Matt Pommer: Community policing under fire in Madison
A protest group wants to end community policing in Madison to help cut in half the number of poor and black people who get arrested. It’s a local spin growing out of incidents across the nation between police and black citizens.
The group, called the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, said police have become an “occupying force” in neighborhoods of minority residents.
“The relationship we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction,” the group said in an open letter. “Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing.”
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, who is white, blistered the criticism, defending his officers who participate in community policing to improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods and create better relationships. Drugs and guns are major issues. Community policing efforts allow officers to help, rather than just focus on making arrests.
“People in our neighborhoods rely on our assistance and hope that our influence will make these challenged neighborhoods safer,” Koval responded. “Are you really advocating the police abdicate our responsibilities to these folks?” he asked rhetorically.
Unsaid was that older residents in the challenged neighborhoods may not agree with the idea of removing officers from their streets and playgrounds. Koval said he hears from neighborhood residents who like the added presence of his officers.
Community policing is growing in America. In Madison, it is a decentralized approach in which officers work with other city departments to help provide services to challenged neighborhoods. Incidents between police and African-American residents in Missouri and New York City have triggered protest activities in many areas, including Madison. The demonstrations have included rallies at City Hall and people lying down in shopping malls. The group also has opposed expanding the Dane County Jail, saying the $8 million should be used to help poor people.
Koval said it was time for the protesters “to look a lot closer at issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the ‘blame game’ of throwing my department to the wolves.”
The chief said the state Legislature could make changes in laws that would reduce any racial bias in law enforcement. Possible changes include ending the practice of trying 17-year-olds as adults, using “restorative justice” courts to keep people from quickly ending up in the state justice system, and changing drug possession laws.
It’s doubtful elected state officials would tackle that agenda. They could face criticism in the media that they are “soft on crime.”
Last April, 65 percent of Dane County voters said “yes” to an advisory ballot question on whether the state should legalize marijuana. But the issue has lots of twists and turns. In December, the Dane County Board rejected a federal grant from the Cannabis Enforcement and Suppression Effort. In previous years, the county had received tens of thousands of dollars from this federal program.
The grant provides money to fight heroin, other drugs and gun traffic. Supervisors who opposed accepting the money said they wanted to send a signal about racial disparity in drug-related arrests.
The drug issues have attracted more attention with a substantial increase in the number of heroin deaths. In 2013, Dane County saw a 350 percent increase in heroin deaths—the majority were white residents.
Turning down federal money to make a point is familiar to Wisconsin citizens. Gov. Scott Walker has rejected hundreds of millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid, saying he doubted the federal government could continue the program.
Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at firstname.lastname@example.org.