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The trope of progressive cops

What do we really mean when we put MPD on a pedestal?

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

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.

This past weekend, a demonstration on Willy Street marked the sixth anniversary of Tony Robinson’s murder at the hands of Madison Police Department officer Matt Kenny, and kept up the call for MPD to fire Kenny. The next day, we were once again admonished that MPD is considered a “progressive” police department. 

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In endorsing a slate of candidates for Madison’s Common Council this Sunday, the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial board wrote that “Paul Skidmore has defended Madison’s progressive and professional police department against excessive criticism during last year’s protests Downtown that were sparked by police brutality in Minneapolis and Kenosha.” (Italics mine, in that quote and subsequent quotes.) 

This is only the most recent example of a very common characterization. Isthmus columnist and former mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote in July 2020 that “It’s important that the police are under civilian control, but it’s also important that part-time public officials don’t try to micromanage one of the most progressive, thoughtful police departments in the nation” and writing in April 2019 that “MPD has worked hard to be among the most progressive departments anywhere.” A February 2021 State Journal editorial ran under the headline “Chief Shon Barnes is right: A progressive police force needs body cameras on its officers.” A Channel 3000 story in December 2020 paraphrased former MPD Chief Noble Wray saying that MPD’s new chief “will face both challenge and opportunity in one of the nation’s most progressive police departments.” 

This adjective has a way of hanging around MPD. Sure, you can make a reasonable case that MPD is progressive for an American police department—not that it says a whole lot. The problem is more in how MPD’s defenders use that characterization. People who call MPD “progressive” often seek to wall MPD off from the broader conversation around violence and racism in policing, despite numerous incidents in MPD’s own recent history, including: Robinson’s death, the 2012 shooting of Paulie Heenan, the beating of an 18-year old Black woman at East Towne Mall in 2016, officers punching a restrained Black teenager in the head in 2019, and the repressive violence that greeted protestors in May and June 2020. During the city of Madison’s latest budget cycle, in which all city departments were told to brace for cuts, then-Chief Victor Wahl threatened that he’d respond to modest reductions in MPD’s funding by cutting the department’s mental health unit and restorative justice efforts—in essence, turning the most progressive elements of MPD into mere bargaining chips. And yet, some people can hold these incidents in their minds alongside the notion that MPD is progressive. 

Madison also loves the trope of the enlightened cop. If you keep up all that much with press coverage of MPD, you will at some point run across a photo of former MPD Chief David Couper in an office decked out with portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and you’ll find plenty to read about his efforts at police reform. Back in 2009, an MPD trainer named Mike Koval told Isthmus about his desire to make the department more diverse and portrayed himself as the kind of touchy-feely cop who makes other cops roll their eyes: “I believe that I’m probably viewed by some recruits as this sort of ACLU, tree-hugging guy who has to be endured for six months.” In 2014, Koval became MPD’s chief, and before long he developed a reputation for digging in his heels and resisting civilian oversight, thanks to a series of outbursts and threats. Still, when Koval retired in 2019, the State Journal noted in an editorial that “Koval shared Madison’s progressive values.” Another WSJ editorial from October 2020 expressed relief that “progressive Madison is not defunding its police.” All of this taken together is really interesting, because the term “progressive” is flexible enough that it can both confer virtue upon MPD and serve as a foil to MPD; depending on how you use it, “progressive” can signal either that MPD is in step with community values or a bit at odds with Madison’s politics.

Broad characterization vs. behavior. Adjectives vs. verbs. As someone who occasionally gets carried away with adjectives myself, I find that all this gives me pause. Certainly, when people characterize MPD as racist or violent or troubled, they’re expected to back up those assertions with examples of racist or violent things MPD has done. It’s seemingly on MPD’s critics to prove that MPD is not progressive, rather than on MPD’s supporters to prove that it is. 

Certainly there are reasons for this characterization if you bother to look for them. One city-commissioned report from 2017 noted “MPD’s well-deserved reputation as pioneers in police science and as a cradle of progressive ‘problem-oriented policing’ strategies.” You would be hard-pressed to argue that people like Couper haven’t made some long-term impact on MPD, though these days Couper is just as likely to sharply criticize his former department. 

Programs like the mental health unit and restorative justice may well indicate an effort to serve the community in a more progressive way, though plenty of police critics—not to mention plenty of cops!—would question whether these efforts need to be under the umbrella of policing in the first place. But generally, people throwing around the word “progressive” to describe MPD don’t do a whole lot to fill us in on any facts or historical context that would explain just what makes MPD progressive. The implication is that it’s just an obvious, known, accepted thing that MPD is progressive, and that this is the default position a reasonable person should take. 

The word “progressive,” at least as Madisonians use it in political discussions, seems to encompass anything that’s even vaguely left of center. Its use implies, falsely, that most people in this city are basically on the same page politically and pulling in the same direction, and we know that so-called progressive cities are still racist. The term is deeply rooted in Wisconsin’s history and political identity, but we’ve exhausted it through over-use. It’s an artifact of a Madison exceptionalism that needs to die if we’re ever to have an honest conversation about our city’s problems. Even assuming the best about Madison’s progressive values, all manner of legal factors and weak accountability mechanisms—which in Wisconsin include Police and Fire Commissions, enshrined in state law—shield police from any real obligation to reflect the politics of the communities they serve.  

Perhaps we’re not so much progressive as permissive—your mileage may vary depending on your race and background, but generally, we’re a less buttoned-down city and you can get away with being a little eccentric here. The other side of that coin, though, is that sometimes credibility sticks where it shouldn’t.

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