By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Officials discuss police use of force at conference
Panel Darlington web
Darlington Police Chief Jason King and Sergeant Tony Ruesga, Jr., were two members of a five-person panel that discussed national police topics during the 21st Century Policing Conference at UW-Platteville on Friday. - photo by Dena Harris

Editor's Note-This is the first part of coverage on UW-Platteville's conference on Policing in the 21st Century. The afternoon sessions will be featured in next week's Tri-County Press.

A day-long conference at UW–Platteville focused on an issue dividing the nation — police use of force.

The conference is the second annual event held at UW-Platteville to assist police officers, community leaders and community members to meet the challenge of new ways forward for policing. UW–Platteville Chancellor Shields said the first conference held last year was inspired by President Barack Obama’s taskforce recommendations of the 21st Century Policing. This year’s focus was on the police use of force, which starts with the premise of the sanctity of human life.

The conference featured representatives from Wisconsin, California, New York, Virginia and North Carolina. Speakers discussed their experiences with police standards, training and initiatives that could help mold the police strategies for the future.

Former Madison police chief Noble Wray, now Police Reform Specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Police Services, spoke to the group about political reforms concerning police matters and police use of force. He has been tasked with helping to implement the 21st Century Policing recommendations. He said every 30 years major reforms take place in policing.

“Right now, I believe that there are major reforms taking place and it is being guided by the 21st Century Taskforce recommendations,” said Wray. “There are 58 recommendations in that reform, 38 of which an agency can implement on their own.”

Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., 5,000 have already engaged in the taskforce program in some way, similar to Friday’s conference.

“It’s been a difficult time in policing, but it’s also been an exciting time,” said Wray. “Something is happening right now in this profession that I never thought I would see occur, and that is that we are really taking a strong, hard look at reimagining how we use force.”

Wray said it’s a difficult but exciting time for the policing field right now with potential changes coming.
“It’s more than us understanding what trust and legitimacy is about,” he said. “This is about the nobility of a profession and the civility of a country.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, focused on how other countries’ po-lice don’t use firearms. Wexler said police in Scotland use batons and mace when a situation can’t be de-escalated verbally. Wexler said the SWAT team in Houston, Texas, has done additional crisis intervention training along with tactical training to prevent the loss of life.

“The lion’s share of training is on firearms,” he said. “That’s neither good nor bad; it is what it is.”

PERF works on prevention, determining how a situation came to the point of using deadly force and what can be given to the police and citizens to provide more options to prevent the loss of life.

“We can do better,” said Wexler, noting research, policy, better training, better tactics and better communication.

Wexler doesn’t recommend cutting down firearms training, but possibly increasing de-escalation and crisis prevention training. Most police officers never fire their weapon.

Wexler said 90 percent of U.S. police departments are rural agencies with 50 or fewer officers, but the conference’s topic focuses on larger city issues because they tend to have more crime and more challenges for their schools.

Wexler said the country seems fixated on the incidents that have happened recently, which have been highly visible because of the smart phones and media coverage.

“When a police officer takes someone’s life, they’re never the same again,” he said.

Dr. Mark Bowman, director of the Center for Excellence in Justice Administration and former lieutenant of the Virginia Beach, Va., Police Department, presented perspectives on the new guiding principles on police use of force.

“There is an underlying assumption that no matter how poorly we treat those who sacrifice for us, they will continue to sacrifice and there will always be those willing to step up,” he said. “I’m afraid that assumption is quickly becoming false.”

Bowman said the overarching concern through the president’s taskforce is justice.

“There has been a link established between police legitimacy and procedural justice in the field,” he said. “For those of us who have policed in the field … you learn pretty quickly that if people believe you are going to treat them fairly, they tend to be more cooperative, the arrests go easier and the community cooperates.”

Bowman said there is a 90 percent chance that a person committing a felonious act on a police officer is going to survive, making it difficult to convince police officers that they don’t already de-escalate situations. In many of those situations, the officer could have fired his or her weapon and didn’t.

“It’s going to be difficult to convince the working cop in America that they are going to have to change,” he said. “Policies can change, laws can change, rules can change, but that doesn’t mean that the behavior in the field is going to change.

They’re the ones we have to convince, not the [police] chiefs.”

Bowman recommends police look for non-traditional answers based on the science of human performance.

“My recommendation is do not pass a law, do not criminalize any behavior that you are not willing to see someone killed over,” he said. “That’s what it could come to in this world.”

Bowman said criminalizing everything government doesn’t want people to do isn’t the answer. He noted relearning the lessons from prohibition.

“‘Change’ is another word for ‘work,’” he said.

Someone in the audience asked why so few female police officers use force. Wexler said it could be that they have better communication skills and work to slow the situation down before it escalates.

“Women bring a whole different skill set to the table,” said Bowman.

Panel Discussion

A panel of five individuals gave opposing views on police-related topics. The panel featured two Darlington officers, chief Jason King and sergeant Tony Ruesga Jr. They were joined by Ismael Ozanne, district attorney for Dane County; Amelia Royko, leader of a community response team in Madison; and Brandi Grayson, co-founder of Young, Gifted and Black in Madison.

The group was asked to answer two questions — whether they believed democracy is hard on police officers, and if police are from the public, do they have permission to use force.

Grayson started by strongly disagreeing, saying we do not live in a democratic society.

“We live in a white supremacist patriarchy capitalist imperialist society,” she said. “That is not a democracy.”

Grayson said the issue of police force is power.

“Black and brown people don’t have any power for due justice,” she said.

Grayson said legality does not equal morality.

“We have to move away from this place of legality to this place of justice, and not just equity but liberation,” she said. “We get caught up in these words about what it means to be a society of free. White people are free. Black people have liberty.

Freedom means you can move around as you choose, you can make a mistake if you’re a 15-year-old white boy, you can get drunk here at UW–Platteville, fight somebody and not get arrested. If you’re black, you can almost guarantee that is not going to be a warning.”

Grayson encouraged having real conversations about race, to stop skirting around it afraid to make someone feel uncomfortable.

“White people can’t even fathom what it’s like to experience life from the black perspective, and that’s OK,” she said. “I don’t need you to walk in my shoes. What I do need you to do is have compassion to allow my shoes to be present in the room and to center the conversation around the people in the room that are the most disenfranchised, most marginalized and the most voiceless. I’m gong to take up more space than they allowed me in the 10 minutes because I believe that I am probably the only voice that you would hear in this space that is so different, outside of your narrative, outside of the conditioning and the framework of ‘can’t we all just get along’ and all lives matter.”

Grayson said any contradiction to the “all lives matter” phrase is racist because it diminishes the cry for help of the black individuals.

“Racism is entrenched and rooted in patriarchy,” she said. “I wish we would just stop tip-toeing around what we have in front of us. White supremacy and racism will forever exist as long as white exists. That doesn’t mean I’m saying all white people need to be white. I’m saying that because the idea of whiteness exists, we have racism.”

Grayson said all police officers are participating in a system that is founded and rooted in racism, that it is what they are taught.

“Until we are willing to abolish this thing, take it away and start something new, we are going to continue to have the same issue,” she said.

Grayson asked that the focus be on building people instead of institutions.

“It’s not my blackness that is the problem, it’s your whiteness,” she said.

Royko, whose roommate and friend was shot and killed by a police officer in an altercation, said she didn’t see the police as the public.

“My eyes were opened to a serious power differential between someone who wears the badge and someone who doesn’t,” she said. “As I’ve opened the walls of the house further, I’ve noticed the ways in which that power differential allows officers to do a lot of things that members of the public could never do in the same situation.”

Royko encouraged police officers becoming a part of the community.

King and Ruesga presented how the Darlington Police Department has taken a community police approach to bridge the gap between the police department and the growing Hispanic population in their community. King said he even encourages his staff to engage in the community, both on duty and off.

King said 15 years ago, the city recruited the national headquarters of Mexican Cheese Producers, Inc. With that came a growing immigrant population and today they make up approximately 15 percent of the community’s population.

“The reality is that we didn’t get any more money to deal with it,” said King. “I do believe when I took the oath it was to serve and protect everybody in my community, it didn’t matter who they were or where they were from. I didn’t need more money to do that. I just needed to make sure that there was organizational commitment all the way from my office down to our patrol staff that embodied the philosophy that all lives matter. I don’t think that is a racist comment to believe that every single human being that lives in, works in or travels through Darlington is important and matters.”

Ruesga, a Hispanic police officer, has been given direction to integrate into the Hispanic community to help bridge the gap.

“It has not been easy,” he said. “It has been a struggle. Chief Wray hit it on the head when he said that ‘trust is a journey that is never reached.’ I thought initially that I needed to gain the people’s trust and it would be an end-all. It was not. Trust is an every day battle. I gain it one day and lose it the next day. It’s through involvement in my community that has helped me.”

Ruesga said he understands the challenges the local Hispanic population may face. His father is an illegal Mexican who was deported 39 times.

“I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., and did not trust and like the police,” he said.

Ruesga said his experiences have helped him understand both sides of the coin.

Ozanne said democracy is hard on us all.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said. “It is something that requires participation, passion, engagement and education. Yet for many years, what you’ve seen in this country is a dampening down on engagement. You’ve seen a pressure on the populace. It’s become harder and harder to make ends meet. We’ve put the majority of our people in a pressure cooker and we’ve convinced them that it has to be that way, yet democracy allows the people to guide the nation, it allows us to have a say in the outcome of every matter of life. Even though times may seem bleak right now, there is always hope in a democracy.”

“We are going through some tumultuous days. My predecessor was in office for 10 years … and he made decisions in seven officer-involved shootings within 10 years. To date, I am deciding our 15th officer-involved shooting incident within six years. This is an issue that we have to confront. This is an issue that affects our quality of life.”

Ozanne said the influx of officer-involved shootings is an issue that has to be addressed. He recommends a restorative justice approach, where the relationship between law enforcement and the community can be rebuilt.

“If we are not strong enough as a community and nation to step back and reallocate resources, we will never get in front of the problem,” he said.

Ozanne said kids need to be ready for school, they need discipline, but violence needs to be removed from homes to take violence out of the community later on.