I have just concluded another round of citywide community forums. By going to all of the various Districts and bringing the host command staff with me to address concerns unique and specific to that District, we have continued our commitment for face-to-face engagement. The only "ground rules" that accompany these venues is that there are time limits placed on speakers when there is an abundance of people and issues, in order to give more individuals the chance to register an opinion. Also, we cannot address specifics of cases where the City has been noticed (or anticipates notice) of a law suit being filed against MPD, those incidents that are still pending in court or have an ongoing investigation. Invariably, I have come away from these venues enriched by the various conversations and they offer discussion items for system improvements that have probative value for my Management Team.
A "typical" community forum usually has a local alder in attendance as well. The alders want to hear what issues are resonating for their constituents. This has been helpful in passing on concerns and clarifying issues affecting our numerous aldermanic districts.
The various points raised at forums can be anything from speeding complaints in a given block to tough questions on racial disparities and the MPD. Residents also want to know about crimes trending in their area(s) (i.e., rises in thefts from autos and burglaries) and MPD's planned response to these concerns. Citywide topics are also queried including heroin overdoses, mental health initiatives, and increased gun violence. Since I prefer that the agenda be set based on what our residents want to talk about, it is not at all unusual for an entire night to be about "quality of life" incidents as opposed to "crime-related" subjects. Noise abatement, landlord/tenant issues, juvenile disturbances, and traffic enforcement commands our attention . . . and the police are among a consortium of partners that can and should play a role in responding to these issues.
Crowd reaction at these forums can range from validation of MPD, to the perceptions of fear and apprehension, to expressed doubts, and sometimes outright anger and dissent will surface. On any given night, one never knows exactly what the scope of the questions or the volatility of the audience will be---which makes for some very challenging discussions! So long as we can ensure decorum and respect for the process, the forums will continue.
This past Thursday, we held a community forum for the South District which was hosted by our friends at Centro Hispano. The crowd filled the room and a majority of those in attendance were Latino families. One of our marquee outreach groups, "Amigos en Azul" was on hand to welcome our guests, answer questions and serve as translators. The interpreting provided by Officer Zulma Franco was invaluable as the majority of the questions originated from adults for whom Spanish is the primary language.
This particular forum left me with a great sense of despair and inadequacy. To date, throughout our City, I have listened to one story after another of how families living in our midst are forced into making difficult and desperate choices in order to just provide for the basic necessities of life. Poverty is increasingly defining our City into the "have's" and the "have not's;" and the problem is exacerbated among our communities of color.
That said, the stories recounted at Centro filled me with yet another level of frustration and futility as I heard first-hand accounts of living life "in the shadows" as an undocumented person in Madison. Stories of victims of crime. Stories of witnesses of crime. Stories of what it's like driving without a license. The common denominator? Hard working folks holding down multiple jobs unable to risk the loss of a job or wages if something goes to court OR (predominantly) too afraid to report for fear of deportation and the break-up of families. And the things that many of us take for granted---driving to work, taking our family to church, going shopping for groceries---are seen as calculated risks since many are ineligible to apply for a driver's license.
While grateful for the expanded use of mass transit, the fact remains that Madison (and Dane County) is still reliant on our car "culture" to meet the demands of daily life. Without a license, we are forcing people to make difficult choices between violating the law (operators to be licensed) and providing for the essential needs of a family. To hear the trepidation and stress that is occasioned by the simple act of getting from point "A" to point "B" is heartbreaking as you listen to these very real and very unsettling experiences.
Some of the older adults in the crowd can recall a time when Wisconsin permitted an undocumented person who tested for a license to obtain one. This changed a number of years ago and this is no longer an option. The question arose: "What can you do to help us, Chief?"
Since becoming Chief, I have supported the legislative attempts of State Representatives Jocasta Zamarripa and Josh Repnick who are urging that the State consider issuing driver's license for the sole purpose of DRIVING. It could not be used for any other purposes (i.e., cannot be used for voting and is not REAL ID compliant). The bill does not change any current law requirements related to driver qualifications such as minimum age or successful completion of knowledge and driving skills tests. This platform has worked in other states and would provide some measure of relief from a pool of eligible drivers who would welcome the opportunity to test and pay for the privilege to drive.
As the Chief, I always refer to the elements of our mission statement when considering a position on behalf of MPD. In a nutshell, we strive to:
a. Provide high quality services;
b. Which are accessible to everyone in the community;
c. While treating all those we encounter with dignity;
d. And respecting and protecting the rights of all.
"Access," "everyone" and "all" suggests to me a police department that is inclusive, not restrictive, to those who live, work, or play in our City. The horror stories I heard from constituents at the forum held at Centro described case after case of encounters resulting in fear, fines, and the strong inference that certain groups are being marginalized. We must re-double our efforts to ensure that our actions meet the lofty rhetoric of our mission statement. But I can only "own" and investigate those claims originating in the City; many of the incidents recalled on this night occurred in bedroom communities in Dane County. This prompted a suggestion from the floor that there be a broader discussion involving a community forum with a wider spectrum of chief's in Dane County. I would support and participate in such a forum, particularly to the extent that people would feel comfortable in sharing these difficult stories in a larger venue. The intimacy of our gathering at Centro provided the measure of comfort and support that enabled those in attendance to speak. One thing is certain: consistent with our Code of Conduct, the MPD will NOT be using our lawful authority to patrol our streets or walk our neighborhoods engaging in pretextual stops for the purpose of targeting individuals for deportation.
Our country still debates a national policy on immigration. As a law enforcement official, I am duty-bound to uphold the laws which we are sworn to uphold. But as Chief, I am also responsible for setting the tone and tenor for the direction of our enforcement priorities as well as creating an environment of public safety which is comprehensive and inclusive for all of our residents. To that end, we will continue to examine those systems within the MPD and those that are collaborative with external partners that can advance a climate where all are welcome and all are recognized for the value they bring to our City.