Time to hold the police accountable

January 22, 2015

In the wake of the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition formed in Madison, Wisconsin, to highlight the racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Dane County and to fight for racial justice in solidarity with the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement across the country.

The Coalition has led protests in all parts of the city and is committed to mobilizing every week until its principal demands are met:

-- That the county spend no new money on building a jail. The Dane County Board has already designated $8 million in its 2014 budget for a new jail, including purchasing the land to build it on. A proposal by the prison design firm Mead & Hunt puts forward either renovating existing facilities for $121 million or building a new jail for $135 million. Young, Gifted and Black is demanding that the money instead be spent on Black-led initiatives that will empower Blacks to liberate themselves.

-- The immediate release of 350 Black prisoners incarcerated for crimes of poverty. This would end Dane County's racial disparity in incarceration overnight.

-- An end to solitary confinement. The practice is inhumane and intolerable.

Recently, the Coalition penned an open letter to Madison Police Chief Michael Koval demanding an end to excessive policing in Black neighborhoods. Here, we reprint that statement, plus a response from Koval published at a police blog, followed by the Coalition's reply. You can contact the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition on its Facebook page or by e-mail.

Open Letter from the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition

Dear Police Chief Koval,
We are writing you to explain our position and our demands as they relate to your police department.

First, we think that in comparison to departments in other cities, you have done well in protecting our right to free speech at our weekly actions.

Our targeting of the police department relates to the violence that Black people have faced at the hands of police in the murders of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson and countless others, but it also relates to the violence of heavy policing and arrest rate disparities in Madison.

Although Madison's model of community policing and attempts to build trust between the community and police, even acting as "social workers," may be a step above certain other communities, our arrest rates and incarceration disparities still top the nation. The relationship that we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction. Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing.

Madison demonstrators march in solidarity with Mike Brown and Eric Garner
Madison demonstrators march in solidarity with Mike Brown and Eric Garner (Ferguson to Madison)

The situation in New York City, where police have decided to police less, has led to no changes in the crime rates. Thus, we can draw the conclusion that decreasing policing in our communities will not lead to an increase in crime. It is also safe to assume that decreasing policing in our communities will lead to a decrease in the disparity rates we see in Dane County.

We understand that the system of policing and incarceration is closely linked to the system of slavery and the continued oppression of black people. Our ultimate goal is finding alternatives to incarceration and policing, and our steps forward as a community should reflect the values of community control and self-determination.

One of our publicly stated demands is for the immediate release of 350 Black people from the Dane County Jail, with the ongoing demand to keep this number out of the jail in order to remove 350 beds from the facility. This means that every month, 350 Black people must be prevented and/or diverted from entering the jail, as there are typically 3,900 Black people that cycle through the jail every year. This would eliminate the need for 350 beds in the jail, and also eliminate the need for renovations due to safety and mental health concerns.

If there was no structural racism, the jails and the arrest rates should be proportional to the demographics of the population. In a jail of 800, without structural racism and a demographic of a 5 percent Black population, there should be closer to 40 Black people, rather than the 400 Black people currently incarcerated.

Therefore, we demand that Madison and Dane County act swiftly to address structural racism and bias. One of the key reasons that Black people are incarcerated is because of poverty. Jails should not function as poor houses. Some 45 percent of people who are incarcerated are incarcerated because they have not paid bails of $1,000 or less. Therefore, they are not incarcerated for a public safety concern, but rather because they are poor. The proof of this is that people with money, who have bails of both less and more than $1,000, are not kept in jail--and this is not considered a public safety issue. Therefore we demand the immediate release of people incarcerated due to crimes of poverty.

This includes arrests for crimes of poverty such as public urination, intoxication, sleeping, retail theft for survival, and low-level citations.

While this is a goal that needs the involvement of other areas of government, such as the municipal and circuit court judges, other police departments, , the District Attorney, prosecutors, clerk of the court, public defenders and those in our community with influence in areas such as education, employment, housing and health, you and the MPD do have a large role to play. We also include the mayor's office, the Criminal Justice Council and the Common Council as decision-makers in these areas.

We want to see a plan for how the Madison Police Department is going to do the following to address racial disparities:

Dramatically reduce the number of police contacts with Black people and poor people.

Significantly increase voluntary referrals to community-led resources and programs when police do contact Black people and poor people.

Cut in half the number of Black people and poor people arrested to address racial disparities

Of those arrested, refer as many people as possible to community-led alternatives to incarceration.

Given that the arrest rate shows that Black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people, we demand that this disparity be cut in half by the end of 2015. (While our emphasis is on the disparity, we also desire to see fewer arrests for everyone--not just Black people--who Madison police come into contact with.) To do this will require an immediate and thorough public review of all Madison Police Department policies and practices to determine which need to be changed or eliminated in order to immediately reduce the racial disparity in arrest rates.

We want to see the plan involve accountability measures. For example, if you do not reach a particular goal, there will be potential for a funding cut or some other consequence. Also, we would like your plan to include a citizen review board for questions of police misconduct in addition to Public Safety Review Board and the Police and Fire Commission. We aim to move towards community controlled policing, with advisory boards in communities throughout Madison and Dane County. We also need you to follow the recent advice of the Department of Justice and release data about arrest demographics in order to address racial disparities.

Your plan may include diversity training and recruitment of people of color as staff; however, we do not see these steps as significant remedies to existing problems. We believe that change needs to happen at a systemic policy level. It will also involve closer connection to social service agencies and increased restorative or transformative justice programming.

Your plan should seek to identify best practices from other locations, but not be limited to them, as this is a problem that faces many cities around the country. We need to think outside the box, and we want to lead the way in doing so.

For many years, there have been studies done on how to address racial disparities in the Dane County criminal system and Madison policing that are relevant, but we haven't seen the concrete action required to make the changes that our communities need.

Please have your plan completed by the end of February 2015.

Racial disparities have plagued Madison and Dane County for many years. It is well beyond the time that concrete and intentional efforts are made. We look forward to celebrating with you the decrease in racial disparities at the end of 2015.

All Power to the People,
Young, Gifted and Black Coalition

Excerpts from a Response by Police Chief Michael Koval

Playing a seminal role in facilitating your demonstrations has not been easy. Officers have been mustered from off-hours, traffic and contingency plans assembled, beats back-filled, significant overtime incurred and members of the general public have been patient--thus far. This is the role of police in a free society and the MPD has performed in stellar fashion. But please take note: I evaluate our response on a case-by-case basis, and there are limits to what is considered reasonable behavior(s). For example, going into a privately held venue (e.g., a mall) and using a bullhorn to drop "f-bombs" or other profanity in the course of bringing attention to a cause is NOT protected speech and will subject the speaker to sanctions. This has been explained to your group in private; now is it being noticed in a public forum...

I have repeatedly stated that MPD is sensitive to those areas where it can be demonstrated that officers (individually) or the Department (collectively) is engaged in purposed or unconscious bias toward any group or groups. Based on the diversity and the strength of character personified in our workforce, the training which is second to none and ever-striving for best practices, coupled with checks-and-balances that serve to bring rogue cops or practices to the light of day, I will not buy into the naive supposition that our community's disparity issues are largely owing to a pervasive pattern of systemic racism by MPD.

In fact, I'm fed up with my Department being blamed for everything from male pattern baldness to global warming. It is time for Young, Gifted and Black to look a lot deeper at the issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the "blame game" of throwing my Department to the wolves. I'm done with allowing this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged. Perhaps others in Madison are afraid to violate the rules of political correctness and say what I am saying (including the media). I cannot control the public debate, but I will not stay silent. I am 56 years old, this is my last job, and I am calling you out as a group (I guess it's a good thing that I don't run for public office and can say what I mean and mean what I say).

What I find most objectionable in your letter to me was the demand that MPD have no "interaction" with "our own communities." This is absolutely untenable to me. You are now comfortable making those kind of quantum leaps and have polled your "own communities" to come to this conclusion? Suffice to say, that is NOT the message I get when I go to community forums--in fact, quite the contrary! So, unless forced to resign or retire (and I think retirement is light years away at this point), MPD is not going to "reduce" our contacts with our neighborhood constituents--in fact, we are going to "increase" them!...

A Reply from the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition

We acknowledge that Chief Koval has written a blog post in response to our open letter. We welcome the opportunity to engage in open and honest dialogue with Chief Koval, and other officials. Based on his response to one part of our statement, "The relationship that we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction. Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods," it appears that it is necessary for us to elaborate on our meaning.

What does "no police interaction" look like? The closest example is what we see in predominantly white neighborhoods, which experience little to no police contact.

In our neighborhoods, things are different. We've lived the experience that more police contact means more arrests--feeding the racial disparities in incarceration rates that contribute to other disparities. We've lived the experience of being stopped by the police while walking down the street--not because a crime has been committed but because police are present and thus are propelled to fish for probable cause. We've lived the experience of being harassed by police when hanging out in a park or sitting on our porches. We've lived the experience of being followed by police while entering or exiting our communities. We LIVE the experience of driving while Black. We live the experience of not being heard and/or being dismissed when we EXPRESS what is best for OUR people.

Current policing practices have played a major role in racial disparities, including but not limited to--Black teens in Dane County being six times more likely to be arrested than whites living here, while Black youth in the rest of the state are three times as likely to be arrested as whites. Black adults are arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites. That compares to a Black-white arrest disparity of about 4-to-1 for the rest of Wisconsin and 2.5-to-1 for the nation as a whole. The racial imbalances in Dane County's incarceration numbers are extraordinary as well. While Black men made up only 4.8 percent of the county's total adult male population, they accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during 2012.

We understand that MPD is not the only contributor to racial disparities in Madison. However, with numbers like these, MPD's role warrants serious attention...

We are glad participate in an open conversation with other members of our community to address ways to end racial disparities within the criminal justice system. We believe important first steps include a moratorium on all spending toward and building of jail facilities, the immediate release of 350 Black people housed in Dane County Jail due to crimes of poverty, an end to solitary confinement and reducing police presence in our neighborhoods.

Further Reading

From the archives