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Chief Tubbs takes exit before any ‘Round 2’

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Steven Walters
April 30, 2012

It’s a wonder that the "Protest Whisperer" police chief lasted this long. Conservative Republican legislators wanted him gone a year ago.


Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs will be leaving that job to become Dane County’s emergency management director.


Tubbs is a likeable bear of a man who was in the eye of the five-week Capitol protest storm last year that attracted international attention.


Tubbs was named Capitol police chief by then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2008, eight years after Tubbs retired as deputy Beloit police chief. In January 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office, the governor and his aides found that Tubbs had a civil service job, so he couldn’t be dumped like all other Doyle appointees.


Because Tubbs will be taking a 10 percent pay cut (from $111,067 to $99,500), there are questions about whether he was pressured to leave. Several Republican legislators said—and are still saying—that he coddled protesters and refused to enforce the law.


For days in February 2011, protesters slept in the Capitol and spent their days booing and jeering Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators, who passed Walker’s changes that all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees. Anti- and pro-Walker weekend rallies filled Madison’s Capitol Square.


Tubbs repeatedly personally negotiated with protesters, choosing to warn instead of arrest. He also stayed in constant communication with the fourth-floor Capitol command post, directed by UW-Madison Police Chief Sue Riseling.


Tubbs hasn’t been available for interviews since his new job was announced.


When Democrats who run Dane County government introduced him at a press conference, Tubbs was circumspect about the protests. It was a “very trying, very difficult time,” he said quietly.


But Riseling last week explained the role Tubbs played:


“In the crowd-control world, we have moved much more into a kind of negotiation/mediation method of dealing with large crowds and political protest. Under that theory, you have to be a really convincing, credible person in that negotiating role.


“Charlie is very credible. … As a result, his personality—his ability to sit and listen and really articulate to both sides of the aisle, and come to a good understanding of things—not necessarily an agreement—was very vital to keeping that nonviolent.”


Asked how close those confrontations came to escalating to violence, Riseling said, “To be honest with you, we came within 20 minutes of a really ugly situation. But what I was ordered to do, I refused to do. We came very close on several times to what could have been sparks that would have sent this in a very, very different direction.”


Riseling said details will be in her book, which she expects to be published this summer. The most dangerous days were Feb. 17-18, 2011, she added.


With Tubbs negotiating with protesters, and Riseling in the command post, “I think we made a great team,” the UW police chief added.


Supporters of Tubbs, 58, say his willingness to negotiate was the reason that there were no major injuries, no permanent damage to the Capitol and no riots. But his opponents say that same personal style turned the Capitol into the first Occupy campsite.


Tubbs “should be removed,” Rep. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, said last year. A Nass aide said he had no comment on the chief’s resignation.


There’s another theory on why Tubbs chose June 1 to start his new job: He doesn’t want to be around for what some say could be “Round 2.”


Walker’s recall election is June 5. After that, Walker aides—serving either a newly empowered governor who kept his job or a governor bitter over being forced from office—are expected to try and enforce a new state Department of Administration policy over Capitol use.


The DOA’s policy specifies who can use the Capitol, what permits they must apply for, how far in advance of the event they must apply, what bonds they must post and what police or damage costs they must pay. Protesters, including the daily Solidarity Singers, and their lawyers insist the policy is unconstitutional.


One law officer said that the job posting for the next Capitol police chief includes a two-year probation period, which he called “unprecedented.” That makes it even more of a “no win” job, the officer noted.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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