dying physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Several speakers invoked the deaths of Paul Heenan in 2012 and Tony Robinson last year, both fatally shot by police.

Former Madison Police Chief, Rev. David Couper
Former Madison Police Chief, Rev. David Couper

“I think our community has been through enough pain and grief and turmoil surrounding the shooting of Pauly Heenan and Tony Robinson,” said David Couper, who served as chief of Madison police from 1972 until 1993, and who is now an Episcopalian minister. “Do we want to wait for another incident, another death, another tragedy before we demand that the current deadly force standard trained by police is to be raised?”

Couper said police training is key.

“Alternative conflict and de-escalation techniques must be taught to all police and must be the first option to deal with disturbed or mentally ill persons,” he said. “Unless police are willing to do this, we must demand this, and the police must comply.

“These techniques may be taught with regard to what’s best for police,” Couper added. “But what about the community? What’s best for you? What’s best for those in the community who have been historically abused by the police and have a tendency to mistrust them?”

Others echoed this sentiment.

“If what we saw in that video is consistent with Madison Police Department training, then the training needs to change,” said County Supervisor and former County Board Chairman John Hendrick. “The person responsible for that training needs to change, and the leadership of this department needs to change.”

Couper also called into question Koval’s response to the incident and his overall temperament in light of recent clashes with the Common Council.

“The chief has rallied around his officers, performing one part — and it’s an important one — that of police cheerleader,” Couper said. “Yes, the police chief is responsible for the care and nurturing and growth of those whom he leads. Policing is a difficult and dangerous job and we all must appreciate their efforts. But being a cheerleader is not the only part of a chief’s job. The other part — and a far more important one and a far more difficult one — is to be everyone’s chief. The chief of the community. The people’s direct representative in regards to the quality of the police services you receive.

“Both hats must be worn by a chief of police,” Couper added. “One to support and lead the police, and one to represent, protect and defend the interest of those whom the police serve. If the chief fails to do this, the people in the community most vulnerable to police action are helpless in the face of police power. Too often, chiefs forget this. We are an educated, cosmopolitan city. I think it’s reasonable to expect that a police department that has historically thought of itself as world-class would be able to act with minimal force and be led by a chief bold enough to comfortably wear the two hats.”

Couper also questioned Koval’s temperament, referring to an often sarcastic and aggressive blog post and confrontational behavior at a Common Council meeting over a proposed independent review of his department. Couper urged the mayor, Common Council and Police and Fire Commission to implement some sort of coaching for him.

“It’s never appropriate for the chief to be angry, sarcastic, or bullying. If you can’t take the heat, you should get the heck out of the kitchen,” Couper said. “Does the chief’s public emotional display on his blog and at the June 6 Council meeting send a bad signal to some of his officers? If the Chief doesn’t have to be emotionally controlled and sensitive to others, maybe they don’t either. No matter what, corrective action must be taken and what is being done must be shared with the community. This must happen quickly.”

Couper said minimizing the use of force can actually make police more effective and the community safer.

“If they don’t have trust and support, police cannot be effective, nor can they be safe,” Couper said. “Without trust and support, police cannot be effective and their work can become dangerous and neighborhoods can become uncooperative and hostile to them.

“In most cities today, the police trust bank is being overdrawn. Insufficient funds. If the arrest of Genele is going to be considered legal and appropriate, then we all are in deep, deep trouble,” he added.

In addition to some form of executive coaching recommended by Couper, Grayson and fellow YGB member M. Adams, both called for community control of police, meaning, “we set the precedents, we set the priorities, we hire and fire, we hold the police accountable, we hold the chief accountable,” Grayson said.

Ahrens noted that an independent investigation is triggered any time a police officer kills someone, saying those investigations should also be required to review more types of violent confrontations.

About one hundred people attended the hourlong event on the front steps of the City County Building. Other speakers included State Representative Chris Taylor, Fitchburg Mayor Steve Arnold, Madison Alder Samba Baldeh and YGB member Matthew Braunginn, who has publicly called for Koval’s removal.