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Teaching force: Under heightened scrutiny, how is the Madison Police Department training recruits?

MPD TRAINING

A Madison Police Department recruit participates in a drill during firearms training at the department's training center on the east side.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

On the cue “threat!” Madison Police Department recruits move through a three-step drill before taking aim and firing two rounds at a paper target in front of them.

After the bullet casings rattle to the floor of the MPD training center’s shooting range and the recruits re-holster their Heckler & Koch VP9 handguns, officer Rene Gonzalez critiques their stance and form. The officers-in-training run the drills over and over, standing just a few feet from the target, sometimes with their eyes closed to simulate situations where their vision might be compromised.

“With most of our training, it’s going to be related to time and repetition,” said Sgt. Minh Duc “Kimba” Tieu, the department’s new use of force coordinator. “The more exposure and repetition you have, for example, making decisions right, hopefully you become better at making those decisions.”

Recruits will soon start to practice from greater distances, with multiple targets and compressed timeframes as part of the department’s pre-service academy, a course that totals 864 hours over six months.

Twenty-three recruits make up the MPD’s 59th academy class. They have been selected after a competitive application process and chosen from about 700 hopefuls, working toward a career in a profession under increased scrutiny from the public.

Officer-involved shootings across the nation — Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; North Charleston, South Carolina; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. Anthony, Minnesota — have led to criticism and protests.

Madison is no exception. In 2012, Paul Heenan was shot and killed by officer Stephen Heimsness on the city’s east side. This summer, officer Hector Rivera fatally shot Michael Schumacher, who had a history of mental illness, just a couple of blocks away. The shooting death of unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson by officer Matt Kenny in March 2015 shook the city and drew calls to change the way officers are trained to use force.

None of the officers involved in those shooting deaths were criminally charged. Heimsness retired from the department in 2013 citing post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident. Rivera remains inactive pending the completion of an internal review. Kenny serves as a training officer at the MPD academy.

Officers have also faced criticism for use of non-deadly force, such as in the violent arrest of 18-year-old Genele Laird outside of East Towne Mall by two officers earlier this year.

Reviews by the MPD and Dane County Sheriff’s Office found the officers involved were “objectively reasonable” in their use of force. Laird was ultimately referred by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne to a restorative justice program.

Despite public criticism, police recruits must learn how to fight and shoot as part of their academy training. What makes those courses so difficult to teach, MPD Training Sgt. Tim Patton said, is the level of subjectivity involved in making use of force decisions.

“It is truly your individual perception of whether or not, in the case of deadly force, you’re confronted with an imminent danger of death or great bodily harm,” Patton said. “What we see is that two human beings will look at the exact same situation and one will say, ‘Yes, I believe I was in imminent danger,’ and another will say, ‘No.’”

The purpose of deadly force is to stop a threat while the purpose of non-deadly force is to control a situation, according to the MPD’s standard operating procedures.

Officers are authorized to use force, and deadly force, when it is “objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances,” according to the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor. Situations where using force is acceptable are outlined in the MPD’s standard operating procedure, but Patton said the nuances do not guarantee “uniform consensus” on any application of force.

“Believing that we are going to achieve a very consistent response to every possible situation they will find themselves in is naive at best,” Patton said.

The decision-making process behind using any type of force relies “exclusively” on the officer’s perception at the moment actions are taken, Patton said. In academy classes, recruits are exposed to as many situations as possible with the hope that when they are confronted with an incident while on patrol, they can react using muscle memory from their training.

“What we’re trying to do is to narrow a group of citizens’ response to some given fact sets and achieve some reasonable range of responses that have an optimal opportunity to be successful, with the least amount of risk to both the officer and the civilian, or anyone involved in the encounter,” Patton said.

Learning force

Police recruits started learning about use of force in a lecture during the second week of the academy. They watched videos of law enforcement officials involved in use of force scenarios and weighed in on whether they thought the use was justified or not — not an easy task when most of the recruits are confronting the topic for the first time.

“They don’t even know what use of force looks like yet,” said officer Chris Masterson, lead defense and arrest tactics (DAAT) instructor.

After watching the videos of various confrontations, they voted on whether they thought the use of force was justified. Results were mixed on nearly all of the videos, proving Masterson’s point.

Masterson said new recruits struggle with learning the incremental pieces of the curriculum and want to know how to put all the information together.

“There’s three storylines going at once right now, and you just have to wait until they all meet up before you start to understand everything,” Masterson said.

He starts by teaching situations where officers would be justified to use force, which include maintaining control of resistive subjects, to make arrests, to detain people reasonably suspected of criminal behavior or to prevent escape or injury to an officer or member of the public.

“We give people theory and law, and then we start to apply theory and law in small steps,” Masterson said.

The curriculum is divided between the classroom and the Defense and Arrest Tactics room, a blue-padded gym where recruits actively practice skills like handcuffing, talking to suspects who are not following commands and controlling volatile situations.

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MPD TRAINING

Training Officer Rene Gonzalez, lead firearms instructor at the Madison Police Department academy, directs a group of recruits through firearms drills at the department’s shooting range.

Wisconsin law enforcement officers are governed by the DAAT manual, a guidebook of communication techniques coupled with physical alternatives that describe how officers can gain control of non-compliant subjects.

Officers are taught the primary goal is to get subjects to voluntarily comply to their requests. When that doesn't happen, physical intervention becomes an option.

In an early exercise, recruits are divided into lines of officers and “threatening” subjects. Dressed in their bulletproof vests and duty belts, the officers practice giving commands, escalating from stern tones to shouting levels, and changing their stances as subjects approach.

Recent department data shows that MPD officers rarely deploy force. From April 1 to June 30, 2016, MPD officers responded to 55,999 calls for service and 58 required some level of force — equivalent to 0.10 percent of calls.

In addition to the state’s mandated 720-hour curriculum that includes units in law, tactical skills, patrol procedures, investigations and physical fitness, the MPD adds 144 training hours. Overall, MPD officers receive 198 hours of tactical training that includes defense, arrest tactics and handgun and rifle classes, 32 more hours than what the state requires.

Current officers are required by the state to complete 24 hours of training per year to remain certified. Outside of handgun qualifications and emergency vehicle driving, departments have latitude to distribute the rest of the training time.

Recruits have separate classes at the training center’s range, learning how to shoot and handle their guns. Madison police receive 82 hours of handgun and rifle training, compared to 68 hours required in the state curriculum.

By the end of the academy, the goal is for recruits to go through several days of scenario-based training, acting on muscle memory, Masterson said. After recruits complete the academy, they must complete about three months of field training before going on solo patrol.

“We want to give them experiences in the academy so that when they get to the street, they can say, I’ve seen this before, I’ve seen something like this before, I’ve already been here, so I know that these types of tactics or techniques will work here,” Masterson said.

Experience is the main factor in navigating situations that could involve force, said MPD recruit Nick Cleary, 29, a former Fitchburg officer. But that gray area of decision-making does not completely disappear, he said.

“Situations always vary so the gray area never necessarily goes away, but you might understand with experience to shrink that gray area to make it a little bit easier to make a choice,” Cleary said.

He said understanding case law and how different scenarios fit together helps. With his seven years of experience working in law enforcement, Cleary takes initiative to help out when his classmates have questions to fill in gaps between learning in the classroom and on-the-job experiences.

Learning how to go hands-on to control a situation or, in extreme cases, to draw and use a gun is challenging, mentally and physically.

“Hurting someone or inflicting violence on someone is not easy,” Cleary said. “It kind of goes against what the vast majority of people are comfortable doing, and it’s a weird thing.”

As an experienced police officer, Cleary said he has not had to use a high level of force and hopes he never has to. He said the idea of working as a community officer, being known in a neighborhood where he can talk directly with residents, appeals to him.

Effect of guns and gunfire on officers

To date, Madison has had 117 incidents of gunfire in 2016, Lt. Cory Nelson said. There were 87 last year and 53 in 2014.

Those numbers may not be exact — an MPD officer keeps track of all the shots fired in the city through incident reports — but Nelson said officers often encounter subjects who are armed, which can take a toll. The MPD hopes to receive more city funding in 2017 to expand a violent crimes unit, which will be responsible for handling shots-fired calls.

“I think nowadays officers have to be on high alert all the time,” said Nelson, the lieutenant of investigative services. “There’s not an opportunity throughout their shift to let their guard down.”

Patton said this reality can’t help but change an officer’s perception that there will be a weapon involved on a call. Officers need to be mindful and vigilant, but not to the extent that it impedes their ability to work through calls without using force.

“That's the challenge, and they’re always walking that line,” Patton said.

Recruit Jessica Gillette, 38, is new to law enforcement. Before the academy’s first firearms class, she had never fired a gun.

“I did feel physically sick, physically ill,” Gillette said, reflecting on the class. “I was most nervous about how the gun was going to react when I shot it, the recoil. And the sound. I was really sensitive to the sound and the smells.”

Recognizing that the physical aspects of training have been challenging and that she will need those skills to be like muscle memory when she is on patrol, Gillette has been arriving at the training center early and staying late for extra sessions. In the DAAT room, she said learning the many non-deadly techniques is difficult, including using a commanding tone of voice.

“Let’s face it, as females, as women in our society, I personally think we’ve been kind of socialized to quiet that a little bit, to keep that down,” Gillette said. “Now we’re really encouraged and expected to bring some of that up and to use it in sometimes an aggressive way.”

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MPD TRAINING

Madison Police recruit Jessica Gillette practices handcuffing on fellow recruit Lyjya Miles.

She comes to the academy with a background in peace and conflict studies and several years living abroad. The Austria-based program where she earned her master's degree provided practical experience in conflict resolution, mediation and arbitration.

The deadly force taught at the academy and her peace studies present a dichotomy Gillette said she is working through. She applied to the academy three times because she feels the MPD focuses on being a positive force in the community.

“I want to be out in the community call after call, day after day in any chance or in any way that I can help contribute to rebuild or restore some of this trust that has been lost,” Gillette said. 

Community oversight 

Community tension was palpable in protests after Genele Laird’s June arrest, part of which was caught on video by a bystander and widely circulated, prompting social media outrage and protests in downtown Madison later the same night.

What made the video controversial was how use of force by officers can look particularly violent, even to other trained law enforcement officials.

“Force never looks good,” Patton said.

In the video, Laird, an 18-year-old African-American woman, is seen resisting arrest by one officer. A second officer entering the scene forcefully takes Laird to the ground and strikes her with his knee and fist. One officer uses a Taser while attempting to handcuff Laird with her hands behind her back. Officers place a spit hood — used to protect officers from bodily fluids — over her head.

The arrest renewed calls for more community oversight of police procedure from activists.

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Part of Tieu’s job as the department’s new use of force coordinator will be to collect, review and report data related to use of force and work to improve officer proficiency related to use of force. He will also communicate with the public about the department’s use of force data, policy and training.

The role was created following recommendations from a community taskforce assembled after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, with the goal of creating and strengthening relationships between the Madison community and police.

MPD policies can change with input from the community. In 2005, an incident involving an MPD officer using a Taser on a 15-year-old Memorial High School student prompted enough local debate to cause a more restrictive policy change.

The authorized purpose for using an electronic control device, commonly known as a Taser, is to “overcome violent or assaultive behavior,” according to the standard operating procedure, differing from the state’s less restrictive standard.

West District Capt. Vic Wahl was on the front end of the department’s Taser use, helping to implement it in 2005 when the tool was very new across the nation. Community input is valued, Wahl said, but there is a limit to how much a law enforcement agency should implement that input.

“You have to be very cautious if you’re a police department following community opinion too much because it isn’t going to necessarily lead you down the road to best practice,” Wahl said.

But critics of the MPD would say community involvement is necessary and should weigh heavily in authoring policy. Amelia Royko Maurer, who describes herself as one of the biggest critics of MPD operations, believes it is in the best interest of the police department to learn from the community.

Royko Maurer became vocal on policing issues after Heenan, her friend and housemate, was shot and killed by officer Heimsness in 2012. She believes the community should be “100 percent” involved in crafting police policy.

“To exclude civilians who are most impacted by police and civilians who are most informed about policy, procedure and practice from the process of policymaking and training, it’s really a … serious waste of resources,” Royko Maurer said.

With a comprehensive review of the MPD in the works, Madison is moving closer to greater community involvement in influencing police policy. The MPD Policy & Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee, a citizen body formed after the 2015 officer-involved shooting of Tony Robinson, unanimously selected the California-based OIR Group over two other agencies Oct. 13 to perform a comprehensive review of MPD policy and procedures.

Royko Maurer said the committee resembles community control more than anything seen in Madison so far, but lawmakers need to enforce whether the committee’s recommendations take effect.

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madison duty belt

“This committee is extremely equipped for offering recommendations and finding the right people to make those recommendations, but it all hinges upon our government’s willingness to mandate those recommendations and a police chief who’s willing to listen,” Royko Maurer said.

Committee member Keith Findley, an associate professor at the UW Law School and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said he believes the MPD has a history of being progressive in its approach to policing and that the department is “undeniably” confronting challenges today that include its relationship to the community. Solutions depend on adapting police responses to issues that matter to the community.

“Police science in the abstract can’t do that,” Findley said. “It has to be informed by the community the police is serving. What we’re talking about is a relationship, and that is critical.”

Michael Scott, director of the online-based Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said policing affects individual community members in direct and profound ways, and departments should take note.

“The alternative — failing to listen, not taking heed of it, not engaging the dialogue — is far worse than the headaches that may come from hearing so many different viewpoints,” Scott said.

But any sort of discussion between the community and MPD requires a shared language, Patton said, and an understanding of what local law enforcement agencies can and cannot control.

Use of force incidents “might look offensive, and I completely understand that, but I think for us to have a discussion of what we are going to do about it requires more information about how those officers came to be in that moment and that includes that moment that day ... but also what happened to them when they got here,” Patton said, referencing the academy training.

MPD’s use of force policy runs parallel to the federal ruling on force, Patton said, and can only be used as a last resort. While the MPD can change policies, creating a more restrictive standard than the state on using force is more challenging.

“It’s very difficult to craft these policies and remain consistent or committed to that concept of force should be applied based on the information known to the officer at the moment they applied force,” Patton said. 

Training old and new officers on new policies 

New recruits and veteran officers are learning recent changes to MPD policy regarding backup officers and de-escalation. But the MPD says the changes are reaffirming standard practices officers already know.

“Some (best practices) have been codified and memorialized,” Koval said at an in-service training on the new policies in October. “Others not so much because it’s left to the domain of common sense.”

The department added new language instructing officers they “shall not disregard backup” and shall wait for backup “before physically approaching any involved subject(s), unless an officer reasonably believes there is significant risk of bodily injury to any person(s).”

“That very presence can mitigate the opportunity for going hands-on,” Koval said. “If nothing else, I now have three heads to assess and at least two professional witnesses who can say what didn’t happen as opposed to what did happen.”

Officially effective Nov. 9, the MPD is including a standard operating procedure specifically on de-escalation, a hot button issue in policing. A primary principle of de-escalation is slowing down an incident to increase the potential for a positive resolution, said Tieu, the use of force coordinator.

Officers “should attempt to slow down or stabilize an incident so that more time, options and resources are available for incident resolution” when it is “safe and feasible under the totality of circumstances,” the draft policy reads. The purpose of the policy is to minimize the likelihood of the need to use force and to increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance.

Training officers describe the new policy as pulling together de-escalation techniques scattered throughout the MPD’s policies into one document as a tool for the public.

“The public drives these things,” Masterson said. “They’re the consumer. They’re the ones pushing back.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.