Madison council passes police accountability measures

    John Nolen
    Urban Triage founder and CEO Brandi Grayson at a protest in June. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    After years of activism, deliberation and data-collection, the Madison Common Council voted Tuesday night to create an independent police monitor and a civilian review board to provide greater accountability of the city’s police department. 

    The 20-member body took four nearly unanimous votes to pass the measures. The reforms touch on one of the most consistent calls from Madison activists for “community control” of the police department. The process for creating the two bodies started five years ago with the work of the Madison Police Department Policy & Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee

    The debate and public comment on the four measures took more than six hours, with the final vote occurring shortly before 3 a.m. but in the end, the council passed what Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called a “milestone.” 

    “I hope this long-awaited effort will result in the transparency the community demands, as well as contribute to greater community confidence and trust in our police department,” Rhodes-Conway said. 

    The council voted 18-1, with Ald. Paul Skidmore voting no and Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney abstaining, to adopt the final report of a three-member alder workgroup that outlines logistics and details for how the independent monitor and oversight board will function. 

    The council also voted to create an ordinance establishing the monitor and oversight board. The ordinance passed 19-0 with Harrington-McKinney abstaining. 

    The role of the independent monitor will have the power to investigate all police department personnel and report to the oversight board. The monitor will also be able to hire legal counsel for citizens filing complaints against the Madison Police Department with the Police and Fire Commission. 

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    The PFC still holds hiring and firing authority over officers. Complainants’ ability to obtain legal counsel is meant to allow citizens to navigate the process and balance the scales against officers who are usually represented by police union lawyers in complaint proceedings. 

    The monitor will have mostly “unfettered access” to police department records with the exception of some personnel records protected by law.

    The council voted unanimously to create a city position for the independent monitor, to be paid $125,000 per year. 

    The oversight board will consist of 11 regular members and two alternates serving four year terms. The members will be nominated by nine community organizations with the others to be nominated by the mayor and common council. 

    The board will be able to make policy recommendations to the police department, as well as conduct its own investigations and wield its own subpoena power. 

    Membership on the board will include a stipend, which is meant to allow low-income city residents to serve on the board when taking time out of work days to sit on a government committee would otherwise be an obstacle. Child care will also be available to board members who need it. 

    Finally, the council voted 18-0, with Harrington-McKinney and Skidmore abstaining, to amend the 2020 operating budget to fund the oversight board and the office of the independent monitor and to set aside funds to support people bringing complaints to the PFC. 

    Brandi Grayson, CEO and founder of Urban Triage, one of the nine community organizations with nominating power, said that passing the ordinances would show to the city of Madison that the council members care about the lives of Black residents. 

    “Madison is one of the worst places in the nation to live in Black skin,” Grayson said. “I’m asking that you guys do what’s right in the lives of Black people as they’re alive.” 

    The passage of the police accountability measures comes as Wisconsin’s police are at the center of a national conversation over police and the criminal justice system. After Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back on Aug. 23, that city and Madison have seen consistent protests against police violence. 

    Members of Madison’s council, as they passed the measures Tuesday, said they didn’t want to follow the lead of the Wisconsin Legislature, which failed to take any action after being called into a special session by Gov. Tony Evers on Monday. 

    The process for nominating board members and hiring the independent monitor will start in September.

    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.