Madison in the Sixties – 1968, a year of fears and tears.
As antiwar protests intensify, the council on July 1, approves an $8,300 appropriation for the Police Department to buy sixty-two riot helmets, forty-eight night sticks and 150 gas masks. Or does it?
As newly elected Eighth Ward Ald. Paul Soglin notes the next day, there were only 18 members on the floor at the time of the voice vote; since he and fellow first-termer Ald. Alicia Ashman were both recorded as voting no, the measure could not have gotten the seventeen votes required under council rules.
Among the dozens of anti-Dow protesters sent to the emergency room by baton-wielding police in the Commerce building the previous October, Soglin says police shouldn’t have additional riot equipment “because they don’t know how to use it,” and don’t need it.
And the history grad student objects strongly to the resolution’s preamble, which warns darkly about “increased activities by certain groups,” making it “imperative that the department be prepared to meet any situation that may arise.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the motion was not passed,” Soglin says.
But as far as City Attorney Edwin Conrad is concerned, it was; being recorded as voting no on a voice vote is not the same, he says, as voting no in a roll call. On Conrad’s advice, Mayor Otto Festge signs the resolution appropriating the funds.
The Madison Professional Policemen’s Association writes Ashman it is “shocked and dismayed” by her vote, coming at a time when “assaults on police are at an all-time high,” and “the public is more and more condemning violence and supporting its police.” Association vice president Roth Watson says the MPPA didn’t write a similar letter to Soglin because it “recognized that Ald. Soglin’s constituents are not necessarily concerned with the safety of police officers.”
A few days later, Soglin, Ashman, beloved WIBA radio host George “Papa Hambone” Vukelich and Prof. and Mrs. Francis Hole file a taxpayer’s lawsuit seeking to block the purchase as an unauthorized expenditure.
“The domestic arms race has to stop somewhere,” Ald. Ashman says. “Why not stop it here?”
Circuit Judge Norris Maloney thinks the legal question is close enough that he issues a temporary restraining order on July twenty-fourth, stopping the city from going through with the purchase.
But rather than litigate, the council simply re-legislates, bringing the measure back for another vote on August eighth. At about the same time the Republican convention in Miami Beach is nominating Richard Nixon for President, the council approves the riot gear, seventeen-three.
Mace is also on everyone’s mind. It was in late 1967 that City Attorney Edwin Conrad gave the patented tear-gas spray a clean bill of health. But in May 1968, after the U.S. Surgeon General raises new concerns about its use of a kerosene by-product, Conrad stuns the police by withdrawing his approval, saying he’s “concerned about the city’s liability in the use of a fairly potent toxic substance.” Police Chief Wilbur Emery disagrees. He notes there had been no injuries to either officer or arrestee in the ten times it had been used in Madison so far, and says the spray is “the more human way to effect an arrest than using a club, gun or fist.”
Mayor Otto Festge holds a heated conference with the two plus Public Health Director Charles Kincaid, and then sides with his cautious lawyer, suspending the use of Mace pending further medical information.
The Dane County Traffic Department continues its use; the Sheriff’s Department has never started.
Police Association secretary Capt. George Schiro tells Festge about three officers attacked and injured while trying to make arrests, which he says only happened because they couldn’t use Mace. He urges Festge to reconsider the ban.
It’s not until late October that the mayor does, after a special committee appointed by Atty. Gen. Bronson La Follette approves its use under specific guidelines, which Festge incorporates. The rules limit its use to trained officers, who should never aim it higher than the armpit, use it only against individuals and not in group settings, and treat recipients with “copious amounts” of water as soon as possible. Emery agrees with all the rules, and notes that the training for all 224 officers includes receiving a Mace burst themselves.
In mid-November, the council – eager to be seen supporting the police, and concerned another mayor could rescind the new directive – enacts Festge’s authorization and guidelines into ordinance.
And this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For YOUR listener-sponsored, pledge-driving, award-winning, mask-wearing, hand-washing, socially distant WORT community radio news team, I’m Stu Levitan.