Madison's Police Oversight Debate Cools Down — For Now

Chief Koval, Alder Bidar-Sielaff Reflect On A Contentious Week
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Madison Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff (left) and Police Chief Mike Koval (right) speak about police oversight on Wisconsin Public Television's "Here And Now."
Wisconsin Public Television

To watch Madison Police Chief Mike Koval and Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff speak on Wisconsin Public Television's Here And Now, one might not immediately recognize the escalating tensions between the department and other portions of the city government.

On June 5, Koval posted a commentary on his official chief's blog, in which he lashed out at the Madison Common Council for proposing to spend about $400,000 on an independent investigation of the Madison Police Department's practices. The 1,228-word post criticized the idea from a financial standpoint, but mostly stood out for its openly hostile tone.

Koval said the city council would inevitably support the study:

To do otherwise would be tantamount to "treason" for those who wring their hands worried about currying favor with a small group of people who protest/blog/criticize the MPD at every turn. The 'perpetually offended' of Madison who use their small but vocal numbers to dictate agendas has an incredible grip on this City .... but no one dares to raise a voice lest they be marginalized in the PC world of Madison.

The chief went on to defend the department's police work and accountability practices, and delivered this message: "To the Common Council: You are being watched. And be on notice: this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you."

While it may be easy for people to see a dispute in Madison as a tempest in a teapot, this one is different. Instead, it's part of a contentious shift happening nationally as cities wrestle with racial disparities in law enforcement and critics seek stronger civilian oversight of police departments. In Madison, police arrested African Americans more than 10 times as frequently as whites in 2013 and 2014, the Wisconsin State Journal found. After a Madison police officer shot and killed unarmed black resident Tony Robinson in March 2015 and subsequent official investigations condoned that action, Koval has butted heads with activists over lethal force standards and community control over police.

Madison officials, activists and media returned Koval's "pre-emptive strike" in kind. Alder Mark Clear told the Capital Times that the chief's remarks were "completely inappropriate for a public figure," and joined several other alders in saying the Common Council has generally been very supportive of the police department. Civil rights activist Matthew Braunginn called for Koval's resignation, calling him "a bully and a racist." And the Wisconsin State Journal's political cartoonist drew Koval pounding furiously on a keyboard with a "Born to Blog" coffee cup at his side.

The Madison Common Council approved the funding for an investigation of the city's police department on June 7, in a tense meeting during which many alders confronted Koval directly about his blog post. In one exchange, Alder Amanda Hall asked Koval to consider what it would sound like if a powerful figure used the phrase "you are being watched" in an email to a woman. "When you're doing a blog it's a metaphor," the chief responded, adding sarcastically: "OK, I won't use metaphors."

When she appeared June 10, 2016 on Here And Now, Bidar-Sielaff said she still found Koval's blog post "unfortunate." But the alder, who led the effort to fund the investigation, generally praised Madison's police force, and said she thought it would mostly confirm her overall positive impression of the department.

Host Frederica Freyberg asked if Bidar-Sielaff meant to spend $400,000 confirm that the department is doing things right. After a pause, the alder replied "yes!" and defended the expense, saying an independent review would help bring more Madisonians to the table and build trust between the city's residents and police officers.

In a separate interview on Here And Now the same day, Koval reciprocated that conciliatory tone. The chief said Bidar-Sielaff is "a very good partner" to the Madison Police Department and added that he welcomed a study. Koval downplayed questions about the tone of his blog post, saying that his "you are being watched" remark was "hyperbole or metaphor."

While the comments by both Koval and Bidar-Sielaff suggest the tenor of this controversy may be cooling down, it doesn't mean the broader debate is anywhere near settled. In his interview, Koval repeated an argument he's made several times lately: That law enforcement can't entirely address racial disparities in policing as long as similar issues persist in other areas, like education and housing.

"My concern is that as long as the socioeconomic status indicators that we use to use as a litmus test for the health and wellness issues of the community, as long as those are sagging for some and not enjoyed by all, we will always be finding ourselves policing the most desperate acts of the most desperate individuals," Koval said.

The Madison Police Department has drawn scrutiny recently from the American Civil Liberties Union, in addition to pressure that's likely to keep coming from activists and the city council. And just before Koval's was interviewed on Here And Now, Madison police announced the arrest of a Dane County Jail inmate charged with plotting to have an officer murdered. The chief's perception that the Madison Police Department is embattled and unfairly blamed for the city's racial disparities may well keep bubbling however he expresses it.

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