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Students last month protest the officer-involved shooting death of unarmed black teen Tony Robinson in March in Madison.

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

The Madison City Council hasn’t even created a task force to review Madison Police Department policies, and already Police Chief Mike Koval is rejecting any changes to rules governing officers’ use of deadly force.

It might be wise to withhold judgment until the task force makes its recommendations. Tactful, too, given that the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old is what’s spurring the review.

Still, deadly force is a topic that’s been worked over pretty well by lawmakers and the courts, and Madison police tactics have been lauded by policing experts. Hashing out how the two intersect might do little more than create the illusion of change.

A stricter, Madison-specific use-of-deadly force policy could put police in danger and lead to more victims. It could also be difficult to hold officers to account for violating it — assuming the aim is to punish the officers in some meaningful way.

The state law governing the right of people — civilians and officers alike — to use deadly force in self-defense wouldn’t be superseded by a city use-of-force policy, according to David E. Schultz, a UW-Madison law professor who studies criminal law.

“The violation of the policy doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship to the criminal charges,” he said.

Similarly, a city policy on use of force wouldn’t take precedence over the “objectively reasonable” standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court back in the 1980s for determining whether an officer sued in civil court was justified in killing a suspect.

“This is not to mean that the judge or jury must accept at face value whatever the officer subjectively perceived, but rather they are to determine from an objective basis whether what the officer perceived and the force the officer used were reasonable,” said Michael Scott, a former police officer and director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

Madison City Attorney Michael May said a stricter standard — which he opposes — “might make it easier for a plaintiff to prove some sort of negligence against the officer or the city.”

Then again, he said, it could also open the city up to litigation by the victim of a perpetrator police did not stop because they were following a more restrictive deadly force policy.

Most City Council members were not yet willing to take a position on changing the policy or on Koval’s rush to reject any changes.

One exception was Ald. Paul Skidmore, a member of the city’s Public Safety Review Committee, who said he won’t even support the creation of the task force.

Ald. David Ahrens said he thought “most of the controversial police-related shootings have been about interpretation of the standard and not whether the standard itself should be changed.” Once you get into interpretation, he said, the question becomes about who’s capable of an objective interpretation.

Of course there’s more progress to be made on how citizens can avoid deadly encounters with the police in the first place.

But the task force is still well worth the time; in matters of life and death, even a small chance that changes to a policy can help save lives is a chance worth taking.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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