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Capitol Punishments: High-tech evasion

Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

The misleading rhetoric around Madison’s body-camera program, and a mind-bending Foxconn interview.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Technology doesn’t equal accountability

It’s never a great sign when a policy decision that has been put off for months is finally approved in the wee hours of the morning. But that’s what the Madison Common Council did at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, when Alders approved, in a narrow 11-9 vote, a Madison Police Department pilot program for body-worn cameras.

Law enforcement officials were on board, even spearheading the effort. Police union leader Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA), told the Cap Times in January, “For whatever reason, this Common Council has just punted on the issue of body-worn cameras, and I think they’ve done so to the detriment of the public.” 

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A 2021 WPPA public survey (which is a fascinating document in itself) found that 85% of Wisconsinites felt that requiring body-worn cameras was an immediate or somewhat a priority.

Commenting on the City of Madison Public Safety Review Committee’s recommendation not to move forward with body cameras, committee member and District 6 Alder Brian Benford made the astute observation that “technology will not put us on a path to social justice, equity and safety, especially if it’s robbing us of much needed funds to address our neighbors’ basic needs.”

There have been incidents where body-camera footage has upended the official story, such as in the cases of Adam Toledo and Duante Wright. But there have also been countless cases where cameras were turned off, footage went missing, or was never released to the public.

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On April 4, a Grand Rapids, Michigan officer turned off his body camera just before they shot Patrick Lyoya at a traffic stop. Earlier this year, Minnesota state officials began debates over revising statewide body-camera policies after an investigative report found officers were turning off or muting cameras “in the middle of traffic stops, felony arrests and in the aftermath of deadly encounters.” 

The resolution that passed on Wednesday is so vague, there’s nothing to prevent similar incidents from happening in Madison. 

The body cameras discussion also misses the larger point about police accountability. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that officers who shoot civilians don’t start out shooting; there’s usually a record of complaints of unnecessary force that precedes any deaths. If a police force wants to hold officers accountable, they can; they just have to be willing to listen to the public and fellow officers who are seeing the red flags.

For all the talk of “bad apples,” not enough is being done to remove those officers, or at least get them off the streets and away from civilians. Cameras can help, but only if the department wants them to.

What happened? Don’t ask Yeung

I have already pilloried UW-Madison’s College of Engineering for hiring former Foxconn executive Alan Yeung, who headed the manufacturing giant’s failed project in Mount Pleasant. Maybe Yeung thought talking to The Verge about his self-published book Flying Eagle (the code name given to the project before it was announced) would revive his reputation as an innovator and help his new employer save face.

It did not. 

First, I have to give credit to The Verge‘s Nilay Patel for, after a few polite opener questions, getting straight to heart of the matter by asking Yeung, “If you just read this book cover to cover, you would end fully believing that there is a Generation 10.5 LCD factory in southeastern Wisconsin. There is not a factory. What happened?”

Yeung tries to deflect by flattering Patel, but Patel kept on him, saying: “You wrote an entire book about Foxconn Wisconsin that ends before the thing happens. It is all about how the deal came to be, but it does not address the fact that it was never executed. There is no factory. Why not address that in the book?”

Yeung’s answer is, there will be a second book. Why Yeung thought anyone would want to read about all the planning that went into a project that never happened is beyond me, but here we are. (If you do want to read a book about the project, it should probably be Foxconned, by Madison’s own Lawrence Tabak.)

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Yeung tries to explain the lack of the factory by blaming the change in administration (Patel pointed out there was no factory before Evers’ election), criticism of the project (because people didn’t think it was going to happen. Alternately you could, I don’t know, prove them wrong and make it happen), and ultimately saying at one point “if staff support and input were taken into account, the Gen 10.5 fab would have gone to Ohio.”

So you picked Wisconsin, made a deal with Wisconsin, but if you had actually taken into account what was needed to complete the project you should have picked Ohio? And that’s whose fault? Ours?

While patiently wading through Yeung’s word salad, Patel tries again and again to get a straight answer out of him as to why there isn’t a factory. Yeung even went on a tear about how Foxconn is discussing factories in Ohio and Saudi Arabia. Patel then does what I hope every reporter does when confronting Yeung on the situation: make him realize that for a lot of people, this isn’t a game and there were real investments to make it happen. And it didn’t.

“I talked to a lot of people who really believed those promises and they left good jobs to be part of a revival of US manufacturing. You mentioned patriots when you started; I talked to a lot of people who felt very patriotic about this idea. Then they got there and saw it was not happening,” Patel said. “They felt that it was all optics, that there was no plan. It was all just announcements of big things that were going to happen that never did and they felt betrayed. How do you answer these people?”

You can read Yeung’s response for yourself, but if you’re looking for a satisfying answer, there isn’t one. He says he’ll have it all there for us in his next book. But, given his inability to answer basic questions in this interview, I wouldn’t hold my breath. 

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