Reason Prevails at the Madison City Council

The Madison City Council is on the verge of doing something sensible. It appears that it won’t pursue a dangerous policy to micro-manage how police handle incidents that threaten public safety.

The quick background goes like this. This past May and June saw protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Madison, some of those protests turned violent. About 100 stores and buildings were looted or damaged, police vehicles were vandalized and set aflame, a molotov cocktail was tossed through a broken window in the City County Building forcing the evacuation of the 911 center, a state senator was beaten and two iconic statutes were torn from their pedestals on the Capitol grounds and desecrated. Overall, 21 police officers suffered injuries.

To help quell the violence the police used tear gas. Now, right here you may think that the response of the council would have been to pass a resolution denouncing the violence, lauding the courage of the police or promising assistance to the broken small businesses. Nope. The response was a resolution that would have taken all less lethal options, including tear gas, away from the police.

The resolution was introduced by young, inexperienced Ald. Max Prestigiacomo. Now, it’s not clear to me why the left thinks it’s a good idea for the police to have only two options when confronting looters: let them loot or kill them. Nonetheless, it was an emotional moment and, without an alternative, the resolution may well have passed in October when it was debated. As it is, it fell only three votes short.

Now here’s where reason starts to kick in. Older, wiser alders saw where this was going and moved to head it off. They introduced an alternative resolution that would ban tear gas come February after a study was conducted by the police department. To those unfamiliar with the ways of the Madison council this may strike you as reversed. Shouldn’t the council have delayed its vote on banning tear gas until after the study was completed?

Well, yes, in a rational world that’s the way it would work. But what was needed in the passion of the moment was a stronger, if nonsensical. statement. Politics is not always — or even often — rational. And, of course, it didn’t need to take months for the cops to gather data on their limited use of tear gas, but the delay served to calm the waters.

Now the report has been issued and it turns out that the police have used tear gas all of 11 times in the last three decades. Nine of those times it was used to flush out a dangerous suspect who was holed up somewhere. Only twice was it used to disperse a crowd: when Halloween on State Street became violent in 2002 and again last summer.

Ald. Syed Abbas

In response to the report, Council Vice President Syed Abbas, who voted for the complete ban last fall, is now saying that he sees no appetite on the council to take this tool away from the cops.

Ald. Shiva Bidar

So, credit veteran alders like Shiva Bidar (who, unfortunately, is retiring from the council) for steering this to a reasonable outcome. I’m sure Bidar and Abbas do not consider themselves moderates and might even feel insulted by the accusation. But what they did was to kill a bad, even dangerous policy, by very skillfully working to distance its consideration from the passions of the moment.

For my money, that’s the essence of the moderate approach.

In a postscript, I should note that the police report on tear gas was being considered by a Madison committee when Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney fell ill. As of this writing she is reported to be in the hospital, but okay. I wish her a speedy recovery.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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