Learning From an Arrest

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imageThe arrest of Genele Laird in June at East Towne can be a teachable moment for the Madison community. Many of us have seen the video of her arrest and, perhaps, the news conference in which the police department appears to defend the force used in her arrest.

Most everyone who has viewed the arrest has an opinion. Some conclude the police acted properly given the circumstances. Others conclude that the amount of force was not appropriate. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Let me suggest there is another way of looking at this incident. It is through the eye of community-oriented policing. This view sees police as members of the community who are given special authority to do the will of the community. This is one of Robert Peel’s central principles of policing issued over 150 years ago in London. It was on the eve of forming the first group of police officers organized to serve a democracy.

Another Peelian Principle that may be pertinent to this discussion is his observation that the more physical force police use to prevent crime and disorder, the less support they have from community members. Sound familiar?

Keeping these principles in mind, along with the basic idea of community-oriented policing, is that police and citizens are to work together to accomplish the police mission.

Now, we have the matter before us of Genele’s arrest. While her arrest may be legal, and in keeping with police policy and training, it is the people who ultimately decide whether this is the way in which they want people to be handled. Her arrest may be lawful, but is it appropriate? Is it the way in which we want others to be treated? Those are the real questions and it is up to the police to comply with standards set by the community, not by persons or agencies outside the city, or solely by the police.

That means our police should adapt and conform their uses of force, especially deadly force, with our wishes. They, after all, should be experts in the use of force. But that will require open, honest, and respectful dialogue within the Madison community; a dialogue in which all voices must be heard, even those which tend to make us uncomfortable.

We must also remember that this is not a new idea in Madison. Years ago, when state law permitted police to use deadly force to apprehend any fleeing felon, regardless of that person’s dangerousness, Madison said no. And the policy and training in the police department reflected that. The police department raised the state standard and Madison permitted its police to use deadly force only when apprehending fleeing felons who posed an immediate threat to others.

Other police behaviors permitted by state or federal law were also raised with input from elected officials and community leaders such as prohibiting police shooting at fleeing vehicles, disengaging dangerous high speed chases, not arresting persons possessing small amounts of drugs, and using citations in lieu physical arrest for minor offenses.

If it is officially determined that the officers who arrested Genele acted in accordance with the department’s policy and training, then the bar must be raised. It is what police in a free society strive to do when they are closely connected with those whom they serve.

[This article first appeared in the Madison “Capital Times” on August 5, 2016.]