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Saturday, July 31, 2021
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The Common Council met to discuss and vote on a number of police-related items following a summer defined by social justice demonstrations and calls for accountability on the police. 

City Council votes on amended MPD purchasing procedure, puts hold on tear gas ban

The City Council approved an ordinance allowing the Madison Police Department to continue, with constraints, to obtain equipment through its 1033 program and passed measures to launch a study on de-escalation alternatives before banning tear gas Tuesday night. 

The 1033 program allows the MPD and other law enforcement agencies across the country to obtain surplus military-grade equipment, which includes everything from vehicles to fire-aid supplies, for little to no cost. 

The ordinance in its original form, proposed by Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, and Ald. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, would have cut off the MPD’s involvement with the program completely. 

However, an alternate version proposed by Ald. Keith Furman, District 19, and Ald. Babara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, offered a new procedure, requiring the council to approve any item purchased by MPD in excess of $50,000 or more, creating a list of prohibited items the MPD cannot buy and subjecting the police department to a bi-annual review of its purchases. 

The approved ordinance prohibits the purchase of certain items — including tear gas, bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades, explosives, armor-piercing firearms and ammunition, tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones — through the 1033 program. 

Registered speaker Nicholas Davies rejected claims that the program’s true purpose is to save money for police departments. 

“Arming the police this way makes it clear they don’t trust civilians and they’re prepared to turn on use at any moment,” Davies said. “Madison PD bought a $700,000 mine-resistant vehicle. This is not a cost saving measure — this is like a mid-life crisis vehicle. It’s an armoured minivan that’s intended to intimidate.” 

The motion for the alternate ordinance was approved 13-6 with opposition from Prestigiacomo, Kemble, Ald. Marsha Rummel, District 6,  Ald. Michael Verveer, District 4, Ald. Grant Foster, District 15, and Ald. Arvina Martin, District 11. 

Additionally, the council agreed to launch a study to find alternatives for tear gas before adhering to a decision to ban the crowd control measure entirely. The agreement came after a failed motion to ban tear gas, mace and impact projectile devices altogether. 

The original proposal intended to ban tear gas in Feb. 2021 accompanied by a study of alternatives by MPD. Ald. Lindsay Lemmer, District 3, amended the proposal to hold the ban pending the completion of the study. 

“I’m concerned that without knowing what those findings are, we could potentially be making people less safe rather than what the intent of what this resolution is,” Lemmer said. 

This summer, law enforcement officers used tear gas during protests in the downtown area to deter and disperse demonstrators, leading to subsequent calls by the community for restrictions and accountability measures over the police to be passed. 

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Prestigiacomo felt tools like tear gas cause more harm to the community and contributes to an unhealthy relationship between the police and residents.  

“We should not allow the police to use weapons when they have flagrantly violated their own rules with these weapons,” Prestigiacomo said. 

David Sterken, a registered speaker and physician, urged the council to take into account the dangerous effects of tear gas and the harm it could potentially inflict on bystanders who are peacefully protesting or live nearby. 

Tear gas can cause chemical burns, allergic reactions, respiratory distress. Individuals with pre-existing conditions have a higher risk of developing severe symptoms which can lead to respiratory failure, according to the American Lung Association. 

Kemble voted against the final measure. 

“This is an issue that has been a concern in the community since June this year,” Kemble said. “I think if we’re gonna do something on this we need to do it now.” 

The resolution to commission the study and make the ban conditional upon the results passed 16-3. 

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