Amy Bramlett says it's surprisingly common. Police gets calls about, or happen upon, people who are - there's no graceful way to put this - whacking off in public.
"A lot of our resources are going into that," says Bramlett, a Madison police officer with the department's Criminal Intelligence Section. "There are a large number of people who are committing these deviant acts."
The problem is that the state criminal charge of lewd and lascivious behavior includes an "element of exposure." And in cases where it isn't possible to prove that Mr. Happy put in an appearance, even if the person was clearly engaged in sexual gratification, the charge is generally bumped down to disorderly conduct.
Police say disorderly conduct is too broad a category to help them track who's been caught using the self-service pump in public. These are often habitual offenders, who commonly also engage in more serious behaviors like stalking or child enticement.
But without a specific charge for low-level sex crimes, says Madison Police Capt. Cam McLay, it's difficult to quantify the problem or focus on repeat offenders: "We have to burrow deep into every disorderly conduct arrest" to see what it's about.
Officer Bramlett conducted a review of cases reported by dispatch as involving lewd and lascivious behavior, whether or not they were charged as such. One illustrative case was from October 2008.
Two young women (including a 15-year-old) called police to report a man following them on South Randall Avenue, masturbating. He had his hand in his pants but the witness couldn't say whether his penis was ever exposed, although he was "definitely pleasuring himself." The man denied doing anything illegal, telling police "I didn't ejaculate and nobody saw me."
The man was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior but convicted of disorderly conduct. Bramlett found he'd had several prior run-ins with the law, including another lewd and lascivious arrest charged as disorderly conduct.
Bramlett took her findings to the City Attorney's Office, which agreed there was a need to craft a new law.
The result: a "public indecency ordinance" introduced Tuesday to the Madison Common Council. The ordinance would create a forfeiture of $500 for a first offense and up to $3,000 for subsequent offenses for anyone who engages in public masturbation, or "commits an indecent act of sexual gratification with another," or "publicly and indecently exposes genitals or pubic area," "appears publicly in a state of nudity," or is seen peeping into places like restrooms, showers and dressing rooms.
Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy says "the primary issue is masturbators," for whom there is now often not an appropriate charge. But the new ordinance would give Madison police an alternative to disorderly conduct charges for a range of behaviors.
Last November, a Madison Municipal judge dismissed a disorderly conduct citation against a participant in last June's World Naked Bike Ride, noting there were no city or state laws "specifically prohibiting public nudity." (The city is continuing to prosecute other participants.)
Zilavy says the new ordinance "wasn't drafted in response to that" and certainly wouldn't be on the books before this year's World Naked Bike Ride, set for June 18. And McLay remarks that nudity alone, absent a context of sexual gratification, might still be more appropriately charged as disorderly conduct.
The city's forfeiture is less serious than a criminal charge but, says Bramlett, "if officers can meet the standards of lewd and lascivious, they should absolutely make that charge."
A fiscal note attached to the ordinance predicts that, if passed, "there will likely be an increase in General Fund revenues derived from fines ranging from an estimated $20,000 to $50,000."
Sheriff's Office hides fired deputy's identity
On June 1, the Dane County Sheriff's Office put out a press release stating that one of its deputies was fired for hitting a handcuffed suspect who was resisting. What deputy was it? The office isn't saying, at least not yet.
"For specifics, we're going to have people make an open records request," says sheriff's spokeswoman Elise Schaffer, citing the need to "abide by the county's policy" of giving the deputy 10 days to seek to block release.
That's bonkers, according to Madison attorney Bob Dreps, a public records expert. "The open records law does not limit the government's authority to disclose its own personnel decisions," he says. "It is not a privacy statute."
There is a notification process for records regarding disciplinary investigations, but it does not extend to the subject's name. And while Wisconsin has a privacy statute, it exempts matters of "legitimate public interest." In this case, says Dreps, "There is quite clearly a legitimate public interest in the identity of a law enforcement officer who was fired for using excessive force on a handcuffed prisoner."
The incident happened on Jan. 4, 2011. Madison police officers were also investigated for their role in the arrest, and exonerated of wrongdoing. An internal MPD report obtained by Isthmus relates that "multiple blows were administered by deputies."
In its release, the Sheriff's Office says "one deputy delivered punches and elbow strikes to the man's midsection." The man, identified in news accounts as Jeffrey L. Vance, was taken to the hospital "due to the injuries he sustained as a result of the deputy's use of force."
Judge Sumi's mailbag, cont.
When last we checked (Watchdog, 4/14/11), Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi had gotten dozens of mostly negative letters over her role in blocking implementation of Scott Walker's bill reining in public employee unions. Since then, the flow has slowed to a trickle.
And in fact, five of the eight letters sent to Sumi since mid-April are positive.
"Thank you for placing a temporary restraining order on Gov. Walker's budget repair bill," wrote one Madison resident. "I know you have received letters criticizing you for this, so I thought I would send one of encouragement and support."
On the negative side, Larry Sisson of Seattle, Wash., informed the judge: "There is no collective bargaining between the unions and the state. More like collective coercion in that the state has no bargaining power versus the unions."
Sumi got the other two negative letters last week, after she struck down the bill. One was from an anonymous "Wisconsin Citizen," who wrote, "I cannot understand how you can sleep at night knowing that you were bought by the UNION THUGS."
And recurring correspondent Richard McKee of Phoenix, Ariz., called Sumi a "spoiled brat judge" who is "imposing the will of the communist/socialist minority." He included the address of the U.S. Communist Party, so Sumi "may join and declare your support of Marxist/Leninist ideas, revolutions, concentration camps, and genocide of all those who disagree with your left-wing stupidity."
And so it ends
"Watchdog" debuted on April 6, 2001, as the new name of a biweekly column that began in 1989 as "On the Town." The first column under this new name explained, "'Watchdog' was chosen to convey the column's spirit: Alert, inquisitive, vigilant and biting."
And perhaps a bit prescient, as the column's author takes this final turn at bat. His employer-to-be, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, runs a website called Wisconsin Watch and has adopted the watchdog moniker in more ways than one.