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Don’t let lies take hold in Madison’s debate over police funding

Paul Skidmore’s campaign materials stir up fears about an MPD budget cut that didn’t happen.

Paul Skidmore, running this week for re-election as Madison’s District 9 Alder, has been sending out a campaign mailer that engages in some base fearmongering about his challenger, Nikki Conklin, and stirs up fears about cuts to police budgets. “SERIOUS DANGER,” the mailer proclaims, and indeed, there’s serious danger that the rhetoric in this mailer will contribute to an absurd, false narrative about what’s happened in Madison over the past year. 

These materials tell a story about the recent past. They give you the impression that the Madison Police Department’s budget came under some sort of serious threat. In the case of Skidmore’s mailer, the story would be that a $1.1 million budget cut occurred, that $1.1 million represented a drastic cut, and that MPD was specifically targeted. 

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These are lies. MPD’s defenders can’t seem to make their case without creating a retroactive, false narrative about budget cuts, set against the backdrop of a statistically dubious “crime wave.” Yes, there are several Common Council candidates running who support defunding and/or abolishing the police, and these ideas have grown more popular over the past year. But instead of actually addressing or refuting abolitionist arguments, people like Skidmore are pointing at boogeymen of their own creation. 

The City of Madison’s adopted 2021 operating budget—”adopted” meaning it’s what the Common Council passed and what the Mayor signed—allocates $84,909,586 for MPD. The adopted 2020 budget allocated $83,120,029 for MPD. These numbers are all right there on the city’s website, easy to find. Year over year, MPD received a slight increase in its operating budget. That is what the Common Council passed and what the Mayor signed. Throw out all the technicalities and objections you want, but that’s the bottom line. 

For an incumbent Alder to misrepresent those figures is downright disqualifying. What has been cut? What is there to restore? Also note the language on Skidmore’s mailer about cops in schools. That isn’t a decision the Common Council can make on its own. Instead, the presence of cops in Madison public schools depends on an agreement between two distinct units of local government—the City of Madison and the Madison Metropolitan School District. Last summer’s decision to pull officers from high schools was first an act of MMSD’s Board, and then the Common Council voted to ratify it. MMSD Board President Gloria Reyes told PBS Wisconsin at the time that “the city cannot overturn the board’s decision to sever ties if the city decided against it.” I guess Skidmore’s mailer is more convincing if you’re not entirely clear on where the Common Council’s powers begin and end. 

During this latest budget cycle, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway asked all city agencies to prepare for budget cuts, because the pandemic dealt a blow to city tax revenues. Each year, city agencies make their budget requests, and for this latest cycle Rhodes-Conway asked them all to propose five percent cuts. Rhodes-Conway did initially propose cutting $2 million in general-fund support MPD’s budget, which would represent less than 2 percent of its overall budget. Part of the proposed approach to the MPD budget cuts involved asking the police union to accept cuts—in other words, not an actual budget cut at the legislative level. As you’ll see in the 2020 projected” column, the 2021 budget is less than MPD actually spent in 2020, but again, we’re dealing with an across-the-board austerity budget. And I really don’t know what would keep MPD from running over budget in 2021. The city budgeting process is enormously complicated and it’s understandable to get confused. A sitting Alder shouldn’t be further muddying the waters.

For police and their defenders to complain about the city’s 2021 budget is the epitome of right-wing political messaging: Playing the victim even, or especially, when you’re in fact enjoying a sizable advantage. And pretending that police are being undermined just when they’re more out of control than ever. Cops, police unions, and their allies constantly do this. Any time people want to have a reasonable discussion about what cops should do and how much we should pay for it, it’s time for police and especially police unions to throw a tantrum. MPD didn’t engage all that constructively in the budget process, either. Last fall, then-Acting Chief Victor Wahl responded to the prospect of cuts by threatening to cut programs like restorative justice efforts and MPD’s Mental Health Unit.

The broader implication of Skidmore’s mailer, which shows an armed man menacing a woman and child, is that people who want to shift money away from policing would essentially throw the public to the wolves, doing nothing else to address violence or ensure public safety. But if you’ve spent even a little time listening to the actual arguments of police abolitionists (or people who’d go part of the way toward abolition by cutting police budgets and creating tougher accountability measures), you know that they’re not proposing to defund police in a vacuum or to let people harm each other without consequence. Instead, they seek to build other, less violent approaches to justice and accountability, and to address the root social and economic factors that breed crime by putting more resources into housing, schools, and so forth—essentially, investing the money in human well-being, especially in historically oppressed communities. For instance, the Progressive Dane platform cited in Skidmore’s mailer calls for “Transitioning funding away from law enforcement and towards community development, public health, early childhood education, and human services, thereby ensuring that police are performing policing duties while other professionals are hired to do social work, mental health and other services.”

Agree with it or don’t, but it isn’t and never has been a proposal to simply get rid of cops and leave all the other conditions untouched. One prominent abolitionist thinker and activist, Mariame Kaba, is often quoted as saying that “abolition is about making things as much as it is about dismantling.” 

If Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway or a unified group of Alders had come up with an ambitious, overarching plan to take large amounts of money out of the MPD budget and redistribute it to other city services and programs, we’d be having an entirely different debate right now. Those like Skidmore who oppose any cuts whatsoever to police budgets would have to make an argument as to why the city shouldn’t spend more on other areas, and would have to convince the public that reducing MPD’s funding had created harm. People with more in-between stances on policing—say, those who favor more accountability measures but don’t support abolition or aggressive defunding—would probably be thinking about where the balance is, and at least showing some openness to preventing violence and increasing safety through non-police means. Abolitionists and other advocates of defunding the police would, reasonably, be under pressure to demonstrate that their approach was having the impact it’s supposed to. 

But we’re not really having that argument yet. Instead, we’ve got a vocal, growing minority calling for abolition or defunding, and solidly pro-cop politicians trying to stir up a deluded panic about things that haven’t happened yet. Depending on Tuesday’s election results, Madison could end up with at least a handful of Alders who explicitly support defunding the police. They will not form a majority of the 20-seat Common Council. They’d have to work together well as a bloc, and work with more moderate Alders to advance their goals piecemeal. Their visibility as Alders might make abolitionist policies more popular and encourage other abolitionist candidates to run for local office. In the short term and very likely the long term as well, the reality of city politics will require abolitionist Alders to emphasize the “making” over the “dismantling,” so to speak.

The decisions the Common Council has made about MPD over the past year are largely tame and tepid. Alders did approve, in September, a Police Civilian Oversight Board that advocates had sought for years, but this doesn’t divert any funding from MPD and it won’t have any real teeth. After last summer’s riots downtown, the Common Council struck down a mayoral curfew, which effectively denied police the ability to detain protestors with probable cause, which they shouldn’t be able to do anyway. Alders did unanimously deny a $50,000 MPD funding request for the purchase of what are hilariously called “less-lethal” weapons. A resolution banning MPD from using tear gas failed. Instead, Alders decided to study the issue. 

Additionally, the city and Dane County are working together to create a Crisis Response Team that will send paramedics and crisis workers, rather than police officers, to handle behavioral-health calls. It’s a laudable project, and will help cut down on police agencies’ amorphous role as de facto social-services providers—a burden cops neither want nor need anyway. As good as this is, it still doesn’t amount to anything like defunding the police. 

A Common Council that won’t even put its foot down on tear gas does not represent a meaningful threat to MPD’s funding or to the general culture of police impunity. If you believe that our current Alders have come anywhere near to defunding MPD, you’re falling for a completely spurious rewrite of the past year’s history.

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