From time to time, I will dedicate blogs to issues that are trending to the MPD website or my office. This week's topics touch upon questions I have received relative to protesters stopping traffic, the recent Council resolution to study body worn cameras in 2015, and the federal government's 1033 program.
I have received many comments questioning why the MPD has not arrested protesters when they march in the streets or stop in the middle of an intersection, holding up traffic.
At the outset of my remarks, I always remind our citizens that it is the role of police in a free society to scrupulously honor constitutional rights and individual liberties. Obviously, the First Amendment is one of the protections that we hold dear; the right to free speech and assembly is a precept that the police must be dedicated to fostering and facilitating. I am appreciative of the way the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed a position on this critically important right. The following is from the ACLU:
The First Amendment covers all forms of communication including music, theater, film and dance. The Constitution also protects actions that symbolically express a viewpoint. Examples of these symbolic forms of speech include wearing masks and costumes or holding a candlelight vigil. However, symbolic acts and civil disobedience that involve illegal conduct may be outside the realm of constitutional protections and can sometimes lead to arrest and conviction. Therefore, while sitting in a road may be expressing a political opinion, the act of blocking traffic may lead to criminal punishment. (my emphasis in italics)
MPD, employing our Madison Method of crowd management (notice that I did not say "crowd control"), has done exceedingly well in our attempts to work with leaders of various protest movements where we strive for a "win/win" proposition: "How can we enable the protest to take place while simultaneously balancing the needs of others (i.e., the motoring public) in facilitating the movement of traffic?"
This subject became "vogue" again in light of two recent events. On Friday, 1/23/15, a group of demonstrators took to the street in the 700 block of University Avenue during the weekend "drive time." All lanes were held up, nothing could proceed westbound, and motorists were rerouted. While we were patient in trying to make accommodations for the protesters, when 20 minutes had expired the organizers were told to wrap things up; they agreed to do so but we were not able to allow traffic to proceed through the area for another 8 minutes. Based upon the totality of the circumstances, this was an unreasonable amount of time and in the future, individuals engaged/responsible will be cited.
Last Monday, 1/26/15, a group of about 25 protesters spontaneously blocked eastbound traffic on Doty Street at Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard during evening "drive time." Unlike most demonstrations that MPD works, this time we were provided no notice and thus had no one immediately available to provide traffic direction or to reroute vehicles. A review of video of this incident showed the volatility of what could occur when citizens are left to fend for themselves without our presence; many motorists were clearly indignant, horns were blaring constantly, some vehicles were nudging forward toward the human barricade and 911 was called. It appeared the situation was becoming highly confrontational. By the time we were able to summon up cops from around the Central District, the protesters had retreated elsewhere. This sort of demonstration "tactic" is fraught with potential flashpoints and cannot be countenanced. At least in the earlier incident in the 700 block of University Avenue, working with us guaranteed a "safer" venue with less likelihood of increasing hostilities.
MPD, through our Special Events Team (SET), has always attempted to preemptively meet with leaders of groups who intend to protest in the Capital city. Consistent with this practice we have implored the identifiable leadership of the group(s) involved in the aforementioned demonstrations, urging an open dialogue of future events, identifying anticipated needs of the group as well as communicating our expectations as to what is "reasonable" under the circumstances. It is my hope that this exchange of information will continue. While it is not my preference to ever have to rely on enforcement strategies in dealing with demonstrations, it is clearly among our options should the situation so dictate. We evaluate all of these incidents on a case-by-case basis, attempting to exhaust all other remedies prior to intervening with citations and/or arrest.
Body Worn Cameras
A number of people have been making inquiries about where MPD is with respect to the body worn cameras issue. Some have also commented that I seem to be less than enthusiastic about getting cameras and note that agencies across the country are obtaining them. So why isn't MPD following suit as this has become a predominant theme?
On 1/26/15, the City of Madison's Board of Estimates (BOE) gave its approval to a resolution which provides $30,000 to study the matter. Now, the resolution will proceed to the Common Council for further discussion and review.
The money that has been already budgeted will allow an ad hoc committee, directed by the Council, to conduct a comprehensive review of the potential use of body worn cameras for the MPD. In a nutshell, the resolution notes that this study will attempt to survey our community through a variety of means including grass roots forums, polling (both electronically and by boots on the ground), discussions with various constituent groups, consideration of privacy concerns, and the feasibility of funding an initiative of this scope are among a host of issues that will be examined. Ultimately, a report will synthesize the findings and then gets delivered back to the Council for their consideration of next steps.
It is important that people understand that MPD will only have one representative on this committee. That is as it should be. I want this report to be truly reflective as an independent means of gauging support for cameras; I do not want it to be said that the police were driving the report or dictating committee findings or recommendations. The very appearance(s) of MPD running the show might be construed as disingenuous and the results could be discredited as self-serving.
As for the perceptions that I may be less-than-thrilled about the necessity for acquiring cameras at this particular time? "Guilty" as charged. With so many compelling issues facing my Department and this City over the next few years, the sense of urgency that others feel over cameras is not shared by me. The initial start-up costs alone--not to mention what it will take to provide support for this infrastructure for years to come--is an eye popping figure.
There are significant reservations that must be thoughtfully considered before making a quantum leap that cameras are right for Madison at this time. Some of the suppositions raised give me pause.
First and foremost, cameras will afford greater "transparency" of police operations, but will they (as noted by an astute debater from the "Young, Gifted and Black Coalition) necessarily translate into police "accountability?" The two are not equivalent. I believe that the community really wants accountability and it is my hope and conviction that we can achieve this more readily with our continued attempts to be more relational, more engaging, and more sensitive to the needs of our constituents in our challenged neighborhoods.
My concerns about the "unintended consequences" of cameras are well-documented. Protocols about when the cameras will be turned on/off may have profound implications in a variety of contexts. For example, will we be recording the already difficult attempts to get information from sexual assault victims? Do we want all of our juvenile encounters captured? Are we compelled to have the cameras rolling when Neighborhood Officers are trying to connect with residents? What about the domestic dispute that officers record in someone's home where no arrest is made? Where does that footage go and how long will it be retained? What about those among us who are "living in the shadows" and already have issues of mistrust about the police owing to their life experiences in countries of origin or the fear of deportation? It is difficult enough to encourage these individuals to come forward to report those instances when they have witnessed crime(s) or are themselves victims. Does anyone truly believe that when police record these encounters the result will be greater "trust" in the police?
Frankly, my profession have always been suckers for the next "flavor of the month" and then like lemmings following one another off a proverbial cliff, all join the real or perceived "leaders" in their haste to not get left behind and be viewed as stoic, stodgy, curmudgeons. Enter stage right~ body worn cameras! Surely this will be the panacea for all that is wanting in our profession! A quick, hip and trendy, one-size-fits-all solution to our lack of trust and credibility! Many departments are in the midst of trying to "catch up" and overcompensate for years of being insular and resistant to change(s)---the only things that seems to make us embrace change is when we are: hit with a lawsuit, forced to change due to legislative mandates because of reticent practices (i.e., the legislative mandate to compel mandatory arrest in domestic violence cases), or have been so woefully indifferent to constitutional rights as to be the subject of a federal consent decree. . A sad commentary on many levels.. But Madison is not in that league, in spite of what some of our detractors allege.
My critics have pointed to the fact that all of the reservations I have expressed have been raised elsewhere and, over time, overcome. One person mentioned that Janesville has had cameras for almost seven years and there have been no major problems that have not been resolved. I am glad for Janesville and if a decision is made to go with cameras, I have no doubt that we will reach out to the Janesville PD and see what "lessons learned" can be shared with us. But we are not Janesville. Each and every community has unique needs and challenges. What might be a good fit for one city implies that we are all the "same," which I cannot agree with.
Don't get me wrong. Should the Committee declare that their findings indicate a necessity to launch cameras at the earliest option (the first quarter of 2016 for a "pilot" prior to expansion to all of field operations), then I will embrace the recommendations and move forward with all due diligence. But if/when I am asked what I would do with the money that would otherwise be tied to starting up cameras, I would prefer that it be earmarked for more neighborhood officers or used to help defray the costs of getting the Midtown District up and functioning as the needs of the West District become overly stretched.
Given my "reluctance," is this study worth funding? Absolutely. If for no other reason than for the opportunity to have an independent third party coordinate robust community engagement that lets me know, critically, how MPD is doing. While I have held quarterly community forums since taking office (and we are embarking upon a series this month) and show up at venues all over the City, I know that not everyone will feel comfortable in discussing their concerns with me, for whatever reason(s). While I would like to be considered reasonable and approachable, the fact remains that not everyone shares that thought. I get it. So if this study provides yet another mechanism for informing me on concerns from untapped voices in the neighborhood who will not talk to me directly, I am for it! Whatever it takes to keep us mindful of trending concerns, no matter the source of that information.
Shortly after the events of Ferguson (and beyond), I stated publicly that some form of cameras were probably inevitable, given the groundswell of public sentiments being voiced. With time, however, has come a second look at whether cameras are being overhyped in terms of what they can be realistically expected to deliver. Remember, MPD already records traffic stops, Miranda interrogations of juveniles, Miranda interrogations of adults accused of a felony, and all of our SWAT operations. Additionally, we use public cameras that are perched throughout the City in assisting us in various things ranging from traffic flow, to crowd behavior, and to help solve crimes. Madison is not at ground zero when it comes to cameras. The question remains: do we want expansion? If so, how much, how soon, and what are we willing to pay for it?
Over the last six months, the Department of Defense's 1033 program has attracted a great deal of attention, both locally and nationally. Much of the attention has focused on tactical vehicles, including the armored rescue vehicle (ARV) that MPD took possession of last spring. Unfortunately, this focus provides a skewed view of the program and the benefits it provides.
The program started in the early 1990's, when the Department of Defense was first authorized to transfer surplus property to federal and state agencies for use in drug enforcement activities. In the mid 1990's the program was expanded to allow local police agencies to acquire property for any purpose that assists in their law enforcement function. Each participating state has a coordinator that oversees the program in their state. The national Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) oversees the program on a national level.
How does MPD utilize the 1033 program? Several MPD commanders are authorized to search for property that comes available through the program. Requests are then submitted for items that would benefit the Department. These requests must be approved by Wisconsin's state coordinator and by the national LESO office. Multiple agencies often request the same item, and the system then determines who the property is awarded to.
The property is located at military bases across the country. Once an item is awarded, we work with representatives at the base to arrange for it to be shipped to Madison. An inventory of all 1033 program property is maintained and each item must be accounted for. The program specifies that some items cannot be discarded and must be returned to the military if no longer useful.
While MPD's armored rescue vehicle has attracted most of the local attention regarding the 1033 program, MPD has used the program to acquire all kinds of property, including:
• First aid kits
• Safety goggles
• Cold weather gear
• Lighting systems
• Night vision equipment
• Metal detectors
• Personal Protective Suits
This is consistent with how the program is used nationally: weapons only comprise about 5% of the items awarded, and some of the most commonly awarded items include electrical wire, tools, clothing and bandages.
The value of the property MPD has received from the 1033 program exceeds $750,000. These are items that our federal tax dollars have already paid for, and that allow us to more effectively serve the public. Given the "notoriety" that this program has garnered, it is important to note that MPD is not engaged in a wholesale "land grab" in which we request anything/everything we can lay our hands on! Quite the opposite, in fact. Knowing the heightened sensitivity that the community has for the "militarization" of our police – a perspective which I completely understand and endorse – our participation has been predicated on considering only those items that fill a need.
(I would like to send a special thanks to Captain Victor Wahl for his contributions to the above information on the 1033 program.)