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Madison police’s budget double-talk

Chief Wahl makes a cynical ploy in the debate over police funding.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The conversation protestors had with Acting Madison Police Department Chief Victor Wahl in June feels like it happened several cataclysms ago now. There’s a piece of it I want to revisit now that the City of Madison’s 2021 budget process is underway. 

During that exchange at the blocked intersection of East Wash and Stoughton Road, Chief Wahl repeatedly hemmed and hawed about his ability to make change in his own department. The small crowd gathered around Wahl pressed him, doggedly but fairly, to express support for cutting MPD’s budget and spreading more money around to other public services. As the idea of defunding and eventually abolishing police departments takes center stage in American political debate, the thinking goes that we should instead spend more on investing in communities, healthcare, housing, education, and try to address the roots of crime and violence, rather than letting them fester and then make them worse through violent policing.

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Back in June, Wahl essentially dodged these questions by claiming he couldn’t do much about the city budget. The Mayor and Madison Common Council have the final say over city budgets, but city government agency heads like Wahl shape the budget conversation by making annual budget requests, laying out their priorities and advocating for them. I wrote at the time: “Wahl isn’t taking ownership of what power he does have to change the situation.” 

Well, he’s taking ownership now. In the operating budget request Wahl submitted to the Mayor, the chief engages in some cruel and cynical bargaining. This came up briefly during Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, which was noteworthy for all sorts of other reasons—including the passage of long-awaited civilian oversight programs for police, and a hot-mic incident that sure sounds like Alder Paul Skidmore calling a local activist a cunt, despite Skidmore’s denials.

Because the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the city’s tax revenues, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has asked all city agencies to prepare for five percent budget cuts in their annual requests. Instead, Wahl asks for an almost $4 million budget increase. In his budget request, Wahl goes on to outline what he would cut if asked to take a five percent hit. First under the axe, at least rhetorically, are MPD’s Mental Health Unit, community outreach, and restorative justice coordination efforts. Wahl does go on to outline other cuts to things like patrol officers, special investigations, and mounted patrol (fine! Stop turning innocent horses into cops!), but also threatens cuts to MPD’s crossing-guard program for school-age children, and a Neighborhood Patrol Officer program for “challenged neighborhoods.”

The clear threat is that if MPD shares the sacrifices of an austerity budget with other city agencies, it will have no choice but to cut back on the trappings of a “friendly” and “progressive” police department. It will have no choice to function but as an even more inadequate de facto social-services agency. Keep in mind that Madison’s police department is already very well-funded in comparison to most other parts of local government, and has enjoyed a growing budget in recent years, part of a national trend that played out even as overall crime levels around the country declined

This has created an entrenched mentality in police, elected officials, and the public: We take it for granted that police departments have relatively lavish funding while less-violent government services run on fumes. Wahl digs into this mentality in his memo, saying of the past year: “Had we been operating with a 5% smaller budget (as outlined above), the department simply would not have been able to address the issues faced by the City during this period.” 

At the same time, right-wing politicians are also playing sick games to try and snuff out the very idea of cutting police funding even a little bit. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature refused this week to take up a package of police reform bills. But Republican State Sen. Van Wanggaard—a former cop from Racine—did introduce a bill that would cut local governments’ shares of state funding if they reduce their budgets for “hiring, training, and retaining law enforcement officers.” The bill text on Wanggaard’s state legislative website is even titled “19-6348_1-fund-the-police.pdf,” which reads like something of an order to local governments around the state: Fund the police, even if your community members and local elected officials decide it makes sense to dedicate even a little of that money to other things. Fund the police, even if you understand that your community’s needs require something different.

Clearly, police and their advocates have plenty of ways to influence the debate over police funding. Wahl sent an unmistakable message about that in his budget memo. He sent a very different message to the Madisonians who engaged with him in good faith back in June.

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