Setting the Record Straight

With each start of a new academic year, I take the opportunity through my Chief’s Corner blog to welcome our newest students and share relevant information about our department. Of course, this fall semester is like no other. Case in point: As I sit down to my computer I do so from my home officewhich as per our campus requirement to telecommute whenever possible has served as my primary worksite in this COVID era. This is but one example of just how much has changed since this time last year.  

Upon reflection, I was prompted to scroll back through my previous fall blogs and in doing so, I was reminded of a blog post that I wrote a little over three years ago. In my post, titled “On the Side of Peace,” I discussed the role of police to facilitate open debate and the free exchange of ideas. That topic remains relevant in light of current challenges, criticisms, and questions surrounding police response to protests in recent months, here and across the countryA timely excerpt reads: 

As your Chief, I understand the vital role that the UWPD plays in the facilitation of open debate and the free exchange of ideas. Indeed, I and all UWPD officers have sworn an oath to uphold these and other constitutional principles. Regardless of our personally held beliefs or opinions, as peacekeepers charged with the responsibility to safely facilitate expressions of the First Amendment, there is only one side on which police can and should choose to be: on the side of peace. 

This remains true todayPeaceful protests have been a part of our campus’ history for decades. Indeed, we saw numerous peaceful protests this past spring following the death of George Floyd and again in the days and weeks following the shooting of Jacob Blake. And while the protests and demonstrations that have taken place over these past few months here in Madison have been overwhelmingly peaceful, at times they were not. A handful turned violent, resulting in widespread destruction and creating situations that jeopardized – and in some cases directly impacted – the physical safety of members of our community and our officers 

 While most of these events unfolded just off-campus – within the jurisdiction of the City of Madison Police Department – our department (along with other police departments) responded upon request to assist MPD. Because so many of our students live in the State Street area and because it is so close to campus, we believed we had both a vested interest and a responsibility to work to mitigate the destruction that was taking place in order to keep our community safe. Even so, our campus suffered substantial damage during those first few nights of protest to include numerous broken windows, damage to a UWPD squad car, and graffiti across lower campusIn addition, a student was struck in the head and suffered a significant laceration requiring stitches after a protester threw a brick through the window of a residence on Langdon Street and one of our UWPD officers was treated for a concussion after he was struck in the head with a brick thrown by a protester.  For these reasons, the safety of our community – on and off campus – was a great concern. 

In recent weeks, the UWPD has received questions and feedback from members of our community pointing to recent articles and social media posts that discuss our department’s role in the response to the unrest in downtown Madison over the last four monthsSome of this discussion includes information that is not true or leaves out important details and context. Such distortion of fact serves only to further divide our community at a time that calls for us to come together in order to create meaningful change where needed. As such, I feel it’s necessary to set the record straight. In the spirit of full transparency – something that’s deeply rooted in our department’s vision and philosophy – here are the facts: 

  • In the earliest days following the first protests, went on record to share with our community our involvement. We did not hide our presence in downtown Madison. Our officers responded in their UWPD uniforms and in marked UWPD vehicles 
  • UWPD participated in a “mutual aid” capacity. Because of the level of unrest that had previously occurred, the City of Madison Police Department requested additional personnel from nearby law enforcement agencies This was not a situation that called for the campus Protest Decision-Making Team. That team addresses on-campus protests, not off-campus emergency situations where immediate actions is required. Learn more about UW-Madison’s Protest Guidelines and the PDT here. 
  • While the majority of the protests were peaceful, there were times when the protests turned violent. In addition to explosives being hurled, heavy projectiles – such as large rocks, bricks, and bottles – were thrown. In response, many officersUWPD includedused pepper spray to mitigate the physical safety threat.  
  • UWPD officers never used foam/rubber bullets or tear gasUWPD did not supply MPD – or any responding agency – with pepper spray or other chemical agents. 
  • Moreover, UWPD has never used tear gas or fired a less-lethal impact weapon (like a foam bullet) in a crowd control situation for at least the past eight yearsUWPD officers have deployed pepper spray only nine times in the past eight years. Three of these were during the night of May 30th as described earlier. The other six incidents in which an officer deployed pepper spray occurred when persons whom the officers were attempting to lawfully detain or take into custody resisted. Only once in the last eight years has a UWPD officer deployed a less-lethal beanbag round. This was in response to a suicidal subject who attempted to provoke the officers into using deadly force against them. Instead, the person was taken safely into custody. 

UWPD has long been and remains committed to equity and transparency. In recent months, we have taken proactive steps to address community concerns in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. We have acknowledged that the history of policing is stained by its complicity in perpetuating racial injustice, and we have affirmed our commitment to action through our Racial Equity Initiative. We have pulled the curtain back to share information with our community regarding our core practices, policies, training, use of force, and more, and continue to invite questions, feedback, and opportunities to engage in constructive processes to identify, implement, and continually assess needed change.  

We are, indeed, living in unusual times. As we head further into this unprecedented fall semester, I want to welcome our newest students, and to encourage every member of our Badger community to be thoughtful in their approach to the difficult issues we are currently facing. The social contract between police and the communities they serve is under negotiation, locally and across the country. As such, we welcome the opportunity to work together to determine how UWPD can best serve the unique needs of our community. Just as our UW community is distinct from others, the UWPD is distinct from other police departments in many ways. Understanding these distinctions is essential to the work of creating desired change. We welcome the discussion and trust that our sifting and winnowing will lead us all to a better place.