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It's slow going as Madison's civilian oversight board for police meets for first time

It's slow going as Madison's civilian oversight board for police meets for first time

Police Reactions

Police gather at the top of State Street in Madison on May 30, the first night of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. The first-ever meeting of a civilian board that will oversee the Madison Police Department was held Monday. 

A civilian board that will oversee — but have no formal power over — Madison’s police department held its first meeting Monday with pledges from members to hold the department accountable and hopefully improve trust between police and the community.

The three-hour meeting was slow going, with members getting through only four of the 12 agenda items. The 11-member board, with two additional members who can serve as alternates if a voting member is absent, introduced themselves and voted unanimously to have the term of the chair and vice-chair last for two years.

The board did not elect its leadership, instead voting 7-4 to push those decisions to its next meeting, along with several items in which the city attorney would have explained meeting rules.

At times, members expressed frustration that the meeting was not more efficient.

“We haven’t even gotten to the meat of what we’re about to be talking about,” said member Keetra Burnette, director of stakeholder engagement for the United Way of Dane County.

But Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, one of the City Council members who played a key role in the creation of the board, told members she’s confident that they will find a balance between managing their time and having full debates.

“The work that we’ve asked you to do is so important to our community,” Kemble said. “We trust you.”

The City Council voted to create the board and the independent monitor position in early September, nearly three years after they were included among 146 recommendations in an exhaustive consultant’s report on the Madison Police Department that deemed the department “far from ‘a Department in crisis’” whose use of force was “limited in volume and primarily minor in nature.”

The monitor and board can subpoena the Police Department, make recommendations for policy changes and conduct community outreach, among other powers and duties. The monitor will be able to conduct investigations of police, and the civilian board will hire and oversee the monitor, which like the police and fire chiefs and library system director will not report to the mayor’s office.

They won’t have the ability to hire, fire or discipline officers — powers that under state law remain with the city’s Police and Fire Commission. Nor would they be entitled to participate in the official investigations of officer-involved deaths — which under state law must be conducted by outside law enforcement agencies.

Creation of the oversight structure was a win for longtime local police-reform activists, who have pointed to a string of seven fatal police shootings between 2012 and 2016 and a handful of controversial, caught-on-video police use-of-force incidents as reasons why Madison police need more oversight.

The officers involved in the incidents were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the city paid $5.65 million in settlements in two of the killings, and a jury in 2017 determined officers had violated the civil rights of one of the victims, 26-year-old Ashley DiPiazza, and awarded the family $7 million.

The board’s and monitor’s subpoena power and the monitor’s ability to use city tax dollars to pay for attorneys to represent complainants before the city’s PFC make them unusual among similar oversight structures elsewhere in the United States. Most independent police monitors and civilian oversight boards don’t have subpoena power, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and as of August, the group wasn’t aware of any that provided attorneys for people making formal complaints against police.

Nine local organizations nominated members for the civilian board who were later appointed by the mayor and council. The mayor and council had one appointment each to the body.

Following requirements outlined in the ordinance that created the board, its members are racially diverse, with more than half being Black and others being people of color. The ordinance also requires that the board have members with experience in mental health, youth advocacy and substance abuse. At least one member is required to have an arrest or conviction record.

Provisions in the ordinance prohibit the monitor from having been an employee of the Madison Police Department and seek to limit those with police experience from serving on the board.

The monitor’s salary is estimated to be $125,000, and the board and monitor positions are expected to cost the city about $450,000 a year.

State Journal reporter Emily Hamer contributed to this report.

Keeping track: Over 40 people facing felony charges in vandalism, looting, violence during protests

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