Group studying history of racism at UW releases report on troubled history of UWPD

By: - March 10, 2021 6:15 am
Joseph Hammersley and UWPD

Officer Joseph Hammersley and three other officers of the UWPD. (UW-Madison Archives)

The complicated relationship between students at UW-Madison and the campus police department goes back decades, according to a report released this week by the UW-Madison Public History Project. 

The report details how the campus police — through heavy-handed and often unconstitutional practices — acted aggressively as it “tormented” the student body and community members. 

“By the 1940s, despite UWPD having only been operational for less than ten years, there were multiple serious complaints from students and Madison community members,” the report states. 

The single factor that caused the collapse of the campus police reputation with the community was Officer Joseph Hammersley, according to the report. Hammersley is often called the department’s first chief — though he never actually held that title — and his actions have been rewritten and smoothed over by the current iteration of UWPD, the report states. 

In 1943, an op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal called Hammersley the ‘Gestapo.” In 1945, the Madison Taxi Cab Drivers Association went on strike, refusing to work in Madison as long as Hammersley worked at the university. A few years later, he “played an outsized role in the Gay Purge of 1948,” that included unconstitutionally questioning gay students and attempting to bring criminal charges against them. 

Over the next decade, until his death in 1959, Hammersley drew sustained criticism from student government, student newspapers, university administration and outside community members. 

“Hammersley’s 20-year record of student complaints and legal violations is vast, and well documented,” the report states. “In fact, it is Hammersley’s behavior, and the behavior of the officers he was tasked with leading, that clearly began the student outcry about police on campus. If the reports, letters, and newspaper articles do not focus on Hammersley exclusively, they point to officers close with Hammersley, and those trained by him. Yet, he was never punished, reprimanded, or fired from the university. We were unable to locate any letters that indicate that university administrators or regents ever considered seriously reprimanding Hammersley, let alone dismissing him.”


Because of his outsized role in shaping UWPD culture, even after his death, Hammersley’s influence remained because he had trained many of the remaining officers. He also may have irreparably damaged the student body’s view of campus police — no matter how hard new leadership worked to modernize, professionalize and better train campus police officers. 

“It would be easy to simply chalk up Officer Hammersley’s behavior to that of the typical policeman during his time,” the report states. “Yet, in this case, further professionalization did not fix the problems plaguing UWPD. The university, when faced with mounting calls for Hammersley to be removed (and men like Hammersley to be removed), failed to take action. What resulted was an incalculable loss of trust between police and community that spanned decades and affected untold numbers of students, faculty, and community members.”

The report draws a line from Hammersley to campus police controversies of the 1980s and ’90s leading to recent examples of police misconduct and protests against it on UW’s campus. 

“While UWPD has recognized the complicity of policing in perpetuating racial injustice, they, like most police departments across the country, have not recognized their specific histories of mistrust and violence,” the report states. “UWPD has stated they are committed to creating a more equitable police force on campus, yet, the legacy of Hammersley still lingers as a pointed reminder of the decades of mistrust between UWPD and the UW–Madison campus community that have gone unrecognized.”

In a response to the report’s authors, UWPD denounced Hammersley and pointed to the efforts the department has made in the last year to correct past wrongs and root out racism. 

“We denounce the actions of Joe Hammersley, and are deeply dismayed by the pain he inflicted on so many he was sworn to serve and whatever legacy of mistrust he sowed within our campus community,” the response states. “This blight does not represent today’s UWPD — your UWPD — in spirit, policy or practice.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.