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MPD’s magic wand of “Madison-Centric Policing” paints a misleading picture of progressivism—just in time for 2023 budget season

Chief Barnes picks up where his predecessors left off in manufacturing MPD’s innocence.
Police Chief Shon Barnes stands in front of an evidence board, red lines making frantic connections across it. The board contains Madison police related images and phrases: tear gas, local protests, a Madison map, and the text “Madison-Centric Policing” highlighted and circled. Below the board are bins full of cash. Chief Barnes holds a data graph and appears to be showing the board and research to an onlooker.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.

Chief Barnes picks up where his predecessors left off in manufacturing MPD’s innocence.

Madison’s city budget season is in full swing. Perhaps the Madison Common Council will do a good job now that it has handled some other pesky business, like purging itself of a member who claims to have joined the Oath Keepers by accident. Just as likely, our city’s political discourse will be at its most craven and absurd. If you have no guts and no vision, now is your time to take the spotlight and mutter about why we have to stay the course with certain long-term sunk-cost budgetary millstones and can’t do anything nice because it just wouldn’t be practical.

And there is a very bad omen in the operating budget request that Madison Police Department Chief Shon Barnes submitted in July. In the document, Barnes refers 11 times to something called “Madison-Centric Policing.” 

“I have included a critical supplemental budget request that will highlight our new ‘Madison-Centric Policing’ philosophy,” “I am including my request for a new ‘Madison-Centric’ Policing Initiative,” and on and on. This clearly is meant to be the showcase of the whole request, a signal that MPD is flush with fresh ideas. Not that any fresh ideas would enable it to bear up under even the tiniest of budget cuts, but still—dynamic! Innovative! 

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A sponsor display for the Stoughton Opera House.

To the extent that this gibberish represents a well-formed idea at all, it seems to stem directly from Barnes’ professed belief in “data-driven” and “evidence-based” policing. This sort of thing is the crux of Barnes’ whole brand—a highly educated, forward-looking fellow who argues that tech-driven strategies like predictive policing and of course body cameras can complement a “community policing” approach.

It’s easy for such a detail to get lost in the massive amounts of documents and the procedural trudge that local government requires. Still, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what a spectacularly half-assed bit of jargon MPD has concocted here. Madison! Centric! Policing! Here in Madison! Our intrepid boys in blue have found us on a map! Of course, it seems like an enormous tell that police think they can get extra credit for focusing on the area they are paid to police. This is because, deep down in our culture, police are not really obligated to reflect the needs or values of the communities that are obligated to fund and obey them.

Alright, so what does Barnes mean by this? Near as I can tell, it mostly just means more funding for more cops, under that tired and mealy-mouthed banner of increasing trust with people who don’t trust the police due to the police’s own behavior. The specific asks:

  • Hiring more cops part 1: Barnes asks the city to accept a federal COPS grant to fund six additional police officer positions grouped under MPD’s “Youth Trust and Legitimacy Initiative.” Barnes writes, reasonably enough I suppose, that “The public confers legitimacy only on those whom they believe are acting in procedurally just ways. In addition, law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as coming in from outside to impose control on the community.” I think the question here is whether it is right to try and persuade children or adults to trust the police if there isn’t a broader commitment to fundamentally changing those behaviors that engender mistrust (there isn’t) and if there aren’t real consequences when police fall short of these goals (there aren’t).
  • Hiring more cops part 2: Barnes also asks that the city fund four positions as part of a “Neighborhood Police Officer Program.” This both is and isn’t an attempt to replace the four school resource officers MPD had stationed at Madison’s public high schools until the city and Madison Metropolitan School District dissolved that arrangement following years of pressure and protest in 2020. A lot of this is presumably related to the panic about fights breaking out at high schools. Police responded to at least one such situation in 2021 by pepper-spraying students. So the question here is whether adding these four positions will suddenly cause MPD to take a more enlightened approach when interacting with youth, or address the root causes of obstacles to the education and health of young people. .
  • Adding a sergeant position that will report to MPD’s Traffic and Special Events Lieutenant. Barnes proposes upgrading an existing position, so it may be a promotion rather than a full new hire? The budget proposal pegs the cost of this at $10,533.
  • Hiring more cops, part 3: Barnes requests funding to “add a Supervisor Position to Support The Director of Police Data, Innovation and Reform,” at an estimated cost of $96,811. This is part of Barnes’ marquee effort to build up a “Crime and Data Analysis Unit” at MPD. 

In short, “Madison-Centric Policing”‘ seems to consist largely of building up “community policing” and gathering/crunching more data. Neither of which is really a new notion in law enforcement, and neither of which is particularly specific to Madison itself.

Both trains of thought at the core of this not-new paradigm have a lot to answer for. 

Writing in The Appeal in 2019, Philip V. McHarris charged that “community policing is merely an expensive attempt at public relations,” and for all of Barnes’ love of data it’s really not clear how he proposes to measure its impacts. As for the data side, Barnes may indeed be an expert, but do we want to charge into this without understanding in great detail how police propose to gather and use even more data than they’ve already got? 

Police and prosecutors have a long history of embracing junk forensic science, debunked social theories, and highly suspect tech. The last, under its sunny brainy veneer, also subjects us to an unholy marriage of police agencies and tech companies—two of the most powerful and least accountable forces in our society. In that context, we need to be skeptical. 

Before letting Barnes act on his theories, the Madison Common Council needs to first ask how those theories hold up outside the bizarre intellectual hothouse of modern policing. Alders also need to understand that there is no guarantee that enlightened “philosophies” of policing will permeate into the ranks of police officers in general, protected as they are by a host of legal structures, weak disciplinary systems, and favorable police-union contracts. 

If Barnes is on a civilizing mission at MPD, he is also continuing a very familiar game of budgetary and political chicken between his department and the Common Council. Like Victor Wahl before him, Barnes is, in so many words, warning elected officials and the public that new budget cuts, restrictions, or limits on officers’ discretion will leave MPD with no other choice than to revert to the most hostile, regressive version of itself. Before we can build trust, we need you to trust us with more money, and also trust us that you won’t like us when we don’t get it.

Back in 2020, Wahl threatened to scale back MPD’s mental-health efforts, restorative justice programs, and even school crossing guards if the city included MPD in proposed across-the-board 5 percent budget cuts. Barnes isn’t as brazen as all that in his own budget message, which complains that a 1 percent operating budget cut (all of $842,401) “would reduce the department’s ability to deliver service and support public safety and would come at a time when our annual staffing analysis shows a need for additional police officer positions in patrol services.” (Stop the presses: cops must hire more cops, according to cops.) 

But Barnes is every bit as brazen in a September 14 statement urging the Common Council not to ban MPD from using tear gas. District 8 Alder Juliana Bennett brought the proposal back to the table this year, after the Council chickened out on the ban in 2020. Just because the chief has a PhD and hopes to move policing into the future with high-tech tools, doesn’t mean he’s above the good old crude strategy of indiscriminately blasting aerated poison into crowds from time to time.

The way Barnes reconciles this is absolutely astonishing:

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Gone are the days of the 1960’s where officers in Madison used batons and fists to strike demonstrators in crowds, and I refuse to go back. However, this ordinance is walking us back to a place in time where this would be the only option to address violent, riotous behavior by individuals in crowds. It doesn’t take more than a quick glace [sic.] through the history of Madison to see that the Dow Chemical riots in 1967 were a tumultuous time exacerbated by ugly, brutal police uses of force. As your Chief, I refuse to bring that into the 21st Century.

I think I would need to know string theory or something to fully appreciate the rhetorical cleavages Barnes attempts here. Beating people up with batons and fists does not belong in the 21st century, but gassing civilians does. It was bad when Madison police beat up protestors in 1967, but totally justified when Madison police indiscriminately brutalized protestors in 2020. Individuals within a crowd displayed violent behavior, but police had to visit violence upon the crowd as a whole in order to facilitate the exercise of First Amendment rights. The implied reluctant threat of batons and fists also parallels the arguments Wahl made in 2020, when he implied that if the Council took away MPD’s “less-lethal” projectiles, officers would just have to shoot for-sure lethal bullets at people experiencing mental-health crises.

Now of course, wait a second, these contradictions don’t matter because between 1967 and 2020 we adopted the “Madison Method,” which Barnes of course nods to in his statement. Said method is the product of a MPD former chief who believes police should not use tear gas, which just introduces further contradictions. Dissonant though it is, these arguments all serve the bigger theme that Madison is exceptional, that Madison police are progressive, that the bigger currents of police violence and injustice at work elsewhere don’t really apply here in the same terms. Barnes hasn’t been in town long, but has not missed a beat in continuing the primary job of a Madison police chief: The manufacture of MPD’s innocence. Basically just stick the word “Madison” on the same old violent, extractive garbage that makes up American life, and magically you have something very different. You have crafted a lovely facade of reason, discretion, and care.

Barnes is flat-out lying when he claims, emphatically, that Madison police use “chemical munitions” only as a “last resort… only in specific circumstances.” Anyone who was in Madison during the 2020 protest—and Barnes, as he acknowledges in this statement, was not—can tell you that there was a whole lot of resorting going on. 

I personally witnessed squads of riot cops pepper-spraying people who were literally just standing around on the tiny front lawns of downtown apartment buildings. Alice Herman, who covered the protests for Tone Madison at the time, witnessed officers throwing a can of tear gas into a crowd of peaceful young protestors. Tone Madison music editor Steven Spoerl personally aided someone having a severe physical reaction to windswept teargas blocks away from where the police had opened their canisters. TV journalist George Balekji was conducting an on-camera interview during a moment of relative calm when police winged him at short range with a tear-gas canister. Footage of the incident shows the wind blowing the gas back toward the line of riot cops, who clearly acted after making a series of brilliant deductions about the specific circumstances.

And yet, nearly every defense of tear gas that we’ve heard lately rests on the notion that police use tear gas only rarely and only in careful, contextual ways. This notion is a lie. It flatly contradicts the facts on the ground. No one who advances it should be afforded a credible place in public life, but here we are, having to argue with the same nonsense time and again.

This all brings us back to one of the reasons people were out there protesting in the first place: that we can’t trust cops’ discretion when it comes to assessing the threats or illegalities at work in a given situation, much less gauging the “use of force” appropriate for that situation. 

Police constantly claim that they need tear gas and other noxious chemicals to do a couple key things: disperse crowds and prevent or interrupt property crimes. During the riots of 2020, what we saw time and again was that police would set off tear gas, sending crowds into a panicked, dangerous stampede; the crowds would settle down again a few blocks away. This was not an effective way to intercede with the relatively small number of individuals who were breaking windows and looting. As for dispersal, I think it’s spurious to argue that this was even a legitimate goal. The crowd had a perfect right to be out there in public and the vast majority of people weren’t doing anything illegal (the flimsy premise of curfews notwithstanding). At worst, they were blocking downtown streets that are blocked off dozens of times each year for various public events anyway. 

All this vile stuff was blowing around the air downtown at a time of year when people often keep their windows open. Homeless people and bystanders who happened to be outside in the area were also exposed. In fact, a couple of us Tone-sters personally encountered people who were hyperventilating and having panic attacks. Firing off tear gas causes imminent physical harm—it’s really and truly awful stuff that burns your eyes and lungs, and by the way you and the people around you are now oozing mucus from multiple orifices during a deadly respiratory pandemic. And we’re still learning about the long-term respiratory and even reproductive health effects of tear gas. Barnes, however, writes that officers use it to “protect people from imminent physical harm.” 

He also claims, meaninglessly, that “Madison is currently recognized as a national model in crowd control.” The only model in action during the 2020 protests in Madison was that of a nationwide wave of retaliatory police terror against largely peaceful crowds. When we scratch the surface of Barnes’ vision for a shiny, tech-y MPD, what we find isn’t much better than that.

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