Chief Wahl showed up without answers

The head of the Madison Police Department met with a group of protestors on East Wash on Saturday, June 13.

The head of the Madison Police Department met with a group of protestors on East Wash on Saturday, June 13.

A small group of protestors blocked off East Washington Avenue at Stoughton Road this past Saturday afternoon. For about six hours, one of Madison’s busiest intersections shut down entirely for several blocks in each direction and turned into the site of a relaxed family cookout. People cooked hamburgers, kids ran around playing, a dog chased a tennis ball up and down the suddenly deserted highway. 

Occasionally, someone with a megaphone  led chants of “Black families matter” or “no justice, no peace, no racist police” to remind everyone there about the goals of the protests that have taken place in every state since the death of George Floyd: An end to police brutality, an end to or at least a dramatic defunding of policing itself, and greater investment in the well-being of Black communities. At the gathering’s height there were maybe 60 people hanging out, combining joy with solidarity.


One of the event’s organizers, Yeshua Musa, also staged a dramatic protest the previous weekend, blocking several intersections downtown along Gorham Street, University Avenue, and Johnson Street with the help of his young family and a handful of supporters. Musa says he was also arrested and ticketed last week for a solo protest at East Wash and Stoughton Road, and wanted to highlight the fact that the Madison Police Department was inflicting hardship on him and his family by fining him $160. He was asking for an audience with MPD’s Acting Chief, Victor Wahl.

A little before 5 p.m., Wahl showed up, standing quietly at the edge of the gathering in a short-sleeved patrol uniform. He came by himself, kind of. The nearest cops to Wahl were 100 yards away or so, blocking off both roads. One man with the megaphone announced that a cop was here and looked “pretty racist.” 

For the next hour or so, a calm but often defensive Wahl became the center of attention. We were spared the revolting farce of another kneeling photo-op. But protestors shredded him with questions and revealed that he doesn’t have a lot of concrete solutions, beyond continuing to try and work within a broken status quo. 

One protestor who identified as a Black albino captured the deeper frustrations of the crowd: “If you are too afraid to say you disagree with what happened with Tony Robinson, that’s what’s fucked up with the system. That code of silence is the reason Black men, Black women, Black trans people, Black non-binary people, Black fucking 12-year-olds are killed. That is what’s wrong with the system. If you cannot show up here with a concise plan when we show up here with a concise plan, that tells me that you are not good at your job… we show up prepared to talk and you show up grossly underprepared to have this conversation. Grossly underprepared. Your police force officers show up grossly underprepared to handle any conversation with Black people ever…you give them nothing but hammers, so all they see is nails… every single person in this intersection right now is a nail to them, and by extension a nail to you.” 

Still, the people who gathered closely around Wahl were genuinely interested in hearing what he had to say, not simply shouting him down or venting about the many abuses of policing in America. Sometimes a lot of people tried to talk at once, and some Black women in the crowd complained that they weren’t getting enough chances to speak. Organizers (when not interrupting each other) often got everyone back on the same page with a call of “mic check!” Over the course of an hour, the chief had ample opportunity to explain his point of view and consider those of others. We captured audio of the entire conversation to embed here; apologies for the rough quality.

For an impromptu, chaotic interview by a big group, this one was remarkably persistent and effective. Protestors questioned Wahl repeatedly on a couple of points in particular: Diverting police funding to other public services and renewed calls to fire Matt Kenny, the MPD officer who killed Tony Robinson in 2015. 

“I’m personally happy to meet with you and set up meetings to talk about what I can control,” Wahl said early on in the conversation. 

Wahl told the protestors repeatedly that he didn’t have much control over the budgeting process or how the city funds other departments: “The money is outside my control, that’s the Mayor.” 

This is a dodge. 

Yes, the city’s budget ultimately comes down to a vote of the Madison Common Council and the mayor’s signature. No, a police chief or other city agency head can’t decide that agency’s budget unilaterally, or just up and sign over a big chunk of money from their own agency to another. But it’s incredibly dishonest for Wahl to pretend that these questions are out of his hands entirely. 

Heads of city agencies make annual budget requests of the mayor and Common Council every year. Listening to city staff’s recommendations is a big part of how elected officials make policy decisions. There is nothing stopping a police chief from making a reduced budget request, publicly urging the city to put more money into other programs (housing, public health, transit, etc.), or working with other city agency heads to bring the city’s budget priorities into balance in a holistic way. In the city’s 2020 adopted operating budget, MPD’s allocation is more than three times the allocation for Section 8 housing assistance, more than four times the city’s allocation to the joint city-county public health department, and about 1.4 times the allocation for Metro Transit. 

How can this not be a top priority for Wahl, considering how often police are asked to fill the gaps in our under-funded social safety net? 


Wahl did acknowledge this tension at one point during the discussion: “I think what we’ve said all along is that police ended up doing a lot of things that we’ve never intended to do over the years. We’ve evolved to do all sorts of stuff beyond the scope of what we’re supposed to do… and if there’s other providers that can do that stuff… it’s not up to me to make another city budget, another agency budget, I can’t do that.”

Wahl can’t change MPD’s budget all by himself, because that’s not how city government works. As a public official, it’s his job to work with other officials and the community to advance priorities that make sense. Wahl has a voice in that process. He can influence it. Imagine if a police chief came to the Common Council asking the city to cut the police budget and correspondingly increase funding for mental health services, housing-first programs, any number of other things. This by itself wouldn’t lead to police abolition and it might not even lead to significant defunding, but it would have a seismic impact on the public debate. 

Unlike the thousands of people who’ve been hitting the streets in Madison these past few weeks, Wahl isn’t taking ownership of what power he does have to change the situation. And after protestors pressed him on it again and again, Wahl ultimately said that he didn’t support cutting MPD’s budget at all. He kept repeating a few variations on a couple of pat answers: “The [budget] draft is gonna be what I think we need to be the best police department we can be to serve the community, to have training, to make sure that we hire the best cops that want to do our job for the best reasons…. All my job is is to put forth our budget, not other budgets. I don’t do that, I can’t do that.” 

Even once the annual budget is passed, city agencies come to the Mayor and Council asking for budget amendments for various projects. The Common Council’s agenda for its meeting this Tuesday, June 16 includes a $125,000 item that would amend MPD’s capital budget to provide $75,000 for a generator at the East District Station and $50,000 for something called the Police Intervention Equipment Project. Police accountability advocate Amelia Royko Maurer posted in her Facebook group this week that the latter is for launchers that fire foam grenades, part of the trend of euphemistically termed “less-lethal weapons” police use on rioters. The Common Council’s vote on the item, just a couple weeks after cops in Madison repeatedly tear-gassed protestors and fired rubber bullets, will tell us a lot about whether the council is serious about holding the police accountable using the best mechanism it has—the budget process. Seven Alders sent Wahl a letter on June 1 criticizing MPD’s “gross and unnecessary display of force” during the first weekend of protests in Madison; Forward Lookout has more on Wahl’s response.

The protestors on Saturday asked Wahl about the launchers, at times referring to them as rocket launchers or grenade launchers. They don’t appear to fire explosives, but “less-lethal” weapons can still main or kill. And the underlying issue of police stocking up on military equipment is still very relevant in Madison: a database from The Marshall Project shows that MPD has received several items from the Department of Defense, including a mine-resistant vehicle. Wahl acknowledged and defended the use of the foam launchers, telling protestors that they fire “a less-lethal foam round that allows us to prevent bad outcomes when we’re dealing with armed people.” 

During the discussion about the foam launchers, East High alum Rachelle Muldrow took the megaphone to recount the experience of seeing a heavily armed squad of police outside a neighbor’s house on the east side. “I don’t know if you realize how traumatic some of these experiences are,” Muldrow told Wahl. 

As for Matt Kenny, Wahl also pleaded powerlessness during his discussion with protestors on Saturday: “That case was adjudicated, and I don’t have any authority under state law to do anything about that case….I understand people don’t like it, but I can’t fix that.” He said he wanted to focus on making MPD better in the present and future. Protestors quite reasonably responded that firing Kenny would be one way to do that.

An internal MPD investigation into Tony Robinson’s death cleared Kenny in 2015. In other words, Kenny murdered Tony Robinson while following departmental rules that allowed him to murder people. Kenny is not back on patrol, but still works for MPD as a trainer. His duties include teaching meditation. When protestors asked over and over again if Wahl would fire Kenny, Wahl answered that the case had already been adjudicated and that he couldn’t unilaterally fire an officer. 

Wahl also repeatedly declined to condemn Kenny’s actions. Muldrow pressed him repeatedly on this point: “You’re sitting here telling me that oh, you don’t have a choice of keeping him on the force or not. You’re the chief of police. If you don’t want him to work for them, say that. If you think what he did was wrong, say that…and if you felt what he did was unreasonable, to shoot that unarmed Black man, then as the chief of police, you should be able to do something so he still doesn’t have that same position.”

In Madison as in just about every other place in the United States, a variety of structural factors protect cops from discipline: byzantine internal rules, favorable case law, powerful police unions, and a lack of independent oversight bodies with any real teeth. In Wisconsin, state law puts most of the power to discipline and fire cops in the hands of the local Police and Fire Commission. But it would be absurd to claim that police chiefs have no say in discipline. A chief can file a complaint about an officer with the Police and Fire Commission, can publicly condemn an officer’s actions, and can say that it’d be better if a given officer left. 

Take the case of Stephen Heimsness, the MPD officer who shot and killed musician Paul Heenan in November 2012 after Heenan, who was unarmed, drunkenly tried to enter the wrong apartment. Like Kenny, Heimsness escaped formal discipline for the shooting itself. The next summer, then-MPD Chief Noble Wray threw the book at Heimsness in a complaint that accused him of all sorts of other violations, from sending inappropriate messages to unsafe gun handling to ordering motorcycle parts on his work computer. The police union opposed Wray’s complaint, but Heimsness eventually agreed to resign. Of course, I have no idea what Wray’s thinking was, or whether this was a backdoor way to get rid of an officer, or whether the careless and crude behavior described in Wray’s complaint is all that unusual.

Wahl might have been sincere about wanting to have conversations with Musa and the other protestors and set up further meetings. It would be hard to imagine his predecessor, the tantrum-prone Mike Koval, having a similarly civil and prolonged interaction with a group of anti-police protestors. But Wahl seems unwilling to go from conversations to actually changing things or thinking outside of the box. Protestors eventually asked him to leave, and he did so, somewhat apologetically, walking back down East Wash. A few people broke off from the main group to follow him and ask further questions about Matt Kenny. It led to the same dead ends. It wasn’t quite a Jacob Frey-level humiliation, but Wahl showed himself to be, as that one protestor said, grossly underprepared for the debate we’re now having about policing.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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