MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An 18-year-old black woman whose arrest sparked protests in Madison this week has the option to go through a restorative justice process instead of facing criminal charges, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced Friday.
Police say 18-year-old Genele Laird displayed a knife Tuesday at East Towne Mall while confronting a person she thought had stolen her cellphone. She allegedly threatened security staff and resisted arrest.
Video of the arrest has gone viral and has sparked protests alleging excessive use of force and discrimination. In the video, Madison police officers struggle with Laird as they take her to the ground and handcuff her. It shows one officer striking her with his knee and fist several times while trying to get her hands behind her back. Two officers were treated for injuries following the arrest.
Ozanne said at a news conference Friday that Laird won’t face criminal charges if she completes the community restorative court process. Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm done to the community while keeping low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system. In Dane County’s Community Restorative Court pilot, offenders appear before community members instead of judges and face consequences tailored to their offense. They also must take responsibility for their actions and reconcile with victims.
If Laird doesn’t complete the program, Ozanne said, she will face three felony charges for spitting at an officer, battery to an officer and resisting an officer. She will also face three misdemeanor charges for obstructing an officer, disorderly conduct while armed and disorderly conduct.
“Restorative justice is not a place for me to use or send a case to sweep things under the rug or to avoid making difficult decisions,” Ozanne said. “It is a place for this community to work with its young people to build a more just and peaceful community.”
Ozanne said the victims — the person Laird confronted at the mall, the mall security guards and the two officers — all supported the decision to offer her restorative justice.
Officials continued to withhold the names of the two officers involved at Friday’s news conference, citing threats that have been made against them. The Dane County Sheriff’s office is conducting a review of the use of force during the arrest.
Eleven of 20 Madison City Council members signed a letter Thursday saying they “cannot see past what seems like excessive aggression” in the video. The letter acknowledges that both Laird and the officers may have made poor choices but says “we cannot disregard the power imbalance between a young person and trained law enforcement officers.”
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said the decision to offer Laird restorative justice was due to the officers’ desire for the best resolution moving forward — not the community pressure.
“It was not owing to a video that goes viral,” Koval said. “That’s not what’s prompting their crusade.”