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One year later, Madison lacks meaningful checks on its police

The hard-won policy gains since the summer 2020 uprising do not fundamentally challenge the power of policing.

In a historic uprising against racism and police violence, we’ve at once seen Madison at its absolute best and Madison as a mediocre parody of what it imagines itself to be. Thousands of Madisonians contributed to a nationwide protest movement during a pandemic, sticking up for their neighbors and pushing a more honest conversation about race and inequality in our city. Meanwhile, local police and their advocates made summer 2020’s events all about the spark—George Floyd’s murder— distancing themselves from the devastating cruelty of police violence and playing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s actions off as an abberation. Everyone else knew the uprisings were really about the tinder that’s been stacking up for generations, in Madison and everywhere else. Police here are wrapped up in the problems of policing writ large, even though we often tell ourselves they’re an exception. A year out, we have barely begun to unravel those problems.

This does not mean that the activists, organizations, and community members pushing for justice have failed—indeed, they’ve made some hard-won policy gains and expanded our sense of what we can accomplish in local politics. It means that there are significant obstacles, plenty of ways to deflect calls for change, and too many Madisonians who let downed statues or looted businesses distract them from the true horrors on display in American policing. 

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The Madison Metropolitan School District removed cops from four high schools last summer, amid the initial heat of the uprising. Abolitionist activists have been pressuring MMSD to do so for years, most significantly Freedom Inc., which has led repeated efforts to disrupt school board meetings over this issue. The City of Madison created a long-awaited police oversight board and police monitor staff position, both independent of the Madison Police Department. Later, the Madison Common Council voted to separate parking enforcement from MPD. The city and Dane County are working together on a mental health crisis unit that would take cops out of the equation in some emergency situations. 

But the bigger problems are still intact: cops at local police agencies can still commit needless violence without consequences, and the Common Council has yet to hold MPD accountable through the only real mechanism it has—cutting its funding in the annual city budget. For all the progress, we still lack significant structural checks on the power or budgets of police agencies in the Madison area. MPD’s new chief, Shon Barnes, wants to put a gentler face on the department, a development that’s tempered by the fact that community members felt shut out of the hiring process that brought Barnes here in the first place. 

Madison’s new Police Civilian Oversight Board gives police reform advocates and abolitionists a voice at the city, and it will likely help Madison have a richer, more transparent conversation about what police are doing. We know that just shedding more light on police behavior does make a difference, so let’s not discount the power of what PCOB can do. That said, on a legal level, the body is  fundamentally toothless. The actual power to discipline, hire, and fire cops in Wisconsin still resides with Police and Fire Commissions, and their authority is enshrined in state law. Police unions still wield powerful leverage in struggles over budgeting and accountability, and various layers of case law and internal procedure shield police from civil and criminal liability. 

The Common Council also has not held MPD accountable over one of the actual public safety threats involved in protests: The multiple instances of malicious or simply panicked drivers running their cars or motorcycles through groups of people. This is a dangerous national trend, and Republicans in state legislatures across the country are trying to incite and legalize this behavior. In the wake of the 2017 murder of Heather Heyer in Chartlottesville, any city that has as many protests as Madison should have had a game plan to prevent vehicular attacks on crowds. When I asked then-MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain about this in late June 2020, he simply referred me to the department’s standard operating procedure on demonstrations and assemblies—which does not specifically touch upon vehicle attacks at all. 

Common Council has also failed to rein in MPD’s use of tear gas. On May 30 and 31 of last year, squads of cops in full riot gear would muster up in front of a crowd of protestors, stand there for a while, and then eventually start marching toward the crowd and launching tear-gas canisters, causing hundreds of people at once to run off in the other direction. Police repeated this process multiple times, touching off dangerous stampedes up and down State Street and sending chemical agents wafting through the crowds and residential neighborhoods. This simply did not do a thing to protect people’s safety or even to protect property, nor did it achieve the ostensible goal of dispersing the crowd. In fact, as one former MPD chief has pointed out, such tactics escalate violence at protests. 

MPD justifies its actions during protests by saying that it’s trying to strike a balance, facilitating free expression while protecting public safety. Its failures on this front give a lot of credibility to chants of “we keep us safe,” and to the work protest organizers do to escort protestors with protective cars and bikes.

It’s hard to see the cops’ behavior  as anything other than a punitive and brutal response to the  people who challenged them. On May 31, 2020, my colleague Alice Herman personally witnessed police tear-gassing a crowd of young protestors who weren’t doing anything violent. Cops in Madison, just like cops across the country, justified their suppression of protests by complaining that protestors were throwing water bottles and rocks at them. We did see a few people throwing things at police, but not very many, and it would take a whole lot of rocks and water bottles to really endanger people who showed up with helmets, riot shields, and an array of lethal and “less-lethal” weapons. 

Given the opportunity to forbid its police department from attacking civilians with “chemical agents” that are technically illegal in war, the Madison Common Council hemmed and hawed for month after month. Nevermind that this would have been an easy moral gesture and that it would be reasonable to ask MPD to solve whatever problems it may have without resorting to chemical weapons. Rather than voting to take MPD’s tear gas away, the Council voted in October to commission another goddamn study. Who carried out the study on the police department’s use of tear gas? The police department

This turned out to be a very, very good way to muddy the waters. Some Alders fell for the argument that SWAT teams needed tear gas to flush out “subjects” who had “barricaded” themselves in buildings, hiding from the police.   The Wisconsin State Journal framed the report’s findings as some sort of gotcha, focusing on the instances of tear gas deployment before the 2020 protests, and then implying that property damage justified gassing protesters. The WORT-FM news team did a much better job of placing the use of tear gas into context, pointing out that according to MPD’s own numbers, the department’s use of tear gas during the 2020 protests was off the charts.

During last year’s demonstrations, Alice and I saw multiple people who were in some form of medical and/or psychological distress. The first day, there was one young man clearly having a mental-health episode on State Street, screaming and picking fights as various people in the crowd tried to restrain him and calm him down. The next night, we ran across a disoriented woman on Langdon Street who had seemingly gotten caught up in the riots without really meaning to, and was wheezing and panicking as tear gas lingered in the area. We gave her a ride home, lucky to somehow be able to get a car through the area. I realize this is just a story based on personal observation, but it was clear that the swarms of cops  downtown that weekend were of little help to these vulnerable people.

Cops nationwide are pushing the lie that lefty local governments have defunded police and thus encouraged a new crime wave. This is not true in most cities around the country, and it’s not true in Madison. The Common Council did rebuke one $50,000 MPD budget request for “less-lethal” weapons, but there was never a resolution on the table that significantly threatened MPD’s funding in the city’s 2021 budget.

Madison is still by and large a community that thinks it can police and punish its way out of handling social problems. Even if you don’t have an ideological problem with policing, it doesn’t take that much to see that this approach doesn’t really work. Let’s not discount the positive steps we’ve seen so far or the capacity that so many Madisonians have shown to question some deep-down assumptions about the need for police. Let’s keep on demanding so much more.

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