New information on out-of-town police at Madison protests

Local TV reporter caught in melee

Smoke canister explodes in downtown Madison
A canister explodes in downtown Madison. From local reporter George Balekji's Twitter feed (courtesy of Balekji)

Law enforcement from the farthest edges of the state responded to Madison protests of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and systemic racism and violence by police generally. The presence of large numbers of out-of-town cops raises questions about their speedy integration into Madison Police Department command. 

A local TV reporter appears to have been  included in more than 300 “brutal crackdowns” on news media in the first week of nationwide protests centering on Floyd’s death. Law enforcement action against the reporter occurred during  the second night of protest, Sunday, May 31, which has been characterized by Madison Common Council members as presenting “a gross and unnecessary display of force.”

Madison Police yesterday released a list of the 31 Wisconsin law enforcement agencies assisting from May 30 through the night of June 1. Besides National Guard and State Patrol, officers came from as far away as the police department in Hudson, Wis., population 13,000, 240 miles from Madison and 18 miles from St. Paul. Other agencies include sheriffs’ offices in La Crosse, Grant , Rock, Sauk and St. Croix counties, as well as Oneida County, whose entire population is 36,000. Its county seat, Rhinelander, is 200 miles from Madison. 

“We are getting assistance from many departments and agencies, although not all at the same time,” says Joel DeSpain, spokesperson for the City of Madison Police Department. The number of assisting officers is not being released. Cost of outside help will not be totaled until the end of this month, according to David Schmiedicke, Madison finance director.

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George Balekji usually covers sports for WMTV, Madison’s NBC affiliate.  At around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, well before a protest devolved into a handful of people vandalizing area shops, he was on Madison’s State Street, interviewing a man who would only give his name as “Kelly.” Behind them were the reporter’s camera operator and a group of protesters. Captured on video, Balekji was walking past 625 State St.  Ahead, near 639 State St., uniformed personnel were gathering. 

“I was just trying to find out what was going on,” says Balekji. “The group I was in was peaceful.” Then, “One officer steps up and throws the canister,” he says. “The canister was thrown right in front of me. I saw it in the hand of a law enforcement officer. I saw it coming.”

It exploded near his feet. “The second it went off it was like in a movie. Everything was quiet,” he says. “But in my head it was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ ”

Fortunately for Balekji and protesters, the wind was in their favor. He has since come to believe the canister was filled with some sort of smoke, not tear gas. “I think it was very naive for him to throw a smoke bomb right in front of a camera, but overall I don’t feel like I was targeted,” Balekji says. 

According to DeSpain, however, only “gas” was used, and then only “after looting began and property was being damaged.”

The City of Madison Mayor’s Office has refused repeated requests for comment but, speaking on background, an aide states that “there was no police presence until it was not peaceful,” more than three hours after Balekji’s encounter. Officers were told repeatedly that “if they were using tear gas – to state it loudly prior to using it.”

For now, no one knows which assisting agency was responsible for throwing the canister toward the TV reporter. On June 2 DeSpain told The Wisconsin Examiner, “I don’t know the specifics of this situation.” Yesterday evening he promised to “get to the bottom” of Balekji’s allegations.

WMTV has chosen not to air the footage, says Balekji, but he shared it on his Twitter feed.

While many agencies came to its aid, the Madison Police Department retained lead command. There were coordinated briefings, and leaders of primary agencies sat in the joint command post, says DeSpain.