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Parking sets the stage for a new Common Council’s relationship with police

Taking parking enforcement out of the Madison Police Department may open greater windows of opportunity.

The first meeting of the newly elected Madison Common Council on April 20 included a vote on what might appear to be a technical issue at first glance—moving parking enforcement officers out of the Madison Police Department (MPD), where they currently work, and into the Parking Utility Division—but was deeply tied to community demands to defund police and reimagine public safety.

After hours of public testimony and deliberation, the Council voted to move parking enforcement out of MPD. Though some details of the transition may come back to alders for future discussion—the move isn’t expected to be complete until 2023—the vote concluded a years-long process that evolved in response to growing pressure for systemic change. With the narrowest margin needed to pass, the 11-8 vote was the first indication of how the new slate of Alders may handle policy decisions related to policing in response to that pressure. The responses of city staff, MPD, and other community members also revealed some of the hurdles—and hope—ahead for efforts to shift funding out of policing and into community services. 

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A “creative budgeting” move

The transition of parking enforcement out of MPD and into Parking Utility began in 2019, when Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway unveiled her proposed operating budget for 2020. Rhodes-Conway didn’t frame this as a move toward defunding the police, but as a continuation of a “creative budgeting” strategy to free up funds for general spending. Parking Utility has historically covered some salary and benefit costs for parking enforcement officers (PEOs) housed within the police department. Those contributions increased significantly in 2017 under former Mayor Paul Soglin’s administration. During the Common Council meeting, District 4 Alder Mike Verveer shared some of that history for new Alders. 

“In my estimation, the conversation during the budget processes over the last few years actually started in the prior mayoral administration as an attempt to assist us with our year-in and year-out problem of dealing with the overly restrictive state levy limits,” Verveer said. The state levy limits the amount of money that can be raised through property taxes for local spending. By paying parking enforcement costs through revenue generated by Parking Utility—”enterprise” funds that come from city parking garages, lots, meters, and parking permits—the city could ensure that limited general funds allocated to MPD for parking enforcement would be available for other spending.

The mayor’s 2020 budget went a step further than the previous budgeting strategy. For the first time, the full personnel costs for PEOs would transfer into Parking Utility with the intention that after additional review to take place in 2020, parking enforcement as a whole, including staff, would follow.

This projected move prompted alarm among parking enforcement officers. One week after the mayor’s budget was released, Tom Lynch, Madison’s director of transportation, issued a memo to reassure employees that “first, your jobs are secure,” and that the changes would not impact their benefits. The memo acknowledged “there should have been more communication as this transfer was being considered in the budget process.” The lack of transparency was chalked up to last-minute budget decisions to bridge a projected shortfall: “this prevented discussions that best would have occurred prior to the release of the budget,” Lynch wrote in his memo. (Here’s an overview on how the city budget works). 

During the April 2021 Common Council meeting, Verveer criticized the way the city informed employees of the proposed change.

“Unfortunately this was handled poorly,”  said Verveer. “I’m not assigning blame whatsoever, to any agency whatsoever, but there was a miscommunication when this was included in the proposed 2020 budget and that’s how the affected employees found out. From that day forward, it has been one painful conversation after another with many of these affected employees.”

The proposal passed despite the concerns of PEOs, several of whom showed up in person at budget hearings in October 2019 to register and speak in opposition. Starting in 2020, Parking Utility covered all personnel costs for parking enforcement, though MPD continued to supervise PEOs. The memo from Lynch outlined a process with next steps that included gathering input from parking enforcement officers and union representatives, considering modifications to current parking enforcement activities, and preparing a report on the transition with a recommended timeline to complete the move.

Long-unanswered community demands

In the fall of 2019, the Common Council was also considering budget proposals to fund up to 16 additional police officer positions. As one parking enforcement officer returned to their seat after testifying during the October budget hearing, another community member took the stand to call for cutting police positions and instead investing in the community. Though the issues hadn’t been explicitly connected yet, by the time the Common Council was considering moving parking enforcement out of MPD, there had already been years of demands to shift resources out of policing in Madison.

Those community demands finally started to translate into policy change in 2020 after years of protests, campaigns, and multiple instances of police brutality. The uprisings for racial justice last summer following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin prompted growing calls to defund the police. Under increased pressure, local governments began seriously considering and taking action to move resources out of police budgets and instead invest in community services. In June, the Madison Metropolitan School District Board voted to remove cops from Madison schools. In September, the Common Council approved the creation of an MPD independent monitor position and civilian oversight board. By the time the Common Council prepared to vote again on whether to move parking enforcement out of MPD this April, it was no longer considered only a question of creative budgeting.

Resident Mia Maysack, the third speaker of the evening, called in from the 1100 block of Williamson Street, where Madison police officer Matthew Kenny shot and killed Tony Robinson in 2015. Maysack testified in support of the move, connecting it to broader defund demands.

“I’m curious—how does one park illegally on stolen land?” Maysack asked. “Our ultimate goal is to defund the police. Meaning reallocation of funds from policing to other agencies for reasons such as but not limited to supporting basic needs of our communities, cultivating adequate resources, development of much needed programming, and addressing issues such as houselessness, mental health, substance use, and advocacy and support for our most vulnerable.”

Pushback from parking enforcement

Public comment lasted an hour. In addition to community members calling in to support the move, a number of PEO staff spoke in opposition.

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Parking enforcement officers at the meeting frequently raised the concern that there was still uncertainty about how the move would impact their day-to-day operations. The City of Madison’s Department of Transportation (DOT) outlined some of those logistical details in a report on the transfer of operations to Parking Utility released at the end of February. The report identified the decisions that city officials would need to make if the Common Council voted to move forward with the transfer, and offered context for implementation options.

The report lists the main changes that parking enforcement employees will see with a move to Parking Utility. PEOs would likely no longer begin their days at the district police stations across Madison, instead potentially working out of a more centralized location. PEOs would no longer have daily briefings with MPD, and MPD would no longer assign enforcement priorities at the neighborhood/district level. It’s likely that PEOs will have less access to information in law enforcement databases, and potentially less access to radio communications, including MPD’s tactical and encrypted channels. PEOs’ uniforms and vehicles would no longer carry MPD logos and branding. 

For the PEOs who turned out to the meeting, it was clear that some of these changes were more than a matter of logistics. Twenty-four of Madison’s 28 parking enforcement officers signed a statement in March opposing the move, noting that “solid measures to keep PEOs safe have not been fully addressed” in the report. The move would impact 31 city employees overall—the 28 PEOs and three supervisors and managers.

“I want to just highlight our safety tonight,” began Valerie Riedel, who has worked as a parking enforcement officer with MPD for more than 11 years, in her comments at the April Common Council meeting.

“Many times the people we are interacting with can become very angry with us. While it is understandable that people may be frustrated or angry when receiving a citation for the violation of a City of Madison parking ordinance, sometimes those individuals react in an unreasonable, threatening or even violent manner,” said Riedel. “One defense we have against this is to know ahead of time that we may be entering into a situation that has the potential to become dangerous. Having this type of information allows us to exercise caution or avoid the situation altogether.” Riedel testified that access to law enforcement databases, radio channels, daily emails, and Dane County dispatch often provides that information.

Alders questioned MPD and DOT staff about the specifics of these changes. Which law enforcement databases would PEOs still be able to access, and with what level of information? What state regulations restrict access to office space in police stations, and to what extent? While the DOT’s report mapped out likely scenarios, it did not provide conclusive answers. 

The report summarizes some approaches other Midwestern cities take to parking enforcement. Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Appleton house parking enforcement in departments separate from policing, and have navigated some of the same state statutes that will restrict information-sharing between MPD and PEOs once they’re no longer housed within the department.

Testifying during the Council meeting, Walt Jackson, vice president of Madison Employee Association AFSCME Local 6000, criticized both the transfer of parking enforcement and the city process that excluded workers from the final decision. Jackson concluded with a call out to Alders: “Vote for the worker as any true labor progressive would do.”

Some Alders that opposed the move said the process was rushed or lacking details when explaining their votes. District 14 Alder Sheri Carter and new District 18 Alder Charles Myadze both said they didn’t have enough information to make a decision. Carter cited a lack of fiscal estimates and Myadze noted that there hadn’t been an equity study on the decision. District 12 Alder Syed Abbas and new District 17 Alder Gary Halverson mentioned unanswered questions.

District 15 Alder Grant Foster, who sponsored the resolution, pushed back against that. “I think a lot of folks are looking at [the report] and thinking it’s an implementation plan and saying, ‘Wait, there’s just too many unanswered questions, like where are all the details?’ It’s not an implementation plan,” Foster said. 

Without a vote from Common Council, Foster argued, “it makes zero sense to ask our staff to continue to go down this path, tease out some super granular level of fiscal detail. If folks don’t think this is a good move then vote against it for sure, but staff need to know are we doing this or not. And that’s what this resolution is asking us tonight.”

Other Alders opposed to the proposal acknowledged their vote as a policy decision. “What we do have is working, it is not broken,” said District 1 Alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney. District 20 Alder Christian Albouras, new District 6 Alder Brian Benford and Verveer focused on the opposition from PEOs when voting no. 

The safety argument

At times, the conversation felt like a back-and-forth that pitted parking enforcement officers against those advocating for the change as a step toward defunding the police. But that framing misses a lot of the nuance and overlap between the issues addressed. The logistics of the move are connected to the broader conversation about reimagining public safety.

In 2019, PEO and former police officer Aileen Seymour testified at the budget hearing to oppose the move of staff to a new department. “My primary reason is safety,” Seymour said. “We are fortunate right now to have the city police department logo and parking enforcement on our vehicles. We have red lights on our vehicles. It’s amazing, how much help it is. You get a different level of respect.”

Seymour testified again this spring, again focusing on safety. “In my perspective, it’s more of the relationship that we are able to establish by being in close proximity with the police department. It’s more of an attitude of learning how to prevent problems than actually getting into any kind of problem,” Seymour said at the April Common Council meeting. Because PEOs share locker rooms and lunch rooms with police officers, said Seymour, “We bump into officers, we can talk to them, we have a relationship. We can talk about things that business owners or residents need us to take care of. Or if somebody brings something to our attention that is not a parking issue, we can share that with each district as we see fit.”

Moving parking enforcement out of MPD means losing the relationship to the police department and some access to policing resources that, PEOs argue, currently provide a sense of safety. In the end, PEOs may end up retaining similar access to the databases and other resources that they currently use, even after the shift to Parking Utility. Though that won’t replace the relationships they’ve built working alongside police officers. But if the goal of this policy change is to take a step toward defunding the police, then ensuring that structures and resources are present for public safety without police involvement is part of the point.

“Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!” has been a frequent call-and-response chant at protests against police violence. Demands to abolish the police are rooted in the historical fact that public safety is not and never was the purpose of policing. Defunding the police requires divesting from the idea that police keep us safe at the same time that we divest public funding from policing. 

While disentangling the work of parking enforcement from the police department is an important step away from the myth that building community relationships improves policing practices—a myth mentioned multiple times as a reason to keep parking enforcement within MPD—parking enforcement itself has not been disconnected from the criminal legal system.

The role of PEOs “is to serve the public with law enforcement duties related to parking, assist police patrol and police management,” testified Robert Hanson, who has worked as a PEO for 21 years. Working alongside MPD, said Hanson, PEOs “solve community problems such as homeless encampments, junk abandoned vehicles, stolen vehicles, disabled fraud. We perform public safety duties such as towing a.m. and p.m. commuter routes and under pre-COVID-19 operating, we seized more property on behalf of City of Madison than any other city entity by impounding scofflaws, which are vehicles that owe more than $250 of unpaid tickets with no court or payment plan set up.” After COVID-19 ends, said Hanson, “there will be hundreds of scofflaws impounds to do.”

Accumulating tickets and fines can lead to an impounded car, a lost job, and potentially land someone in jail for an inability to pay. The revenue from those tickets still goes into the general budget fund, not Parking Utility, and helps pay for community services, as well as MPD, which makes up nearly a quarter of Madison’s annual operating budget.

Following a lengthy discussion about the financial and logistical implications of the move to parking utility, newly elected District 8 Alder Juliana Bennett acknowledged its equity implications.

“It’s understanding what do we want the roles of PEOs to be,” Bennett said. Bennett indicated that the usage of law enforcement databases could potentially perpetuate racial bias, which is rife within Dane County’s criminal justice system, and that reduced access to database information would be a benefit of the move.

Earlier in the meeting, new District 10 Alder Yannette Figueroa Cole also questioned whether access to personal information through the database was necessary and appropriate for the risk that parking enforcement officers faced. Figueroa Cole compared it to the risk that other city employees encounter while working. “Are we talking about every single interaction that the PEOs have, needs [MPD’s] involvement, they need to go in checking people’s history in order to manage it? I mean, that concerns me a little bit. Safety is a big deal, I mean it’s a huge piece of information here, but I’m really questioning the need, you know. How much really is this database used when it comes to the question of risk?”

Both Bennett and Figueroa Cole cited racial equity and campaign promises—”to address violence from a different perspective,” in Figueroa Cole’s words—when explaining their votes in support of the move.

“It’s monumental for us to be having this meeting right now,” Bennett said. “On the day that the most diverse Council was sworn in, on the day that Derek Chauvin was convicted. And as we all exhale a breath that we’ve been holding since George Floyd took his last, we must all inhale the awesome responsibility and power given to us by those that elected us. And it’s our duty right now to fulfill those campaign promises, to reimagine public safety. And I firmly believe that reimagining the role of PEOs, and the relationship with MPD, is a worthwhile endeavor that we should act upon today.”

A new chief meets a new council

The April 20 meeting also gave a newly seated Common Council a chance to define its relationship with MPD, as new police Chief Shon Barnes begins his tenure. 

Barnes and Captain Brian Chaney Austin responded to questions from alders. Chaney Austin oversees MPD’s Traffic and Specialized Services division, which includes the 31 parking enforcement staff and supervisors. The future of that MPD position was not addressed as part of the transition decision, although supervision of PEOs will transfer to current Parking Utility staff. 

Verveer asked Barnes and Chaney Austin to clarify MPD’s position on how the move would impact overnight coverage for parking enforcement. Right now, PEOs are not scheduled from 12:30-6:30 a.m. Instead, police officers fill the role. The DOT report assumes that MPD officers would continue to provide coverage during those hours. 

Verveer quoted a response he received from Chaney Austin when the question came up during a previous meeting: “It seems that should this move be made, then it is an indication that the responsibility of parking enforcement would then be that of parking utility and not of MPD. As such, per Chief Barnes, MPD would no longer provide this service as a matter of routine. Therefore, no parking enforcement calls would be serviced between the hours of 12:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., or on holidays, should the PEO schedule remain the same under the parking utility.”

Barnes and Chaney Austin confirmed this was MPD’s position, although Chaney Austin clarified that MPD officers would “still have the option to self-initiate parking citation violations. I do not believe that police officers will stop writing parking citations.”

There seemed to be several implications of Verveer’s question and MPD’s response: that whether or not MPD continued to answer calls for parking enforcement overnight was up to the police department and had already been decided, and that those calls could potentially go unanswered if Parking Utility did not staff overnight PEOs or during a temporary gap in service. The moment to discuss the policy decision at hand—whether it was preferable to have police officers continue to cover parking enforcement shifts overnight (or even write parking citations)—passed unnoted.

Instead, Verveer’s line of questioning opened the door to negotiating the terms of the transition with MPD, a dynamic that felt familiar. For at least a decade, when elected officials ask MPD to take on its share of across-the-board budget cuts, the police department has put popular programs, like crossing guards, on the chopping block (this happened again last year). Last fall, Mayor Rhodes-Conway finally moved the crossing guard program out of MPD and into the city’s Traffic Engineering Division. In addition to crossing guards, former MPD Chief Mike Koval’s 2019 budget memo threatened to lay off eight full-time PEO positions. Koval noted this change would save half a million dollars in salaries, but would also mean that the city would miss out on twice that amount in parking revenues. With crossing guards and parking enforcement moved out of the police department, MPD can no longer use them as bargaining chips in budget negotiations.

After a cascade of questions from other Alders, concerns about a potential gap in overnight parking enforcement appeared to be quelled. Perhaps sensing the growing unease, Barnes clarified that “there will never be a situation where someone calls 911 and a police officer doesn’t respond to help. We’re here to serve.” 

Verveer had also pointed out that a potentially significant cost associated with the move—hiring more PEO staff to cover the overnight shift—was not included in the DOT’s report. Now that the Council has voted to move parking enforcement, the decision of whether to hire more PEOs and any associated costs will be worked out as part of the transition. 

The choices ahead

Over the next year and a half, city staff and Alders will work on the details of shifting parking enforcement out of MPD. The Council passed an amendment to the resolution proposed by District 3 Alder Lindsay Lemmer, requesting a plan to engage PEOs through the transition within 60 days, and status updates on the transition process every three months. 

While the April vote was a victory for reimagining public safety, the vote did not address broader equity concerns related to parking enforcement. Parking enforcement is no longer part of the police department, but parking enforcement activities are still part of policing.

And parking enforcement is not traffic enforcement. As community member Soren Underdahl pointed out during public comment at the April Common Council meeting, “A broken taillight. Expired tags. Missed turn signals, tinted windows, and literally doing nothing. What do those things have in common? They’re all reasons for why a person of color was murdered by a police officer in this country.”

For the most part, Alders voted the way you might expect them to based on past votes and their campaign platforms. Some spoke at length to justify their votes in opposition, often stating support for the overall goal of reimagining public safety while voting against it. Alders Albouras, Abbas, Benford, Harrington-McKinney, Verveer, Carter, Halverson, and Myadze voted against the policy change. Alders Patrick Heck, Lemmer, Arvina Martin, Regina Vidaver, Bennett, Nikki Conklin, Jael Currie, Tag Evers, Figueroa Cole, Foster, and Keith Furman voted in support. Alder Nasra Wehelie was excused. The resolution passed with a narrow margin.

Their records will be tested again as the Common Council handles upcoming decisions about body cameras for police officers, rolling out a mental health crisis response team, and responding to community demands in the 2022 budget.

Freedom, Inc. led a protest outside of the MPD building downtown during the Common Council meeting following Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd. The verdict followed a year of sustained protests nationwide. Without those protests and the video of Floyd’s murder, history shows that Chauvin might still be on the Minneapolis police force, just as officer Matt Kenny continues to work for MPD. The vote to move parking enforcement out of MPD was a victory for community demands to defund the police, but it was also a momentary concession of power.

Freedom, Inc. also released a statement on April 20, criticizing a press briefing MPD and Mayor Rhodes-Conway held in response to the Chauvin verdict: “These statements were ultimately focused on suppressing and criticizing protestors who are rightfully angry at the lack of commitment to meeting community demands to defund police both here in Madison and in neighboring cities… If Mayor Rhodes-Conway and the political elites of this city are truly interested in the safety of our communities, they will demonstrate that by funding community safety programs and ensuring that everyone has equal access to housing, a stable income, and public services.”

The city’s 2022 budget process is beginning right now, as department heads work on their requests to the mayor before her administration crafts the executive budgets that will become the template for next year’s spending. Although those budgets won’t be introduced until this fall, a window of opportunity to advocate for additional policy changes has opened. 

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