Since May, Madison’s streets have rumbled with calls for reforms — reforms of the carceral system, of long-standing racist social mores and, most prominently, of the nation’s police forces.
Now, a main protest demand — for community control over police — has been enacted in Madison.
The city’s new 13-member Police Civilian Oversight Board, formally created in September, is the culmination of half a decade of planning across two mayoral administrations. The result, according to Liana Perez , Director of Operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, is one of the strongest police oversight boards in the nation.
“We’ve been using Madison as an example in the last couple weeks,” Perez says. “We’re holding up Madison as one of the stronger models being put forward right now.”
Part of that strength, says Perez, stems from the nomination process for most of its members. Nine of the thirteen board members were nominated by local social justice and reform organizations, with an eye towards diversity, equity and representation of Madison’s Black community.
Groups with a nominee now on the Board include the Community Response Team, Freedom Inc, Urban Triage, JustDane (formerly Madison Urban Ministry), Outreach LGBTQ+ Community Center, UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, and local chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, YWCA, and NAACP.
Keith Findley, an alternate member of the Civilian Oversight Board who was part of its planning process, said at a September Common Council meeting that the board’s diversity is necessary for it to legitimately represent the community.
“Being critical of police shouldn’t be a disqualifier, given that one of the purposes of the board is to bring together the MPD and representatives of Madison’s most heavily policed and marginalized communities — the very communities that harbor the most distrust of the MPD,” Findley told city alders.
“It’s essential that they have a place at the table. If they don’t, this board will never be viewed by community members as anything more than more of the same, another attempt to silence those perspectives,” he added.
Perez says that, in many cities, oversight boards are often composed of mayoral or city council appointees. Only four of Madison’s board members are appointed by the Mayor and Common Council.
“Sometimes that’s viewed by the community as having potential bias with respect to who gets elected to these boards,” says Perez.
“The way Madison has gone about specifying how they wanted to diversify the members of this board, it’s very inclusive of being able to get a broad range of individuals, more so than many other boards across the country.”
And she says the strength of Madison’s police oversight board isn’t just in its diversity. Along with the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, the board wields some control over the Madison Police Department.
The board can weigh in on and review operations of the police. It can also subpoena officers to provide testimony during officer investigations.
Perez says that power is out of the norm for many police oversight boards, yet even boards with that capacity are sometimes hesitant to use it for fear of being challenged by police unions.
Keith Findley has been a part of the oversight board’s planning process since the beginning. He served as co-chair of a years-long, citizen-led ad hoc committee tasked with researching reforms to the Madison Police Department. That committee would eventually propose 177 recommendations to the city’s leadership. Included in those recommendations were the oversight board and monitor.
Findley says that, during the planning process for the board, the ad hoc committee looked to other cities’ oversight boards for lessons in what to do — and not do.
“We drew heavily on the experience and ordinance in Denver, and there were quite a few others we looked at as well,” he says. “Some were very successful and some weren’t, and we tried to discern the differences in what made an oversight structure effective and what made it not so effective, and we tried to draw on the former.”
Madison’s police oversight board bears a striking resemblance to Denver’s. Both have virtually the same responsibilities and both have an accompanying police monitor.
Findley says that one of the first orders of business for the board will be the selection of the Independent Police Monitor. He explains that the board plans to take their time with the selection process, and hasn’t set a firm timeline yet for the hiring process.
“So that choice is going to be absolutely essential. One way this could all collapse is if we hire someone who is not up to the task. I’m confident we won’t do that, but if the question is ‘What could go wrong?’ well, there’s one possibility.”
For all of the powers vested in the board and monitor, they lack one key authority — the ability to fire Madison police officers. That responsibility lies with the Madison Police and Fire Commission, which has statutory oversight over police discipline.
Per the adopted ordinance, Madison’s Police Civilian Oversight Board does not have “the authority to impose discipline, reverse disciplinary decisions, or mandate any other action or decision by the PFC.”
Madison journalist Bill Leuders has tangled with the PFC before. In 1998, he brought a complaint before the commission alleging that an officer had mishandled a case.
“And they just beat the crap out of me,” he says. “They did everything possible to defeat my claim. The supervisor was given an attorney, any officer who’s charged there would be, and their entire mission was to beat back and destroy the complaint, regardless of merit.”
As Findley explained in September, officers in cases before the PFC are provided with legal aid to combat claims against citizens — a privilege the citizens aren’t extended. One of the duties for the forthcoming police monitor will be to appoint legal counsel for those taking complaints before the PFC.
“As a former PFC member myself, I can tell you that process is cumbersome and difficult for citizens to access,” Findley says. “One problem with that structure is that police personnel are always represented by council, typically through the union, but the complainants are on their own.”
In an email to Madison City Attorney Michael Haas sent in June, Jenna Rousseau, the PFC’s Legal Counsel, advised removing several powers of the community control board. Powers including, but not limited to, the authority to recommend disciplinary actions for police officers, the authority to recommend hiring processes, and findings on violations of departmental rules.
The PFC argued that these authorities, among others, would infringe upon their administrative territory.
Still, Lueders says that even with the PFC, Madison’s oversight measures could gradually push its police department in a progressive direction.
“I would not go so far as to say that the citizen oversight body doesn’t serve a purpose. It can push for progressive change in the police department; it’s just limited in this one big area.”
Still, the community control board is a step for protesters who have been advocating for direct community control over the police. One organization pushing for community control of police is the youth-led group Impact Demand.
Said Impact Demand co-organizer Ayomi Obuseh earlier this month, they intend to hold the new oversight board to that responsibility.
“We expect and will hold accountable the civilian oversight board to voice the community’s pain and serve as a reminder to those in power that they serve the people.”
(Photo: Chali Pittman/WORT News)