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EXCLUSIVE: Indecision as Madison Firebombed

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

MADISON — Madison police officers desperately trying to keep the peace during Tuesday night’s Capitol Square riots were told by command to stand down — even as credible reports of radical activists were preparing to firebomb the City-County Building. 

“Things have reached their proverbial out-of-hand for us,” one officer told Empower Wisconsin. 

Ostensibly sparked by the arrest of a black activist who was captured on video disrupting a Capitol Square restaurant and harassing and threatening customers, a radical left mob tore down iconic Capitol grounds statues, smashed windows of public buildings, and attacked a state senator.  

They turned their attention on the City County Building demanding police release Devonere Johnson, 28, the man arrested earlier at the restaurant, from the Dane County Jail. 

After police passed along a tip to Command Post that the rioters planned to firebomb the building, commanders told officers to stand down and stay out of the area. 

“What I know, talking to my peers, they were told to stand down so command post could make decisions and choices,” an officer told Empower Wisconsin. 

Decisions, it appears were ultimately influenced by Madison’s far left Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and her administration, and they were coming too slow to prevent much of the violence and destruction. 

As the mob drew closer and more confrontational, officers asked permission to use tear gas to disperse the volatile crowd. That request was denied. 

“That response came down to the boots on the street, the rank and file asking to deploy gas because the mob was getting too close and more aggressive,” one law enforcement leader said. “It’s obvious where this is going. It was putting cops in a position where they are in very real danger.”  

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. 

Rioters tossed incendiary devices through City County Building windows, setting fires inside. Again, command was slow to respond. 

Police tell Empower Wisconsin that the Dane County 911 Dispatch Center had to be evacuated. Dispatchers escaped through smoke and flame, disrupting emergency services to much of Dane County. 

Dane County deputies responded, putting out the fire with extinguishers. A police source confirmed that the fast response of the deputies saved dozens of lives, including juvenile offenders housed in the building. He said the building very well could have burned down. 

“There were lives at stake in this building,” the source said. “In the context of what was going on we needed to react, and we needed to react appropriately. There was way too much waiting and hesitating.” 

On Wednesday, the Madison Professional Police Officers Association sent Rhodes-Conway, police administration and the union’s board an email with the subject line, “Addressing The Problem.” Empower Wisconsin obtained a copy of the letter from a police source. 

In the email, MPPOA President Kelly Powers pleads for “an immediate change” in the approach and deployment of resources in response to “the ongoing rioting and lawlessness.” He said officers can accommodate protests in a way that allows First Amendment rights. 

“As the labor union for one of the nation’s most progressive law enforcement agencies we take pride in our rich history of doing so. However, last evening illustrated for too many of us that the tactic of monitoring the chaos until confronted with a certain level of violence is not the answer,” Powers wrote. “The current approach of waiting until an officer is injured before taking enforcement action is untenable, both for the officer and the public.” 

The union chief notes the department’s use of “vague benchmarks” that do nothing more than “raise the willingness of the criminal elements we’re facing to keep pressing the envelope, and consequently expose us to greater risks.”

Powers goes on to write:  

It is not hyperbole, it is our front line reality; if you do not draw the line and take control one of us is going to be killed, or innocent lives could lost.  The incident at the CCB in particular for which an incendiary device was used to ignite a fire in the building that was not only occupied by officers, but by civilians, dispatchers, and other innocent individuals demonstrated for us a need to respond, particularly given the intelligence available at that time.  

This was an occupied building with innocent lives exposed to risks by the rioting.  Additionally as it relates to the use of vehicles to block access to the PSB and CCB, our ability respond appropriately to the city’s emergency needs is unacceptable, this could have been catastrophic. These were risks we could have likely mitigated had we acted with due regard, and sooner. 

We ask that you reformulate your stance and approach, and chose a direction that constitutes an earlier reaction to the presumed risks.  If we are going to put our first responders in a position to respond, we should be enabled to execute a response.

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