Madison in the Sixties. The summer of 68 – attempts to defund the police and take away their Mace.
In the months following the anti-Dow protest in October, 1967, there were no large-scale demonstrations for the rest of the school year. But when police informants report in early summer that 68-69 would bring an upsurge in activity, Police Chief Wilber Emery asks the city council for $8,300 for riot gear — 150 gas masks, sixty- two riot helmets and forty-eight night sticks. The council approves the appropriation by voice vote on July 11,
Or does it?
As newly elected Miffland alder Paul Soglin notes the next day, there were only eighteen members on the floor at the time; since he and University Heights first-term Ald. Alicia Ashman were both recorded as voting no, the measure could not have gotten the seventeen votes needed under council rules.
Soglin, who was among the dozens of protesters in the packed UW Commerce Building that day last fall sent to the emergency room by baton-wielding police, says police don’t need the riot gear and “don’t know how to use it.” And he strongly objects to the resolution’s preamble, which warns darkly about “increased activities by certain groups.”
The Madison Professional Policemen’s Association writes to Ashman that 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 group 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.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the motion was not passed,” says Soglin, a graduate student in the history department. 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.
On July 22, Soglin, Ashman, WIBA radio host George “Papa Hambone” Vukelich, and Professor 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 24, stopping the city from completing the purchase.
The next day, Police Chief Emery unloads his frustrations at a special meeting of the Equal Opportunities Commission. “If everyone would shut up and forget about it, everything would be fine,” he says, revealing that he “would have preferred to keep the whole thing secret” but had to go to the council for the money.
But rather than litigate, the council simply relegislates, bringing the measure back for another vote on August 8 – about the time Republicans in Miami Beach are nominating Richard Nixon for president. The council meeting features both spectacle — satirical skit by the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union – and speechifying, statements in opposition by James Sykes, Mrs. Lee Zeldin, Sally Franz and others. Ashman offers, unsuccessfully, a lengthy amendment imposing a broad and strict gun control ordinance and requiring a report on how policemen are trained for riot duty, before the council approves the riot gear, 17–3.
But sometimes city attorney Conrad doesn’t do what the police want. Like in May, 1968, when he withdraws his approval of the chemical tear gas Mace after the US Surgeon General raises new concerns about it containing a kerosene by- product. Police had used Mace ten times since last November without reported injury to arrestees, but now Conrad says he’s “concerned about the city’s liability in the use of a fairly potent toxic substance.” Emery disagrees, maintaining that Mace is “the more human way to effect an arrest than using a club, gun or fist.”
That’s the same comparison Mayor Otto Festge gave last fall, after a woman allegedly suffered facial burns and lost control of her legs after she was maced during a crowd disturbance. Pressed for a policy statement by Professor William Gorham Rice, chairman of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, Mayor Festge said then that Mace was “a more humane tool for police to use” than “billy clubs, muscle power, or even firearms,” and that he trusts in each officer’s discretion about when to use it. And he says he believes the company’s manufacturer’s claim that it causes no permanent discomfort or harm.”
But now Festge sides with his cautious counsel, suspending the use of Mace pending further medical information from the Surgeon General. “As long as there’s a legal doubt, I consider it wise to wait, Festge says.
The Dane County Traffic Department continues to use Mace; the sheriff’s department has never started.
Captain George Schiro, secretary of the Police Association, writes Festge in late June about three officers he says were attacked and injured while trying to make arrests. He says it happened only because they couldn’t use Mace, and urges Festge to reconsider the ban.
It’s not until October 25 that Festge does, after a special committee appointed by attorney general Bronson La Follette issues a report approving its use under specific guidelines, which the mayor 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 endorses all the rules and notes that the training for all 224 officers includes receiving Mace themselves. In November, the council enacts Festge’s authorization and guidelines into ordinance.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties, For your listener-sponsored, award-winning, mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing WORT News team, I’m Stu Levitan.