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Chemical weapon or less harmful crowd control? Digging Deeper into Madison’s tear gas debate

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A protesters kicks tear gas back at police during unrest in downtown Madison. Roman Olivas/photo
Roman Olivas/photo
A protester kicks tear gas back at police during unrest in downtown Madison.

MADISON (WKOW) -- For three nights beginning May 30, hours of peaceful protest around the Wisconsin State Capitol devolved into rioting and looting. On those nights, Madison Police included the use of CS gas, commonly known as tear gas, in its response.

The use of tear gas in Madison, and around the U.S., during widespread protests over police brutality prompted sharp criticism from the American Thoracic Society, which called the use of tear gas "irresponsible" during a pandemic caused by a highly-transmissible respiratory virus.

"People that may have a mild or asymptomatic infection may spread this virus if they are exposed to tear gas and cough or sneeze and run around and have to take their mask off because they are in such severe pain," said Dr. Sven Jordt, an anesthesiologist at Duke University and Chair-Appointee of the ATS.

Jordt pointed to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans militaries from using riot control agents, including CS gas, on each other during war.

Jordt said it strikes the ATS as unethical for American police to use an outlawed chemical weapon on its own citizens, citing research from Hong Kong, Turkey, and even the U.S. military that found people with prolonged exposure to tear gas were more likely to develop acute respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis.

"I'm very concerned that tear gas, due to the fact it can injure the lung, might make people more susceptible to the SARS virus that underlies COVID-19," Jordt said.

Madison Alder Patrick Heck said he, and three other sponsoring alders, cited the ATS letter when they drafted a resolution that would ban MPD from using tear gas moving forward.

"It doesn't really, I think, seem logical that tear gas should be used as a crowd control mechanism on the streets of our country and our city," Heck said.

Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said taking that option away essentially leaves police with two options during a riot: stand back and allow the destruction, or move in with an old-fashioned and more violent approach.

"The other options are gonna be officers using wood batons and going hands on with people," Wahl said. "And clearly those are much more likely to cause injury."

Wahl cited violent protests in Seattle as an example of the problems a community can encounter when it strips from police the ability to use "less lethal" forms of crowd control. Another proposal from Alder Max Prestagiacomo goes even further, banning police use of pepper spray and impact munitions as well.

"We don't have, I don't think, the luxury of just saying we're gonna go home and let a violent crowd do what it will to our downtown," Wahl said. "But if you say you can't use a certain tool because it might impact someone adversely, what's the alternative?"

A presentation, then a decision

The common council is slated to discuss the measures surrounding less lethal weapons throughout August and September. Alders have directed MPD to present in October an overview of its historic use of tear gas.

Wahl said police will also present the findings of an outside investigation currently underway that is exploring how MPD handled the protests once they turned violent and what the department could have done differently.

The council is currently scheduled to take a final vote on the tear gas measure November 17.

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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