by Dayna Long
On Thursday, September 17, a man died during an encounter with officers from the Monona Police Department. The details police have shared about the incident are vague. According to the police, officers began pursuing a driver who was operating his vehicle recklessly. The pursuit-turned-chase ended with the vehicle crashing on Moorland Road at South Towne Boulevard. Police say that the driver, who was alone in his vehicle, got out of the car. Police say that they ordered him to cooperate but that he returned to the vehicle. Police then heard a single gunshot from inside the car. Then the man was dead. The implication is that the driver shot himself to death.
We would be remiss to take their word for any part of this distressing episode. Monona Police Department must immediately release all information and footage related to the death of this individual, who is now being identified on social media as Ello Johnson, a young Black man. Total transparency is required now. This should be a minimum expectation for any police department when a member of the community they are charged with protecting dies while involved with police. But in the case of Monona Police Department in particular, a troubling recent history of deceit, incompetence, and another suspicious death connected to the Department makes it imperative that Monona PD share details of the event as quickly as possible. For Johnson’s family, for the greater community, we must know what actually happened to Ello Johnson.
Monona Police Department already broke trust with the public by lying about an incident that took place on June 2. Police responded to a call from a Monona resident about a person at the house next door who the caller believed did not belong there. Police arrived at the house and in the official police report claimed that they knocked on the door before entering the house with guns drawn to confront Keonte Furdge and Toren Young, two young Black men who had been given permission to stay at the house by the home owner, their former football coach. Later, body cam footage revealed that police did not knock before entering the home. Furdge, who was handcuffed before police realized their error, said of the incident, “I was definitely afraid for my life.” He filed a lawsuit against Monona PD this past week.
In addition to this recent, proven history of Monona PD lying about crucial details of incidents in its own reporting, it should also be noted that Johnson is the second young Black man to wind up dead under bizarre circumstances following a police chase involving Monona PD in the last three months. Rodney Freeman, Jr., age 21, was found drowned in a Lagoon on June 29 after a vehicle chase by Monona PD during the early hours of June 27. Police have said that they followed Freeman because his vehicle was a “vehicle of interest,” implying that they believed it had some relation to violent crimes in Madison. The chase again ended in a crash. Freeman and a passenger exited the vehicle at which time police allegedly pursued them on foot. They never found the passenger. Freeman was found dead two days later. The District Attorney did not bring any criminal charges against police involved in the incident, saying that there was no evidence that police had any contact with Freeman after he exited the crashed vehicle.
It is distressing that there is not more information about the circumstances surrounding Freeman’s strange and tragic death. It is also appalling how quickly his death was brushed aside in the media, as if the untimely and unnatural death of a 21-year-old person isn’t especially remarkable. It is bizarre that there is not more outrage over police chases, which not only pose a clear threat to the individuals being pursued but actually make the roads and streets less safe for the wider public. Why are Monona Police initiating car chases so frequently anyway? On what basis have they decided that someone is a criminal worth pursuing? And shouldn’t it matter to them and to all of us that they’ve demonstrated terrible judgement on more than one occasion?
It was little over a year ago that another Monona PD car chase ended with the wrongful arrest of two young women. Suspecting that their vehicle was involved in a car theft, police chased their car to Fitchburg where they disabled the vehicle with “spike straps” and where the two women were arrested. One of them was bit by a police dog. Their pictures were broadcast by multiple local media outlets, linking them to a car theft that involved shots fired at police. Less widely broadcast was the fact that the women were not at all connected to the car theft and were later released without charges. The woman who was bit was treated at a hospital for her injuries.
This level of dangerous incompetence is despicable and makes clear that Monona PD cannot be trusted to investigate itself, nor should the investigation into what happened to Ello Johnson be a private affair between Monona PD and the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Furthermore, it is clear that Monona PD is routinely criminalizing Black people, regardless of whether they are actually committing a crime. By itself, this racism is deplorable. It also has tragic outcomes that leave victims of this criminalization traumatized at best. Even beyond the death of Ello Johnson, a reckoning is in order.
But we need transparency to start. There is more information available about what took place between Ello Johnson and Monona Police on September 17, possibly including dash cam and body cam footage. All of it needs to be made public now.