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Would-be Madison police reformers

Young, Gifted and Black organizer Eric Upchurch congratulates banner carriers after arriving on May 13, 2015, at the Dane County Courthouse during a rally for Tony Robinson in Madison. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said May 12 that he wouldn't file charges against Madison Officer Matt Kenny in the March 6 death of Robinson, saying the officer used lawful deadly force after he was staggered by a punch to the head and feared for his life. 

The Madison City Council will consider approving $350,000 more for the work of a committee charged with reviewing the police department’s policies and procedures in the wake of six officer-involved fatal shootings since 2012 — including that of black 19-year-old Tony Robinson last year.

Members of the committee argue that’s what’s needed to hire a consultant to do a comprehensive review. Some council members say that while they have confidence in the department, many in the community do not, and a more expansive — and expensive — review can serve as reassurance.

If city officials are looking for indicators of the department’s quality, plenty are available free of charge. And $350,000 sure seems like a lot to spend reassuring a community that surveys suggest is far from unhappy with police.

Madison police have a reputation for professionalism and community-mindedness. But their detractors — especially the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition and others in the city’s minority communities — are right to demand proof.

Chief Mike Koval said all his officers are certified by the State of Wisconsin Law Enforcement Standards Board, and that “our pre-service academy is one of only a handful of teaching academies certified by the state.”

“We have received numerous acknowledgements over the years for our efforts in community policing,” he said, and the department is regularly awarded federal community policing grants. “If you were a stoic, traditional, reactionary police department, you wouldn’t be getting these grants,” he said.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance have deemed Madison’s department as one of six “law enforcement mental health learning sites” — a sign the department knows how to handle mentally ill criminal suspects.

The department’s written response to a range of demands and/or recommendations last year from police-reform activists and independent policing experts was, largely: We already do that — from training officers to recognize implicit bias and de-escalate potentially violent encounters, to collecting data on complaints about officers and surveying residents.

Speaking of surveys, the department’s website includes the results of community surveys for 2010 and 2013-15. They show the department getting consistently high marks for fairness, professionalism and appropriate use of force.

Survey respondents only number in the thousands, but that’s probably a few hundred more than the number of activists with major doubts about the department.

And in a city where identity politics reign supreme, Madison cops are already about as racially diverse as the city as a whole.

One of the recommendations from activists last year — and one that would bring the real-life effects of police policy and procedure into sharp relief — was for officers to start wearing body cameras. So far, city officials have rejected that idea.

According to a 2014 police study, $350,000 could buy more than 200 cameras.

That’s pretty cheap for peace of mind — especially when compared to what one consultant will provide.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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