A letter signed by several Madison organizations says they have no confidence in the Madison Police Department and Acting Chief Vic Wahl. The letter, to the Police and Fire Commission, has also been signed by hundreds of individuals, including several candidates for statewide office and current local elected officials.
The letter documents a number of individual cases, including how the MPD has handled the arrest of Black Lives Matter activist Yeshua Musa and its response to the attack on Althea Bernstein, that they say “demonstrate a pattern of anti-Blackness.”
“Given the clear pattern of anti-Black policing established in the department under Chief Koval and carried on by Chief Wahl, we demand Madison’s next police chief be hired from outside MPD,” the letter states.
The 13 organizations that signed the letter, including Urban Triage and Freedom Inc., declared a “vote of non-confidence in Chief Wahl and the department as a whole.”
The other organizations include:
- Community Response Team
- HEART Consulting
- OutReach LGBTQI Community Center
- Disability Pride
- Cultural Recovery Options for Families
- Black Umbrella Global
- Progressive Dane
- United Faculty and Academic Staff
- AFT-WI Local 223
MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain said in an email Thursday that Wahl was not interested in commenting on the letter.
Jenna Rousseau, attorney for the PFC, said in an email Thursday that the PFC has received the letter and heard from members of the public about it at the commission’s meeting July 22.
“The PFC's focus continues to be finding the next Chief of Police for the City of Madison, a process which has and will include robust community input,” Rousseau said.
As a quasi-judicial body with statutory powers, the PFC has the authority to hire, fire and discipline personnel from police and fire departments. Rousseau said neither the state statutes nor the rules of the PFC address a vote of no confidence as a “specific procedural measure.”
The hiring process could take until early next year, though Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway asked in a July 8 letter to commissioners to act within 90 days. Those who signed on to the letter rejected this timeline and expressed support for a process that includes extensive community input, virtual town halls and opportunities for community members to interact with applicants.
The letter further demands that Madison’s next chief show support for a public health approach to preventing violence, a history of anti-racist leadership and "respectful partnerships" with community organizations that hold the department accountable.
The characteristics outlined by the organizations align with some input shared with the PFC asking that the next chief promote a transition in services that can be conducted by people who are not officers, such as an emergency response team of medical and crisis workers.
They also highlight the issue of broken trust between the MPD and the community, which is “one of the great challenges facing the MPD,” according to a report from an ad hoc committee that studied the police department for about five years.
“Communities that have their needs met need little policing,” the letter states, “a shift in power and resources to community is the way forward and good officers work to render themselves obsolete.”
Supporting community input
For some politicians who signed on to the letter, the decision came down to supporting community input, especially feedback from Black-led organizations and communities that are most negatively affected by the police.
“There is not really any trust left with the department,” said Dane County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, who signed the letter.
The MPD’s response to protesting at the end of May stemming from the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis has contributed to lack of trust between the community and police department.
While most of the protests ended without incident, some people looted and damaged property downtown and throughout the city into early morning hours. Responding officers, including those from agencies outside of Dane County and the Wisconsin National Guard, used pepper spray and chemical agents, formed long lines while holding riot shields to contain protesters and wore protective gear.
Madison Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, who has sponsored legislation to prohibit officers from using tear gas, mace, pepper mace, pepper gas or projectile devices, also signed but did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Four Democrats running for legislative office in Dane County have signed the letter.
Nada Elmikashfi, a candidate in the race for the 26th Senate District, said she signed the letter to stand with Madison residents who say that “government should be accountable and that it's time for a change.”
“The Madison Police Department hasn't upheld its mission to protect and serve the people,” Elmikashfi said in an email.
Brian Benford, running for the 26th Senate District seat, said the MPD and city leadership failed “to create opportunities for fostering empathy, understanding and positive change towards marginalized people who are demanding social justice.”
Benford said in an email that he signed the letter because he has lost faith in the MPD’s leadership during “these tremendously uncertain times — where our community is looking inwards more than ever before.”
Heather Driscoll, who is running for the 76th Assembly seat, said in an email that the racial disparities in police outcomes underscores the work needed to “fix or replace our broken system.”
“It’s necessary for the next chief to accept recommendations for meaningful civilian oversight and be committed to dismantling white supremacy," Driscoll said.
Fellow candidate for the 76th district, Francesca Hong, also signed the letter, saying in an email that the MPD has not fulfilled their role to “protect and serve.”
“They work for us and we demand accountability,” Hong said. “Everyone in Madison, especially our (Black, Indigenous and people of color) residents, deserve better.
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