Police Response to Unruly Middle Schoolers Seen as Excessive

Police Response to Unruly Middle Schoolers Seen as Excessive

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What began as a librarian’s effort to ask two unruly teens to leave the Lakeview branch of Madison Public Library Monday became a harrowing shouting match and near-melee involving up to 20 middle school students and 10 police officers in what some are calling an “egregious” show of force, prompting at least one officer to draw a can of mace in an effort to subdue the 11- and 12-year-olds and leading to ambulances being called to treat two children with anxiety attacks.

Eyewitness accounts and cell phone video of the event differ from police reports in several key respects, but there is little disagreement that at least three of the children were being loud, disruptive and profane in the time leading up to the police being called.

“It’s my understanding that we had three groups of kids in three different rooms,” said Tana Elias, Digital Services and Marketing Manager for Madison Public Libraries. Elias was not present but was briefed by staff who were. “One was with a staff person from the Northside Planning Council and then one group of kids was involved in a Maker Monday program that was supervised by (public library) staff, and then one group of kids just kind of hanging out in one of the other spaces. And library staff approached some of the teens in one group several times asking them to quiet down, stop play fighting, stop swearing. Multiple times they were asked to change their behavior and they chose not to.”

Arree Macon, the Northside Planning Council Youth Navigator who was at the library to meet with some students to work on a project, actually cut his meeting short because the other youth kept interrupting his meeting, which usually takes place at another location.

“They were coming into the meeting, talking to my students, just interrupting the meeting,” Macon said. “And I didn’t want to tell them, ‘Oh you can’t talk to your friends.’ So I said we can finish our projects at the next meeting, which will not be here, because I see that your friends come and hang out here.” So Macon shared the pizza he’d brought for the meeting with some of the other kids and began cleaning up — and then trying to calm some of the kids down when they started to get too loud.

“Escalated quickly”

“At that point then, one of the library staff members asked them to leave for the day, which is kind of standard protocol and they refused to leave and she asked them again to leave and they refused again to leave and continued to swear and kind of misbehave,” Elias said.

Elias said it is standard procedure for police to be called when someone is asked to leave a library but refuses to do so. Having to call police is very rare, she said.

When police were called, it was only to escort two of the most disruptive children out.

“I guess the staff had identified two kids in particular, but you know they were part of a bigger group of kids that were also swearing and kind of goofing around, but these two kids … were the ones that we had asked to leave for the day,” Elias said.

A third child had been especially loud and disruptive as well, but Macon was able to calm her down, he said.

“I was surprised I got her that calm,” he said.

Police officials and Elias both said that four officers arrived within about five minutes to try and persuade those two children to leave, and tried to do so through dialog for about 10 minutes.

“And then the situation really just escalated very quickly from there,” Elias said. “There were initial police that responded and then more police came. Initially we were just engaging with a few teens, but when the police came, you know everybody kind of got sucked into it. So the kids were coming out from the other spaces where they were involved and you know it’s right in the middle of the space of the library so everyone kind of got pulled into that.”

Macon said the incident escalated when the police arrived.

“it didn’t help when they came in six deep and started demanding things and then the rules switched up,” Macon said, noting that police had initially been called to remove two kids and then decided all of the kids had to leave.

“And so now you wanna clear that whole back room where some of these kids don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said.

Macon said things reached a tipping point when a police officer attempted to grab one of the two kids who had initially been asked to leave — who, at that point, had gotten even more belligerent but was finally starting to leave.

“So now she’s starting to walk away, the officers are following behind her, and she’s walking, she’s kicked a trash can, she’s thrown stuff on the ground, knocked down a chair,” Macon said. “The officer goes to grab her by the arm, which at this point, she’s leaving, she’s not causing any intended harm or any harm at all because everybody has moved away from her. And so now I see these three officers now like tackling and cuffing this girl and one officer has his knee on her back and I said, ‘You need to get your knee off her back, you cannot have your knee on her back.’ And then another officer got really disrespectful and rude, told me I needed to be quiet and back away because she had kicked him in, he said to me, the leg.”

An incident report issued the next morning by Madison Police Department spokesman Joel Despain said the girl kicked the officer in the groin.

Tensions were still high when a backup contingent of North District Community Police Team officers arrived, including a plainclothes detective who Macon said “picked on” at least two of the teens in the tense situation.

So I’m trying to calm certain kids down, back them up and I see this detective walk through and the kids are like, ‘Please don’t touch me, don’t touch me, do not touch me.’ And this detective comes and he’s now picking with these kids. Two specific children” — not the two who had initially been asked to leave.

One of those two children is the son of Jalisa Johnson, who posted video to social media capturing the next few moments of the confrontation. In the video, the boy is seen backing away from a detective and a uniformed officer. When his arm is grabbed, he spins away, and is then taken violently to the ground.

Macon texted someone who knew Johnson to get her to the scene quickly, and she arrived very soon after to find her son in the back of a police car. Police issued him a citation for obstructing an officer and released him to Johnson’s custody, and then explained why they had detained him — with an explanation that doesn’t seem to square with the video.

“He came and told me, he said, ‘Ms. Johnson, when I walked in the library, all I seen was arms flying.’ He said all he seen was (my son) fighting a detective,” Johnson said. “He said that he tried to reach in and grab (my son) to calm him down, but he said (my son) wouldn’t allow him to, and that he continued to swing. He said when (my son) continued to swing. He said, ‘Ms. Johnson, I grabbed your son by his right arm and brought him down to the ground with force.’”

The video only depicts 49 seconds of the entire incident, but does appear to show the encounter Johnson describes. In it, the boy is not seen with arms flying nor swinging, nor is he seen attacking a detective or any other officer.

Video courtesy Jalisa Johnson. Warning: Contains profanity and depicts police forcing a child to the ground.

“The way they explained the story to me is nothing like the way this video says that this story happened,” Johnson said. “How did he obstruct anybody? How did he do this? You explain to me how he obstructed you. I don’t know why anybody else was detained or why anybody else was taken down, but I do know my son did not put his hands on a police officer the way the police officer told me my son touched him.”

Johnson said she understands the kids in the library weren’t innocent.

“I knew them other kids that was up there. I do know them from the neighborhood,” she said. “They have been around and they are kinda bad kids. So, I wouldn’t doubt that that probably was going on, but I highly doubt that (my son) put his hands on a grown person.”

“Loud and frenzied”

Throughout the disturbance, young people were yelling and swearing at the officers while several recorded everything on their cell phones,” according to the incident report. “One young person displayed gang signs. Another took off his jacket and postured as if he wanted to fight one of the officers. This child also knocked over a trash can, kicked over a chair, and rifled a half-filled bottle of juice across the library. ‘The crowd outnumbered the police. They were loud and frenzied,’ wrote a detective in his report. An officer wrote, in another report, that they were met ‘with angry belligerence and outright refusal to comply with a lawful command.’”

Madison365 has requested the full police reports of the incident, but they have not yet been made available.

Asked to clarify the “gang signs,” Despain wrote in an email, “According to one police report, the young man ‘used his right hand to display a gang sign holding out his right fingers, crossing his middle and ring fingers, while simultaneously saying, “gang, gang” multiple times.’”

Macon said he didn’t see that, and doesn’t believe any gestures made were actually gang-related.

That was not a gang problem because before (the police) came over there, there wasn’t a gang word said,” he said. “If (gang signs) was the thing that was noticed then we have a different issue because the issue should’ve been noticing the kids being slammed to the ground. The issue should’ve been noticing the librarian crying because that was not the way that it was intended to go. The issue should’ve been noticing that there was only one African-American adult there, which was me, and I’m out there trying to calm two kids with anxiety attacks having problems breathing and if that was noticed, that’s a problem, because when I’m sitting there asking for help, I have three officers looking at me with the radios on just thinking I’m being crazy and I’m saying, ‘Call the ambulance.’ And I have kids having to call the ambulance versus (the police) just getting on their radio and saying, ‘I need some medical support at this library.’”

Ultimately five youth were issued citations but none were arrested.

“Such an egregious act”

Macon said the entire police response was “such an egregious act,” noting especially that one officer drew his mace can.

“A student said to me, ‘I thought he went for his gun because he put his hand on his pouch,’” Macon said. “And luckily I was right there to just like, “Why are you about to mace these kids? These kids don’t need to be maced, they need someone to talk to. They need things to do.’”

He also said it was his first-ever negative interaction with police.

“I’ve never, until (Monday), had a negative police contact, ever,” he said. “I don’t think this was a racial thing, I thought it was a thing to show you who must assert the best power and the police tried to assert the best power. Instead of going in there saying, ‘This is what we heard, we need to talk about this real quick and we need to explain the behaviors on what it needs to be like at the library and then here is the consequence,’ and that’s how they deescalate the situation, we ended up, ‘This is my job, I’m going to the full extent of the law basically, I’m gonna show you who is the boss.’”

Macon said the effects might be long-lasting.

“I understand it’s not their job to understand trauma, but it is their job to react in a way to de-escalate situations, especially regarding youth,” he said. “Especially if they’re trying to do peace circles with youth and families who already have a distrust for them in the community. This did not do any rapport building, this did not do any repair to the damage that has been done for ages. What it did is, it put another dent in the trust of another set of officers that the kids can’t go to. Another set of people that when they’re in trouble, they don’t feel comfortable going to so they have to go to somebody else and then that person has to take fate into their own hands.

“Yes we have to listen to what the police say, but the police should also come at an approach where it is not so forceful. And I didn’t think it was a racist thing, I thought it was more like a power struggle, like, ‘I wanna show you who has the most power,’ and these kids are not willing to have that. They want to be listened to, they want stuff to be explained to them. And if they can’t get that, then they’re gonna show you their worst them, versus their best them. And that experience right there was another 10 to 12 children not liking police officers. Another set of families not trusting police officers. Another generation of kids now thinking that every police officer is out to get them.”

Johnson said her son is “distraught” and doesn’t want to go back to school.

“I woke him up for school (Tuesday) morning. He got dressed and he asked me if I would pick him up after school. I told him that I couldn’t ’cause I get off work at 5:00, so he sat there and cried,” she said. “I’m asking him, why is he crying? He told me … he’s scared to go to school because he don’t wanna get outta school and (police) put him in their car and he doesn’t get to come back home.”

Macon said a private meeting with the families involved has been planned, and a larger community meeting will be scheduled for the near future. He said at least some police officers will be present at both meetings.

Macon said both the kids involved and the officers should take responsibility for what they did wrong.

“I  think some of them will be open to say like, ‘This part was my fault. I’m owning it, this is it.’ But I also see some officers saying, ‘Well this happened,’ instead of just owning their part,” he said. “Because if you’re gonna do these circles, it should be no blame, it should be, ‘I take accountability for this set of actions, I did this because of this and then I wanna send an apology.’ And an apology may not be taken at that time but the first step is acknowledging the wrongs and the rights of each situation.”

“It’s definitely an opportunity for everybody involved to think about how they could serve teens better,” Elias said.

Written by Robert Chappell

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