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Neighborhood officer

Adam Kneubuhler, the Madison Police Department’s neighborhood officer for the Southwest Side’s Balsam-Russett-Raymond area, walks up Leland Drive last year.

It’s been a common demand from some Madison activists since they began drawing attention to police shootings and alleged police misconduct here and across the nation: Give us “community control over police.”

And here I thought Wisconsin already had community control over police. The community elects a mayor and city council, who appoint and approve, respectively, the members of police and fire commissions, which hire, fire and discipline police. More direct control comes when the council sets the police budget and it’s in the ability of the council and mayor to set various police policies and procedures.

I guess nothing is that simple these days. Nor is it always democratic, or even legal.

In an article in the most recent issue of the Wisconsin Law Review, M Adams and Max Rameau outline a proposal that would give total control over — if not total responsibility for — policing to neighborhood-specific “Civilian Police Control Boards.”

Each CPCB would consist of two panels — one to oversee police priorities and policies, and another to oversee implementation of those priorities and policies — in each neighborhood. Serving on them would be people chosen at random from those living in the neighborhood. Terms on the boards would be short, and those who didn’t want to serve wouldn’t have to — but all would be given the opportunity.

Adams and Rameau eschew the election of CPCBs because they believe the current electoral process is so flooded with campaign spending and self-interested politicians as to be unrepresentative of the people’s wishes.

“Black people do not feel as if the police work for them,” Rameau told me, because “we do not, in fact, have control. Having greater access to the ballot has not resolved that underlying problem.”

Of course, Americans of all races have long been electing the mayors, city council members and other officials who oversee police — suggesting that the ballot box might not be the primary culprit in black communities’ problems with police.

For funding, CPCB “operations are financed using the exact same mechanism currently financing police administration and operations,” Adams and Rameau write — meaning the same local, state and federal sources used to fund police now would be used to fund police under the control of CPCBs.

It’s not unusual for people to pay taxes for a government service they aren’t likely to use because it’s provided in some other city or state. But if the tax dollars being used are collected by the state or federal government, people at least have some say over their use by way of state and federal elections.

It might be unprecedented to pay taxes toward a municipal police service over which citizens of the municipality have no direct democratic control because, well, the people spending the money on the police service aren’t democratically elected.

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Unclear to Rameau is who would accept liability under the CPCB model for police actions that result in injuries or property damage — the city or the local, CPCB-controlled neighborhood police force. Although it’s hard to see why the city would insure a police force that doesn’t have to answer to elected city officials.

Insurance coverage might not be the most exciting thing about running a city, but it is pretty important. Madison paid $409,745 for liability coverage for its departments this year.

I tried contacting a few of the elected officials who have at times aligned themselves with activists who have been calling for community control of police.

State Rep. Chris Taylor, and Madison Alds. David Ahrens, Samba Baldeh and Zach Wood all appeared with Adams and other activists at a Tuesday press conference to call for police reform in the wake of the forceful videotaped arrest of black 18-year-old Genele Laird.

It would be elected officials like them, after all, who would have to pave the way for CPCBs. The state, for instance, would have to change the state law on police and fire commissions.

Ahrens was the only to respond to my inquiries. He called CPCBs “laughable as a policy proposal” that “will add little to the debate and likely be used to marginalize efforts for reasonable reform.”

“What is tragic, however, is the summary dismissal of the notion that popularly elected representatives might actually represent the interests of their constituents,” he said.

CPCBs take up 10 pages of what is mostly a 25-page treatise on race and policing in an America that Adams and Rameau don’t think has changed all that much since the days of slavery and Jim Crow.

Or as they put it: “The Root Issue is that African/Black people lack power and control over our own communities and that a subset of Whites — who also happen to be racist — hold power and exercise control over both their communities and ours through the system of domestic colonization enforced by an armed military occupation known as the police.”

It’s not surprising that out of such a view of reality would come such an unrealistic proposal for police.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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