The Madison Common Council formally established the Police Civilian Oversight Board last September. The 13-member board was years in the making, and intended to bring more oversight and accountability to the Madison Police Department.
Now, it’s the subject of a federal lawsuit against the City of Madison.
The lawsuit is brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative legal firm. WILL is bringing the lawsuit on behalf of David Blaska, a local conservative blogger, former Dane County Board Supervisor, and former mayoral and school board candidate. Blaska, who is white, was not appointed to the oversight board but was one of about sixty applicants. He says certain rules establishing the membership of the board amounted to a racial quota.
“I can think of no other governmental body that bases membership on race. And there’s a good reason for that. Even the city of Madison prohibits discrimination based on race. So the city is in violation of its own ordinance,” Blaska tells WORT.
Under city ordinance, the police oversight board is required to include at least one member who is African American, a member who is Asian, a member who is LatinX, and a member who is Native American. Through a resolution, the council required that at least half of the board include Black members. Also through a resolution, it invited nine community organizations to nominate individuals to the board. Those organizations include the Community Response Team, Freedom Inc, JustDane, NAMI, Outreach LGBTQ community center, UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, Urban Triage, and the YWCA. In addition, the mayor and the council each appointed two members.
Dan Lennington is deputy counsel with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He says Blaska’s constitutional civil rights were violated because he was ineligible for most of the seats on the police oversight board.
“The Constitution does not make any distinction about when the government is allowed to discriminate based on race and when it is not allowed. The constitution forbids race discrimination. The reason there’s no case law on the issue is because cities have not tried to do something so brazen and bold as discriminate against its own citizens in the modern era. This is just a breathtaking example of equity gone wrong.”
Madison City Attorney Michael Haas says the selection process was carefully formulated.
“Our perspective at the city is that it’s clear that communities of color and disadvantaged individuals have had more police oversight and higher rates of incarceration. So the city council carefully considered the composition of the oversight board. It determined that our society and government has an interest in ensuring those individuals are represented on the oversight board, and that they have an opportunity to be heard,” says Haas.
“It’s not only to benefit persons of color, but also to improve our government and community oversight of policing,” Haas adds.
Lennington, of WILL, pushes back:
“The race-based requirements are plain on the face of the statute. There’s nothing in the statute about being nominated from groups. The requirements are about race you must be a member of to join. The fact that they went through this process to seek nominations from community groups doesn’t mean that it’s any less discriminatory. They can’t be absolved of their race discrimination by pawning it off on outside groups to make decisions for them.”
WORT obtained Blaska’s application under an open records request for all applications to the oversight board. It shows Blaska sought nomination from the Republican Party of Dane County. But according to City Attorney Michael Haas, no political groups were invited to nominate a member.
In his application, Blaska cited his youth advocacy during his 2019 campaign for Madison School Board. He also goes on to write “I would be the only German Bohemian on the panel” and “Blaming police for crime has to be the ultimate galactic joke.”
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Western District of Wisconsin. It seeks an injunction requiring the city to reconstitute the oversight board, as well as punitive damages. In January, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty warned such a lawsuit would be coming if no action was taken.
It’s WILL’s fourth lawsuit under their “Equality Under the Law Project,” which targets issues of race. Also under the project, WILL has issued a demand letter to the sun Prairie Area School District and City of Sun Prairie urging over segregated “affinity groups.”
WILL has also filed a notice of claim – the precursor to a potential lawsuit – against the City of Madison over a birdsafe glass ordinance.
Vectorized image taken from May 30, 2020 protest in Madison, Chali Pittman/WORT News.