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Madison police are not learning their lesson

Domestic violence and the city’s latest budget find cops sticking to familiar, toxic patterns.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Domestic violence and the city’s latest budget find cops sticking to familiar, toxic patterns.

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.

During the so-called “racial reckoning” after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, I would argue there were at least two clear imperatives for law enforcement. Two clear, and perfectly reasonable, imperatives that law enforcement has persistently ignored.

The first was to hold law enforcement officers accountable for bad behavior. Just like any other job, if someone shows that they are incapable of doing the job, fire them. Especially a job where the employee holds a lot of power, is armed, and frequently interacts with the public without direct supervision. If someone cannot handle a traffic stop or an arrest for a nonviolent offense without escalating to violence, that person should not be an officer. It’s very simple. 

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What little we know about the three Madison Police Department (MPD) officers who were recently arrested for separate incidents over a two-week period, shows that MPD is not holding officers to even the minimal baseline standard—following the law.

One of the officers, Cory House, identified by Channel 3000, is facing charges of felony strangulation and misdemeanor battery with modifiers for domestic abuse. Reporter Naomi Kowles found court records stating that after he drank 12 beers on November 7, House went into the bedroom where a woman was lying in bed with her daughter, yelled at the woman, and strangled her. 

This isn’t even House’s first troubling incident: in 2013, Kowles reports, House fired a gun (presumably his service weapon, since he was suspended for “violating department policies related to the use of city-owned property”) while under the influence during a social gathering at his home. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and his other charges were dropped. He was suspended without pay for 30 days. 

I hope House is able to get help for his behavioral issues, which seem to be exacerbated by substance use. And I hope he is ultimately able to find work that is fulfilling and supports him and his family. But he should not be a police officer. And I say this as someone who has been fired multiple times. Even when I knew I deserved it or wasn’t the right fit for the job, it was not fun! But you learn and you grow and eventually you find something else that is a better fit for you. 

If someone is able to strangle a partner in front of their partner’s child and discharge a weapon during a party in their home, how are they treating strangers while they are on duty? How are they handling stressful situations while wielding a badge and a firearm?

I will agree with police union representatives about one thing: being a police officer is difficult. But while police unions use that argument to excuse bad behavior and protect officers, I believe that the response should be the opposite: acknowledging that not everyone can handle the combination of stress, responsibility, and power that comes with the job. Officer training, recruiting, and hiring should prioritize people skills, particularly the ability to handle and de-escalate stressful situations. 

The news of the arrests of three MPD officers came out right after MPD Chief Shon Barnes asked the Madison Common Council for funding to add six officers to the ranks and deploy them at Madison schools—initially using a federal grant, with the city picking up the tab after that runs out. Barnes said the officers’ goals would be to a) coordinate access to mental health care for young people b) create youth programming c) act as liaisons between the department and the community and d) train officers in alternatives to custodial arrest.

Which made me think of the second big imperative from the 2020 protests: we need to seriously reconsider the role of law enforcement and how the resources going to law enforcement could be better used. 

That idea was shortened to “defunding” and portrayed as radical by centrists and the right, but Madison has a great example of doing this well: the CARES program, which diverts wellness checks and behavioral health calls to medical and mental health professionals instead of police. The CARES program handled over half of behavioral health calls during its first year of deployment, of which only 3% required police involvement. 

Despite having that load lifted off of MPD’s shoulders, the department still received a 1.3% funding increase from 2022 and the Common Council voted to accept the federal funds and provide the city’s share of funding for the six additional officers.

None of the objectives Barnes laid out for those six officers require hiring more police, and they certainly don’t require placing cops in schools. During the public comment segments of the Common Council’s recent budget hearing, several representatives from Freedom Inc., which successfully pushed for the removal of School Resource Officers (SROs), spoke about how replacing officers in schools wasn’t going to address the issues students face. In fact, there were good reasons Madison Metropolitan School district voted to remove SROs in the wake of the Floyd’s murder, including excessive force incidents, and the negative impact SROs have on Black and brown students, creating a school-to-prison pipeline.  

If we want more mental health care access and youth programming, we need more funding for education, public health, and/or the parks department. Officers undergo training throughout their careers (I hope), so instead of adding more officers to the force, add alternatives to custodial arrest to the curricula. 

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And officers are already liaising with the public whenever they interact with the public. We don’t need them to run youth programs and plan PR opportunities for the department. We just need officers to serve the public with respect; do that long enough, and people will notice. 

And if a so-called “bad apple” gets into the barrel, throw it out. Because as the saying goes, if it’s allowed to stay, it spoils the whole bunch.

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