UPDATE: Madison police chief tired of blame for racial disparities

Updated: Monday, January 12, 2015 --- 8:30 p.m.

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has some strong words to those who penned an open letter accusing his department of bias and contributing to racial disparity in the criminal just system.

(Both the open letter and Koval's written response can be found below)

Koval explains, "I think in this particular narrow instance, they're flat out, got it wrong.

The letter was penned by members of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. The group has been a driving force behind recent local protests responding to events in Ferguson, New York and Milwaukee. The organization has used these events to speak out against racial disparities in Dane County, including arrest and incarceration rates of black and poor individuals. The group held a die-in protest in December in opposition to a new or expanded county jail.

Back in December, at that event, Young, Gifted and Black Coalition member Matthew Braunginn said, "How state violence manifests itself in Madison is through mass incarceration. Instead of having someone like Eric Garner being choked out, we have people in jail for crimes of poverty."

The group's open letter, released on Friday, made several demands from the Madison Police Department in regards to community policing, including a line stating: "The relationship that we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction."

Chief Koval responded, "To their edict that we pull out of the neighborhoods: not happening."

The letter goes on to say their goal is to "hold our own communities accountable" and "expel what we consider an occupying force." Chief Koval says that's not the solution.

Chief Koval adds, "I think that doesn't begin to address the issue that our neighborhoods are also comprised of victims, of witnesses, of complainants who contrary to what their take is, my take is that when I do community forums, they are begging for the Madison police department to have their presence there."

We reached out to a representative with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition who said the organization is currently working on a response to Koval's remarks. The coalition is planning a press conference on Tuesday to address it. The conference has been planned to be held prior to a previously scheduled rally outside the City County Building to oppose funding for a new or expanded county jail.

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Below you'll find the letter from the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition as well as Chief Koval's response.

From the Young Gifted Black Coalition:

Dear Police Chief Koval,

We are writing you to explain our position and our demands as they relate to your police department.

First, we think that in comparison to departments in other cities you have done well in protecting our right to free speech at our weekly actions.

Our targeting of the police department relates to the violence that Black people have faced at the hands of police in the murders of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and countless others, but it also relates to the violence of heavy policing and arrest rate disparities in Madison.

Although Madison's model of community policing and attempt to build trust between the community and police, even acting as “social workers,” may be a step above certain other communities, our arrest rates and incarceration disparities still top the nation. The relationship that we desire to have with the police is simple: no interaction. Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing.

The situation in New York City where police have decided to police less, has led to no changes in the crime rates.1 Thus we can draw the conclusion that decreasing policing in our communities will not lead to an increase in crimes. It is also safe to assume that decreasing policing in our communities will lead to a decrease in the disparity rates we see in Dane County.

We understand that the system of policing and incarceration is closely linked to the system of slavery and the continued oppression of black people. Our ultimate goal is finding alternatives to incarceration and policing, and our steps forward as a community should reflect the values of community control and self-determination.

One of our publicly-stated demands is for the immediate release of 350 Black people from the Dane County Jail, with the ongoing demand to keep this number out of the jail in order to remove 350 beds from the facility. This means that, every month, 350 Black people must be prevented and/or diverted from entering the jail, as there are typically 3,900 Black people that cycle through the jail every year. This would eliminate the need for 350 beds in the jail, and also eliminate the need for renovations due to safety and mental health concerns. If there was no structural racism, the jails and the arrest rates should be proportional to the demographics of the population. In a jail of 800, without structural racism and a demographic of 5% Black population there should be closer to 40 Black people, rather than the 400 Black people currently incarcerated.

Therefore, we demand that Madison and Dane County act swiftly to address structural racism and bias. One of the key reasons that Black people are incarcerated is because of poverty. Jails should not function as poor houses. 45% of people who are incarcerated, are incarcerated because they have not paid bails of $1,000 or less. Therefore, they are not incarcerated for a public safety concern, but rather because they are poor. The proof of this, is that people with money, who have bails of both less and more than $1,000 are not kept in jail—and this is not considered a public safety issue. Therefore we demand the immediate release of people incarcerated due to crimes of poverty.

This includes arrests for crimes of poverty such as public urination, intoxication, sleeping, retail theft for survival, and low level citations.

While this is a goal that needs the involvement of other areas of government such as the Municipal and Circuit Judges, other police departments, judges, the DA, prosecutors, Clerk of Courts, public defenders, and those in our community with influence in areas such as education, employment, housing, and health, you and the MPD do have a large role to play. We also include the Mayor’s office, the Criminal Justice Council, and the Common Council as decision-makers in these areas.

We want to see a plan for how the Madison Police Department is going to do the following to address racial disparities:

Dramatically reduce the number of police contacts with Black people and poor people.

Significantly increase voluntary referrals to community-led resources and programs when police do contact Black people and poor people.

Cut in half the number of Black people and poor people arrested to address racial disparities

Of those arrested, refer as many people as possible to community-led alternatives to incarceration.

Given that the arrest rate shows that Black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people, we demand that disparity cut in half by the end of 2015. (While our emphasis is on the disparity, we also desire to see fewer arrests for everyone--not just Black people--that Madison police come into contact with.) To do this will require an immediate and thorough public review of all Madison Police Department policies and practices to determine which need to be changed or eliminated in order to immediately reduce the racial disparity in arrest rates.

We want to see the plan involve accountability measures. For example, if you do not reach a particular goal, there will be potential for a funding cut or some other consequence. Also, we would like your plan to include a citizen review board for questions of police misconduct in addition to Public Safety Review Board and the Police and Fire Commission. We aim to move towards community controlled policing with advisory boards in communities throughout Madison and Dane County. We also need you to follow the recent advice of the Department of Justice and release data about arrest demographics in order to address racial disparities.

Your plan may include diversity training and recruitment of people of color as staff; however, we do not see these steps as significant remedies to existing problems. We believe that change needs to happen at a systemic policy level. It will also involve closer connection to social service agencies and increased restorative or transformative justice programming.

Your plan should seek to identify best practices from other locations, but not be limited to them, as this is a problem that faces many cities around the country. We need to think outside the box, and we want to lead the way in doing so.

For many years there have been studies done on how to address racial disparities in the Dane County criminal system and Madison policing that are relevant, but we haven't seen the concrete action required to make the changes that our communities need.

Please have your plan completed by the end of February 2015.

Racial disparities have plagued Madison and Dane County for many years. It is well beyond the time that concrete and intentional efforts are made. We look forward to celebrating with you the decrease in racial disparities at the end of 2015.

All Power to the People,

Young Gifted and Black Coalition

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Chief Koval's response to the letter:

On January 9, 2015, the group known as the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition sent an "Open Letter to Police Chief Koval" and recipients including Mayor Paul Soglin and City of Madison Alders.

While there were many concerns and "demands" that were directed to me, one paragraph stood out for its "shock" value. The paragraph is as follows:

"Although Madison's model of community policing and attempt to build trust between the community and police, even acting as "social workers," may be a step above certain other communities, our arrest rates and incarceration disparities still top the nation. THE RELATIONSHIP THAT WE DESIRE TO HAVE WITH THE POLICE IS SIMPLE: NO INTERACTION (my emphasis). Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods. Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing."

I feel compelled to respond to a letter that views the Madison Police Department as an "occupying force" and neighborhoods that would be better off without us. My response to this "open" letter is contained in this blog:

At the outset of my remarks, I would like to thank you for acknowledging the efforts of my Department in attempting to facilitate your demonstrations over the past few months. We have repeatedly reached out to you in an attempt to discern how we can best achieve outcomes that defend First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech. Sometimes you have worked with us, other times our calls are not returned. As I believe in the value of civic engagement, I have personally directed our command staff to ensure the exercise of the "Madison Method" like never before---fostering an environment of professional decorum characterized by pro-active dialogue, avoiding formal enforcement strategies where possible, and displaying the utmost respect and dignity in all of our contacts. We have more than lived up to my expectations.

Playing a seminal role in facilitating your demonstrations has not been easy. Officers have been mustered from off-hours, traffic and contingency plans assembled, beats back-filled, significant overtime incurred and members of the general public have been patient---thus far. This is the role of police in a free society and the MPD has performed in stellar fashion. But please take note: I evaluate our response on a case-by-case basis and there are limits to what is considered reasonable behavior(s). For example, going into a privately-held venue (e.g. a mall) and using a bull horn to drop "f-bombs" or other profanity in the course of bringing attention to a cause is NOT protected speech and will subject the speaker to sanctions. This has been explained to your group in private; now is it being noticed in a public forum.

I find it helpful to address those subjects where common ground might be articulated. I have always agreed that the harmful impacts of racial disparity in Dane County are not in dispute. An education system that has underserved people of color, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, a lack of suitable guardians or mentors for our youth (leading to greater gang involvement), challenged neighborhoods and a criminal justice system that is fraught with inadequacies are but a few of the drivers that contribute to the malaise we face as a community.

I have used my office as a bully pulpit in urging the legislature to address issues of racial disparity as a priority. I have spoken out publicly that there is a litany of things that could be done in one legislative session if politicians were truly serious about bringing about fundamental change(s):

1. Under a revised juvenile justice code effected several years ago, a 17-year-old is now automatically waived into an adult court of original jurisdiction when a criminal offense is alleged to have been committed. Change it back to 18. High school kids are still dealing with maturation issues; let's not move them into the criminal justice system at 17.

2. Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) is fatal to futures. Once a record of an "arrest" is established (no matter what the disposition is), it has a shelf-life longer than nuclear waste. That creates a de facto process of stigmatizing and punishment for those whose cases were never prosecuted or when they have already paid their "debt" to society. Shouldn't there be a grace period established in which some offenses can be wiped clean after a certain period of time?

3. Driving offenses (to include violations for registration and equipment infractions) should have a mechanism established for paying fines with time and talents in lieu of financial reparations for those who do not have the means to pay. When poor people are saddled with insurmountable fees that they are incapable of paying, licenses are suspended, warrants are issued, our jails become "debtor's" prisons and the pursuit of job and educational options become more limiting if you can't lawfully drive to participate!

4. Possessory drug charges should be liberated from the criminal justice system and afforded an option for a treatment alternative. Labeling people who have an addiction with a criminal record, and then employing a punitive model of response has proven ineffective. Similarly, a discussion--statewide--with respect to regulating marijuana differently should be held.

5. More restorative justice courts should be created as a means of diverting people from the criminal justice system. We have seen some incredibly encouraging results in peer courts in Madison high schools (thanks to Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval) that could be replicated in other settings (e.g., neighborhoods).

6. Provide resources to our youth before they are thrust into the criminal justice system. Why is it that kids who are first experiencing "bad choices," and are sent to a municipal court, have very little programming offered? It's because the statutory options of municipal court are limited. A kid literally has to commit crimes and be thrust into the juvenile justice system before getting a case worker and getting access to vital resources!

As the Chief of the City of Madison Police Department, I'm in this community for the long haul. I will continue to be an advocate for public policy that makes sense without compromising public safety. But some of your "ultimatums" are beyond the pale of what I can deliver or reflect inferences that are unsubstantiated.

I have repeatedly stated that MPD is sensitive to those areas where it can be demonstrated that officers (individually) or the Department (collectively) is engaged in purposed or unconscious bias toward any group or groups. Based on the diversity and the strength of character personified in our workforce, the training which is second to none and ever-striving for best practices, coupled with checks-and-balances that serve to bring rogue cops or practices to the light of day, I will not buy into the naive supposition that our community's disparity issues are largely owing to a pervasive pattern of systemic racism by MPD. In fact, I'm fed up with my Department being blamed for everything from male pattern baldness to global warming. It is time for Young, Gifted, and Black to look a lot deeper at the issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the "blame game" of throwing my Department to the wolves. I'm done with allowing this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged. Perhaps others in Madison are afraid to violate the rules of political correctness and say what I am saying (including the media). I cannot control the public debate, but I will not stay silent. I am 56 years old, this is my last job, and I am calling you out as a group (I guess it's a good thing that I don't run for public office and can say what I mean and mean what I say).

What I find most objectionable in your letter to me was the demand that MPD have no "interaction" with "our own communities." This is absolutely untenable to me. You are now comfortable making those kind of quantum leaps and have polled your "own communities" to come to this conclusion? Suffice to say, that is NOT the message I get when I go to community forums--in fact, quite the contrary! So, unless forced to resign or retire (and I think retirement is light years away at this point), MPD is not going to "reduce" our contacts with our neighborhood constituents--in fact, we are going to "increase" them! That's because I view most of our "contacts" as relational opportunities for creating dialogues, establishing trust, identifying problem-solving initiatives, and improving the quality of life issues for everyone in our City.

I applaud and encourage our officers to get out of their squad cars, build relationships, and show our citizens that the cops are not merely reacting to calls for service. We are here to act as guardians to our community. That means being preemptive, pro-active, and collaborative. Your approach focuses exclusively on how the police deal with "offenders." But what would you have us do about our care and support for those that are most vulnerable, voiceless, and victimized? You infer that our very presence only contributes and compounds a dysfunctional situation. You would have us ignore and dismiss the rights of the neighbors who are complainants, witnesses, and victims? People in our neighborhoods rely on our assistance and hope that our influence will make these challenged neighborhoods safer. Are you really advocating that the police abdicate our responsibilities to these folks?

With respect to your other "demands," we will always be amenable to exploring the "best possible resolutions" as dispositions to those we encounter. Our first default is not to only think in terms of citation or arrest. Officers are encouraged to think outside of the box in applying creative alternatives in resolving issues. For example, we will be a critical element in identifying and referring offenders to a restorative justice court that is being piloted in the South District later this quarter. At the end of the day, while committed to creating new paradigms in the way we police, this must be balanced with the amount of resources that are currently in place (limited) with the necessity for holding people who commit crimes accountable.

In Madison, we have many well-intentioned, forward-thinking groups and individuals who recognize that "business as usual" is no longer an acceptable refrain. Count MPD in! Similar to the Madison Metropolitan School District's policy referred to as "BEP" (Behavior Education Plan), which looks to avoid police involvement and fewer formal contacts with police to avoid premature labeling and suspensions, I say, great! I sincerely hope it works! I am all for it, unless or until it compromises public safety. Similarly, I support many of the philosophical initiatives that you are striving for and embrace the sentiments behind them, unless or until it compromises my need to provide public safety to all of our constituents.

While we probably cannot achieve complete "consensus" in determining how our City will dismantle racial disparities, we can all agree that there has to be a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the effects. But complex issues are unlikely to be solved unless everyone is held accountable, not just the low hanging fruit known as the "police."

Respectfully submitted,

Chief Koval

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Posted: Monday, January 12, 2015 --- 12:16 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Madison's police chief is venting his frustrations at black protesters accusing his department of bias and contributing to racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Chief Michael Koval wrote in his blog Monday that he's sick of his department being blamed for quote "everything from male pattern baldness to global warming." He says it's time for protesters to look deeper into issues plaguing minorities and stop blaming his agency for their problems. He says he's done with this kind of rhetoric going unchallenged.
The group known as Young, Gifted and Black Coalition has been protesting police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and Milwaukee as well as plans for expanding the Dane County jail. The group sent a letter to the chief on Friday demanding police stay out of black neighborhoods.

Copyright: Associated Press 2015