Like many of you, this past week I watched in utter disbelief and horror as we again witnessed instances of police misbehavior captured for all of the world to see. This time, the venues were South Carolina and California. And while none of us is privy to all of the facts at this time, on the face of things, these episodes shock the sensibilities of anyone–citizens and cops–who have watched these images unfold.
As chief, trying to differentiate and distance our Department from national incidents has become increasingly difficult given the frequency and magnitude of the transgressions. The significance of these events can develop a life of their own when the outrage becomes profound and there is invariably a trickle-down effect that affects our credibility and diminishes trust in an institution that relies on trust. No matter how well-intended your efforts, without the necessary trust needed to forge partnerships with community members, any sustained efforts to collaborate in problem solving will not be fully realized. Furthermore, our attempts to attract well-rounded, well-educated, diverse candidates will also be adversely affected if individuals believe that the profession lacks legitimacy and our practitioners are not given their due respect.
Returning to local issues, as we continue our collective vigil awaiting a decision in the Tony Robinson case, I unapologetically confess to praying harder than ever. Yes, Madison, you have a chief that looks to God for hope, comfort, and direction. I have prayed unceasingly for the family and friends of Tony Robinson, for our cops who have persevered mightily during incredibly difficult conditions, for Matt Kenny and his family, and that our community may move toward a time of healing and restored trust. So much good has been done by the selfless service of dedicated guardians over the years and continuing to today. It would be unfair to define the MPD using only a benchmark of officer involved shootings; particularly since the overwhelming majority of our encounters with citizens are resolved with our “presence,” our ability to talk to people, and our prowess at mediation and crisis intervention. There have been numerous instances when a Madison Police Officer would have had the legal authority to utilize deadly force; and yet through tactical discipline and resourcefulness, managed to avoid a lethal outcome. Clearly, this is a testament to our cops and their training.
It is disturbing to me that there are some in our community that are using the tragic death of Tony Robinson as a litmus test on all of the racial disparities issues that have been well-substantiated for our City. For the long term, we certainly need to look at systemic problems of economic inequality, educational achievement gaps, and disproportionate impacts of the criminal justice system on people of color. But in the short term, the case before the District Attorney will have nothing to do with those deep-rooted issues. This will be a case looking at two individuals and their respective behavior(s), applying established rules of law to the finding of facts. No verdict is going to be responsive to our City’s long term needs for the very real changes that are necessary for Madison to be a place where all can participate and thrive.
Once a decision is announced, people will make choices on how they will respond or react in the moments or days that follow. MPD will do its part and are poised to facilitate First Amendment rights, carefully balancing individual rights with the necessity for providing public safety and the rights of others. Last week, there was a prime example which demonstrates how the lawfulness of certain activities can pit various rights and interests against one another. We had several instances where professionally printed yard signs–similar to the type we see during political campaigns–were being planted overnight on high profile traffic routes. They were placed on public medians, boulevards and terraces. The content of the message was largely “F— the police, and indict Kenny.” While individuals can certainly express their views, the use of offensive profanity, particularly when placed on public property, is not protected speech.
While I admit being discouraged when informed about the signs, I was subsequently uplifted by an email and conversation that I had with Bishop Harold Rayford, pastor of the Faith Place Church. Rayford also serves as the current president of the African American Council of Churches for Greater Madison. Rayford was encouraging colleagues to learn from the mistakes of Ferguson. According to Rayford, one of the missing factors in Ferguson was the absence of the “faith community.” Rayford noted that in Ferguson, they had to “regroup” once a decision was rendered and Rayford told me that he was planning to “pre-group” in order to better meet the needs of his church family.
Rayford was not putting a damper on dissent or activism whatsoever. In fact, he advised that it was his intention to personally attend as many protests as he could and he would be encouraging others to do the same! But as a leader to his flock, Rayford wanted congregants to know that his participation would be predicated on the demonstrations being lawfully conducted and civil. To those who felt compelled to practice civil disobedience, Rayford offered helpful tips such as making sure your car is parked somewhere legally so that it wouldn’t get ticketed or towed if you got arrested. To me, this was a perfect example of faith (and democracy) in action!
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