Last Nov. 21, the Madison Common Council passed a resolution asking Police Chief Noble Wray to recommend ways to eliminate the use of lies, ruses, deception and other coercive techniques against people who report being victims of sensitive crimes, in all but the rarest of circumstances. The prescribed timeline: 'within 90 days.'
On day 91, the department said it would unveil its report a week later, on Feb. 27. The message, clear as a crack on the head: You will not order us about.
This was also the overriding message of the recommendations themselves. The new policy explicitly affirms the right of police to use ruses and deception. It says this should happen only as 'a last resort' and gives some guidance as to when such techniques can be employed.
But the new policy mainly affirms the status quo. Cops who plan to lie to alleged victims don't need to clear this approach up the chain of command. Nor must they videotape interrogations employing these tactics, as is now mandated for other situations.
Ald. Austin King and other council members sought policy changes in response to my book about a 1997 case in which the MPD used lies to pressure a rape victim named Patty into recanting. Last week, Wray was asked whether the 'new' rules would have barred the use of these tactics against Patty, had they been in place at the time.
'I can't answer that,' Wray told the questioner, Stu Levitan, claiming he does not have enough information.
If the chief lacks the facts to make the call in this case ' in which the police tactics were the subject of a suppression hearing, an MPD internal investigation, two Police and Fire Commission complaints, a federal lawsuit with extensive depositions, and a book (which Wray has read) ' it's pretty clear there will never be a time when the use of these tactics by an MPD investigator is deemed improper.
In fact, the sexual assault advocates whose expertise the MPD claims to have tapped in preparing its new policies believe, as does former Madison Police Captain Cheri Maples, that lying to alleged victims is never a good idea. Rape and domestic violence are already dramatically underreported crimes. It only makes matters worse when victims have a well-grounded fear that, if they do report, police will use lies and pressure to see if they crack.
Plus there's always the risk that using these tactics against vulnerable victims, people who've been beaten or raped, will prompt false recantations, as happened with Patty.
But Wray turned a deaf ear to such advice.
A similar dynamic played out last year, after police killed a mentally ill man in the throes of a meltdown. Then, too, Wray rejected calls for his department to take a new approach ' an attitude former mayoral aide Peter MuÃoz branded 'the arrogance that we're the best.'
Sadly, though, police are so isolated from civilian accountability there's not much anyone can do. Ald. King is upset about the new policy, but says, 'My understanding is that the council has literally no authority over the chief.'
King adds that, 'in the spirit of achievable battles,' he will press to require videotaping of interrogations where deceit is employed. He rejects Wray's claim that this would be too intrusive, saying lying to purported victims is 'a far more emotionally damaging act than videotaping an interview.'
Meanwhile, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz professes to be satisfied with the chief's report, calling it 'a step in the right direction.' If anyone in Madison is going to push for more changes, it's not going to be him.
Are changes needed? Consider a story that aired last month on WKOW Channel 27. A young woman who reported being sexually assaulted on campus told the station that the female MPD detective was rude and appeared unconcerned. She said her roommate was asked, 'Do you know if she likes rough sex?'
Clearly, the MPD has plenty of what Wray calls 'trust gaps' regarding its handling of sensitive crimes.
So what should victims do?
First, they should be good citizens and report crimes committed against them. But, just as important, they should protect themselves, insisting on their right to have an advocate from the Rape Crisis Center present during questioning.
Indeed, if the MPD cared about good public policy, it would routinely offer victims this option, to increase their comfort level and facilitate truthful admissions.
But, as we have seen, that's a big 'if.'