Last night, the Madison Police and Fire Commission considered public input for the city’s new chief of police.
Ramon Batista emerged as the crowd favorite at the meeting, where at least half of the participants voiced their support for the former Police Chief of the Mesa, Arizona Department.
The PFC narrowed down a list of more than forty candidates to four finalists to be Madison’s newest police chief — Batista, Christopher Davis of the Portland Police Bureau, Shon Barnes with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago and Larry Scirotto, formerly of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.
According to reporting from the Arizona Republic, Batista abruptly resigned from his former position last November. His departure came just a few months after the Mesa Police Association and the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police — two police unions — issued him a vote of no confidence.
Those votes of no confidence were reportedly after he abandoned officers and instilled a “toxic” environment in the Mesa PD. But, they also came as Batista was attempting to push a number of reforms on the embattled and controversial department — and after he publicly spoke out against officers in two high-profile use of force cases.
Larissa Joanna, a Madison-based protest organizer, spoke at last night’s meeting in support of Batista’s confirmation.
“We really are advocating for Ramon Batista, because we have already been in communication with him, and he is trying to work with the community,” she said.
For as much support Batista received, one finalist attracted an equal amount of controversy.
Christopher Davis is the current Deputy Police Chief at the Portland police bureau, which attracted national attention for its excessive use of force against protesters this summer. During his tenure, Portland has been the target of a federal lawsuit for its use of force during protests and, in particular, its use of tear gas.
Despite a court order barring them from using the chemical weapon, the department continued its use of the less-lethal crowd control method. Last Monday, a federal judge held the city, and by extension its police, in contempt for violating the order.
Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, the newly elected vice chair of Madison’s Police Civilian Oversight Board, said that Davis even making it into the final four is illustrative of the PFC’s disconnect from the community.
“For Davis to get this far in this process — you’re not listening,” Kilfoy-Flores said. “And it’s disappointing. It’s disappointing to have an ineffective body who is not listening to the citizens who has this much power.”
In fact, the PFC’s selection process for the new top cop was just as much a matter of debate last night as the candidates themselves. Most of last night’s participants took issue with the Commission’s selection process — arguing that the hunt was conducted behind closed doors and without enough community input.
“I’m sad for our city, I’m sad for our chief to be walking into a hornet’s nest under these circumstances. This should have been done in an equal and judicious way and it was not. You guys closed the door on the community,” Kilfoy-Flores added.
Gregory Gelembiuk served on the city’s police policy and procedure review ad hoc committee. Last fall, that committee recommended 177 reforms to the Madison Police Department — two of which would eventually become the city’s new Police Oversight Board and forthcoming Independent Police Monitor.
He said that the PFC blatantly disregarded their advice on the hiring and selection process for a new chief.
“I’m very disappointed that the PFC chose to ignore the recommendations of OIR and the ad hoc committee on which I served to allow community questioning of finalists with community panels or community interviews,” Gelembiuk told the Commissioners.
The PFC hosted a series of public input sessions and open meetings over the past several months, as well as working with the Local Voices Network to gather community input.
However, community members argue that those meetings were often held during normal work hours and registration for public comment is bogged down in a convoluted process. The PFC also regularly enters closed meetings to discuss issues — barring observation and participation by community members.
And, despite more than an hour of criticism for the practice, that’s exactly what commissioners did last night — moving to a closed session to consider the public input and debate the four finalists.
They’re scheduled to meet again on Monday, December 14th at 5:30 where they will continue hearing public input. The commission may meet to hear additional public comment past that date, if necessary.
A final hiring decision is expected this month.
(Photo: Protesters March in support of community control this past summer / Chali Pittman / WORT News)
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores is the vice chair of the city’s police oversight board.