More than half of Tuesday's brief Common Council meeting was spent discussing a resolution that would call for the Madison Police Department to delay its reassignment of neighborhood officers from their posts in the Truax, Willy Street and Todd Drive neighborhoods. While the proposal was killed, it brought to the surface a long-brewing discussion about the future of the 20-year-old neighborhood officer program at a time when concerns about crime are growing.
Ten lasting impressions from the meeting:
- This was the final council meeting of 2006. The full schedule for 2007 is already in place, though, with a stack of calendars available on a table outside the council chambers before the meeting. In short, the first meeting of the year is on Jan. 2 and the final one is on Dec. 3. The autumn budget marathon is scheduled for Nov. 13-15, while the meetings that would be held on the election days of Feb. 20 and Apr. 3 rescheduled for Feb. 27 and Mar. 27, respectively. The big day, of course, will be Tuesday, Apr. 17, with the new alders being sworn-in at noon and kicking off their new session that evening.
- Ald. Zach Brandon is planning on motioning for the city to purchase a digital audio recorder. Why? He doesn't want any more tapes to get destroyed. That's right, the city is using old-school audio cassette tapes to document committee meetings. Brandon related that when he and Vicki Selkowe (who is running for an aldermanic seat on the east side) serve to adjudicate appeals made to the Equal Opportunities Commission, they listen to tapes of the proceedings.
Since neither no longer owns a tape player (or at least a handy version like a Walkman), they borrowed one fro the Common Council office. This subsequently ate the tape, so Brandon had to turn to mayoral spokesperson George Twigg to get a replacement. No more, says Brandon, who wants a digital recorder to convert meeting recordings to MP3 format for sending to every member of the committee. "Just trying to get us out of 1984," he says. "That's all it is."
- Nearly every alder is present at the meeting. Outgoing council veteran Ken Golden is excused for the second meeting in a row, while southeast side alder Judy Compton arrives a few minutes late as she often does. The mayor is missing for the first fifteen minutes of the meeting, meanwhile, so council president Austin King takes the lead as things kick off shortly after 6:30 p.m.
As with nearly every meeting, the first items are resolutions of a symbolic nature, recognitions and such. The first is a year-end award from the state for the new city pool. Sponsored by the mayor, it reads:
In recodnition of the hard work and dedication of Parks Division staff as well as the Ad Hoc Swimming Pool Committee and the Pool Finance Committee culminating in the 2006 Outstanding Aquatic Facility Design Award presented by the Wisconsin Park & Recreation Association.The second looks ahead to New Year's. Sponsored by the mayor and southside alder Tim Bruer, it reads:
Thanking Miller Brewing Company for its generosity in sponsoring the free, expanded Metro service on New Year's Eve and expressing appreciation for making its Miller Free Rides Program an excellent example of successful and responsible community partnership.Both are passed easily by the council.
- The bulk of the agenda is addressed very rapidly. In less than ten minutes, at least of the agenda is dispensed with before the public hearings scheduled to start at 6:45 p.m. This includes a labor contract with the UW Board of Regents for a Fire Department Medical Director to compensation for "unlawful taxation" to a fee for city-delivered wood chips to appropriating nearly $700,000 from the city's contingent reserve and more than $3.1 million from its general fund balance to "cover various unbudgeted departmental expenditures during 2006."
- The council spends more than half of the meeting discussing a single item. This is a resolution "requesting that the Chief of the Madison Police Department delay eliminating the three (3) neighborhood police officers and reassigning them until the Madison Police Department staffing study has been completed." In other words, the council is requesting the MPD to maintain positions for three neighborhood officers, at least for the near term, that are being reassigned and replaced by a different policing strategy. There are numerous sponsors on this item, including Alds. Paul Skidmore, Brenda Konkel, Jed Sanborn, Judy Olson, Ken Golden, Noel Radomski, Paul Van Rooy, Austin King, Larry Palm and Brian Benford.
The police department, however, is opposed to the official "request" in the resolution in both functional terms, and as a matter of operational autonomy. MPD Chief Noble Wray gives seven reasons why "holding off with this reassignment right now would not be the appropriate thing to do." Here are the chief's seven points, roughly:
- The department is already completing its annual officer assignment process, in which all staffing decisions are made for the following year.
- There are contractual issues with the Madison Police Officers Professional Organization that the resolution would obstruct.
- There is a five phase assessment evaluation process in which the department assesses the "readiness" of a neighborhood for a dedicated officer, one that was used to determine the reassignment.
- The department's expectation of the staffing study is that its findings will not preclude the process in which neighborhood officer needs are determined.
- From a citywide efficiency standpoint, "there is a balancing act we have to do," the chief says, in terms of reassigning neighborhood officer positions and distributing them throughout the city over the last decade.
- The chief also says the council is not the best place to address the issue of limited resources for neighborhood officers. "I think there is a better forum to discuss these issues as to what is needed from a police standpoint and from a public safety standpoint," he says.
- Finally, he says department staff is always ready to meet with alders to discuss neighborhood policing issues.
Wray says he's comfortable with the reorganization in terms of the safety, pointing back to the removal of neighborhood officers from the Lakepoint, Vera Court and Main Street neighborhoods that "have become self-sufficient enough" in the department's estimations not to need one. "Every time we remove a neighborhood officer from a neighborhood," he says, "the commitment would be that we would reassign one if it goes backwards."
- What are the three neighborhoods losing their dedicated officers? They are Truax (assigned in 1987), Willy Street (an original neighborhood in the program assigned in 1986), and Todd Drive (assigned in 2003 after an annexation from the Town of Madison). "Each one of those neighborhoods have a unique reason why we assign them," says Chief Wray, "and every year they are evaluated and the officers themselves are part of the evaluation."
All three officers are scheduled to be removed by the end of the year, though the department plans on maintaining connections with the three neighborhoods through the transitional period. For example, the department cell phone used by the Willy Street officer will be passed on to a community policing liaison officer so residents and merchants won't need to learn a new number to stay connected with the department. This officer, meanwhile, is in the process of introducing themselves to every merchant in the neighborhood. Or, looking at the Truax neighborhood, there is a "stakeholder meeting" planned for Monday, Dec. 11 to get ready for the transition.
In all, there are 14 neighborhood officers in the city, serving a total of 13 neighborhoods (as two are assigned to Allied Drive). Part of the department's motivation for reassigning these three officers (and returning them to a general assignment pool) is to relieve pressure on the community policing team (CPT) that serves both the south and west sides. With these changes, the department hopes to be able to create a south side community policing team of five officers and one sergeant within the near future. Their subsequent goal for 2008 is to create separate CPTs for the north and east sides too.
"I anticipate in years to come that our department won't only maintain many of the neighborhood officers now," says Assistant Chief Randy Gaber, "but we will add others as needs arise."
- Much of the discussion over this resolution, which is a request and not a direction, focuses on the difference between the two forms of geographic-based policing. "There is a 100 mile per hour difference between a neighborhood police officer and a community policing team," says Ald. Brenda Konkel. Wray disagrees, saying "they are not different philosophies, they are complimentary," with the CPT responsible for relieving pressure on the central district's resources during last summer's string of downtown muggings and incidents on King Street. "It is what we refer to as having a team that is proactive, able to do things in anticipation of a problem or a crime," the chief explains.
The back-and-forth between the near east side alder and chief continues, with the former stating that the CPT underserves the Tenney and Old Marketplace neighborhoods in her district, and the latter stating that alders should be speaking directly with district commanders if they have concerns about service. Eventually Wray becomes agitated by Konkel's criticisms of CPT service downtown, and asks her "What is your question?" That's it between them, though.
Lead resolution sponsor Paul Skidmore, a west side alder who takes a very active interest in the MPD and its operations, interjects and says he's confident that there is a process for the council to discuss neighborhood officers on a regular basis. "One of the things I'm hearing tonight is the importance of the CPTs," he says, and voices his confidence in Wray and the department in assigning neighborhood officers in an appropriate manner.
Co-sponsor Austin King concurs. "A lot of right-wing blowhards say those of us who are concerned with civil liberties or with racial profiling are somehow anti-police," he says. "Nothing could be farther from the truth." King emphasizes the importance of the neighborhood officer for his Langdon Street neighborhood, pointing to a recent discussion about how the city should spend $100,000 in funding recently provided to tackle downtown violence. That, he says, is something a CPT cannot do. "This kind of direct community engagement happens when it's one person, as opposed to a team," King says. Neighborhood officers, he concludes, "are a huge part of the solution to crime" and wants the department to know how much the council endorse their use.
- In the end, the resolution is placed on file, effectively killing it and leaving any requests of the MPD on an informal basis. Ald. Santiago Rosas suggests this recourse, saying that while the discussion during the meeting was important, he thinks the council should not make the request. Ald. Judy Compton agrees, saying "I don't know how many of us are qualified to make a decision like this, even if it's only a request and not a demand." She likewise voices support of neighborhood officers and says making the request would set an inappropriate precedent.
Ald. Brenda Konkel thanks Skidmore and Wray, saying "it's important for us to express sense as a council" as "policing is something of a mystery to a lot of neighborhoods.' The discussion is so intense, she continues, particularly for something that's merely a request, because neighborhood policing "is very emotional for people" worried about crime where they live.
The final alder to weigh in during the 35 minute discussion is south sider Tim Bruer, who says "this is one of the slipperiest slopes I've seen in the council during my tenure on the body." He chastises the sponsors for not alerting Wray about the resolution, but says he understands the message trying to be sent by Skidmore and Konkel. In the end, the resolution is placed on file with 13 ayes (Brandon, Bruer, Cnare, Compton, Gruber, Knox, Olson, Radomski, Rosas, Thomas, Van Rooy, Verveer and Benford) and 6 nos (Skidmore, Konkel, King, Sanborn, Palm and Webber).
- Following the discussion on neighborhood policing, the rest of the agenda is dispensed with rapidly. An item rearranging two aldermanic districts on the south side is placed on file, as are others reassigning the bureaucratic structure of the city architect, along with zoning changes in two developments: a 76-unit apartment building on South Ingersoll Street and the next stage of Union Corners. There's also an abstention from Ald. Zach Brandon on an alcohol licensing matter, a regular occurrence to avoid any conflicts of interest given his ownership of Laundry101. In this case, the item is the proposal to establish a ceiling on the number of liquor licenses in the heart of downtown. This action was supported by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and drafted from office (by the city's "bar czar" and Halloween planner Joel Plant, actually) in response to the summer's wave of late night violence, and is co-sponsored by Alds. Mike Verveer and Judy Olson.
- The final meeting of the year ends with a greater-than-usual number of introductions. Ald. Zach Brandon introduces his ordinance to enact best-value contracting for city jobs, accompanied by another change in city code that will allow this ordinance to conform with state law. Ald. Paul Skidmore introduces an ordinance to authorize the city to purchase trees from two nurseries, meanwhile, as Ald. Mike Verveer introduces another relating to provisional liquor licenses.
Two other resolutions are introduced. One proposed by Ald. Robbie Webber and co-sponsored by most of the council would prohibit interfering with breastfeeding in the city. Webber notes that while 38 states prohibit interfering with a woman breastfeeding in public places and accommodations, Wisconsin is not one of them. One cannot be arrested for breastfeeding in public in the state, but can be asked to leave.
"There have actually been some incidents around the country where women breastfeeding have been asked to leave, and of course we had this issue with Camp Randall," Webber says, referring to a breast milk pumping brouhaha that erupted at the stadium. "It prompted us to look at state law to see what the protections were, and discovered that we were one of the states that has a lower level of protection."
The second resolution is one that would encourage the state to divest its public funds investments from Sudan. When it is offered by Ald. Austin King, his right-hand neighborhoor Zach Brandon abstains, saying that he objects to the council making statements on international matters. "I abstain on the end," he says, "and I'll abstain on the beginning too."