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At Madison’s Police and Fire Commission, the deck is stacked against the public

The hiring of Madison’s newest police chief is another defeat for community control. (Illustration by Shaun Soman.)

When Madison’s Police and Fire Commission (PFC) announced in early December that it had narrowed its search for a new Madison Police Department chief of police to four candidates, community organizations and advocates leapt to weigh in on the decision. 

The Community Response Team—a grassroots organization whose stated mission is “to minimize police use of force in our community,” and which serves as a support network for community members who have been affected by police brutality—quickly argued that the selection process had lacked transparency and community input. 

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The PFC, an appointed committee of five, is responsible for hiring Madison Police Department leadership and disciplining cops—although it has not disciplined a police officer following a civilian complaint in over 60 years. Per Wisconsin law, it is the only body in the city with the power to hire and fire officers. That shields its decision-making somewhat from the whims of electoral politics, but also insulates it against public accountability.

By way of community input in the selection of a new police chief, the PFC circulated a survey featuring broad questions about policing. But no members of the public, or the Police Civilian Oversight Board, were present for any candidate interviews, which were conducted in closed session and only released later as videos

Many who spoke at a series of last-minute public PFC meetings—including members of Madison’s newly formed Police Civilian Oversight Board—expressed frustration with the hiring process, and rallied overwhelmingly behind Ramon Batista, a career officer who last served as police chief in Mesa, Arizona. 

After two community listening sessions in which a majority of participants used their allotted time to endorse Batista, the PFC held a vote. Instead of electing Batista—who had emerged definitively as the people’s choice—the PFC tapped Shon Barnes, former director of Director of Training and Professional Development for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago. (Batista received two PFC votes to Barnes’ three.) Barnes has accepted, so it’s basically a done deal. He’ll replace Acting MPD Chief Victor Wahl, who took over in fall 2019 after the tantrum-prone Mike Koval resigned in a snit.

Throughout his career, Barnes has researched and implemented “predictive policing” softwares, investigating their possible use to mitigate racial bias in policing—likely what made him an attractive candidate for the position. Predictive policing is a strategy that relies on crime data to anticipate where and when crime is likely to occur, and allocate beat cops and other law enforcement resources accordingly. Originally conceived by reformers to automate policing, the technique has drawn criticism for replicating the same biases it was initially intended to reduce. 

Because predictive policing models use data collected by police departments themselves, critics argue the technology necessarily reproduces—and likely magnifies—arrest tendencies within the department. If cops are, for example, more likely to pull over a Black driver at a traffic stop than a white driver (and according to a 2019 study by the Stanford Open Policing Project, they are, by about 20%, across the United States), then a predictive model that draws from historical alleged traffic violations will disproportionately identify Black drivers and other data points associated with Black drivers, as potentially breaking the law. Software reflects the biases of those who create it, particularly dangerous in an institution as bias-riddled as the police.

This study by The Appeal, and the publication’s follow up on the same subject, spell out the point. 

Dr. Barnes, who the PFC elected on a split vote, studied predictive policing as a graduate student. Later, when Barnes was deputy chief of police in Greensboro, North Carolina, the department implemented HunchLab, a predictive policing software that has also been used by the Philadelphia Police Department. Like a lot of new law-enforcement technologies, HunchLab has provoked complex debate about its efficacy and ethical implications. (ShotSpotter, which develops gunshot-detection systems that raise serious questions of their own and whose clients include the Milwaukee Police Department, acquired HunchLab’s technology in 2018 and renamed it.) As chief of police in Salisbury, North Carolina, Barnes expanded the department’s use of crime analysts.

Standing up to police unions

Like Barnes, Ramon Batista, the publicly-favored candidate for chief of police, has largely dedicated his career to the project of police reform. 

Batista, a career cop from Arizona, was appointed chief of the Mesa Police Department in 2018, where he set about a reform program to attempt to rectify the corruption and violence the department had become known for. As chief of police, Batista released footage to the public of five Mesa police officers viciously beating a local man, and condemned the officers’ actions, subsequently removing the officers from active duty and clarifying the department’s “use of force” policy. Also during his tenure, Batista changed the department’s training procedures in an attempt to reduce violence on the force, implementing de-escalation training. 

Amid Batista’s modest reform efforts, the police unions representing the Mesa cops cast votes of no confidence against the department chief; Batista resigned shortly thereafter. Madison’s police unions didn’t raise public opposition to Batista as a finalist, but Batista’s supporters anticipated some friction.

“Make no mistake,” speculated Nathan Rokyo Mauer, co-founder of the Madison Community Response Team, at a PFC public comment session on December 14. “Any deep concern you hear from [MPD] union sympathizers about chief Batista’s history with the Mesa PD is really about how he dared push back and hold a corrupt and violent department accountable.” 

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For the activists and members of the public who pushed for Batista, the PFC’s decision was enraging evidence that the PFC had not heeded public input. In fact, the PFC is not tasked with representing the public in its deliberations. That the PFC agreed to extend the public hearing period reflects the whim of the board, not any democratic guarantees enshrined by law. 

So what of the Civilian Oversight Board, the civilian body created in September, ostensibly to provide a public check on the Madison Police Department? The Oversight Board only has the power to make recommendations to the city—not to enforce or create policy.

“Given the nature of our board, specifically having the understanding that this board would be consulted on the hiring processes of the police, [I] feel it is only appropriate that we are given time to deliberate between ourselves as well as with the Madison community to construct a formal recommendation as a body,” said Ananda Deacon, a member of the board, at the December 14 meeting. 

Nonetheless, the Oversight Board was sidelined in the appointment of the new police chief. 

Certainly, Barnes was not the most egregious choice that the PFC could have made. His fellow finalist Christopher Davis, deputy chief of police of Portland, Oregon—a killer cop heading up a police force most recently known for its brutal and relentless war against Portland’s Black Lives Matter activists—garnered no votes from the PFC. But the PFC’s unwillingness to take directives from the public fits the pattern of unaccountability and stymied reform at the heart of the institution of policing.

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