Madison Police Oversight Board Offers Template for La Crosse

Any civilian police oversight board must be truly independent of law enforcement and elected officials while including the voices of those who usually are excluded from local power structures.

That was the message from Keith Findley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor who spoke to the La Crosse County Criminal Justice Management Council (CJMC) on Wednesday. Findley worked on the establishment of a civilian police oversight board in Madison, which is just beginning to get off the ground.

A subcommittee of the CJMC is investigating creating a similar board for La Crosse and invited Findley to speak during Wednesday’s virtual CJMC meeting.

“I will emphasize the composition of your civilian oversight board is very important,” Findley said. “Make sure you have ways of bringing to the table all of the voices in the community not just the experts, not just the power brokers, but the folks who are not heard from typically and who are maybe representative of community groups who feel that they are not heard or respected by the powers and the authorities that be in the city.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Law Keith Findley.

Findley said that a significant portion of the board should be composed of “members with lived experience with homelessness, mental health problems, substance abuse and/or arrest or conviction records.” A goal should be that the board not be made up of the “usual group of middle/upper class white folks who generally have a terrific relationship with the police,” he added.

The CJMC subcommittee on civilian police oversight has been gathering public input and ideas on the creation of an oversight board with Findley’s presentation the latest step in that process. One consideration is whether the board should encompass the entire county and the multiple police agencies within it, rather than just the City of La Crosse. Findley said he thought a county-wide board was a good idea. 

“The most important thing is that they be independent from the police,” he said.

The Madison civilian oversight board will have police representatives present at its meetings and police have been part of the process of creating it. But the board will have no “physical or structural” links to the city’s police department. A full-time independent police monitor who will report to the board also will be appointed. Members of the board are approved by Madison’s common council, but are nominated by diverse community organizations, rather than the mayor.

Although it has no power to issue sanctions or mandate the police to alter policies, the Madison oversight board can issue reports, conduct investigations and use its bully pulpit to push for change. Findley noted that when the board issues recommendations, Madison police will be required to respond in writing within a certain period of time.

“A gift to police”

During the period in which the creation of the board was being discussed in Madison, there was pushback to the idea from people who assumed it would be filled with “police haters,” Findley said. But he reiterated that it was valuable that the board include members who might be considered hostile to police.

“My own view was that if one of our goals is to find a way to bridge the divides between those who are hostile with police, those who feel that police do not hear them, the worst thing we could do is shut them out of this process,” he said. “In order to build those bridges we had to make sure that they were there and I kind of saw this not as a challenge to police so much as a gift to police, because we are giving them a mechanism for engaging actively with members of the community, including members who feel otherwise distrustful and hostile to them.”

The oversight board, which in Madison comes with a significant budget, will be worthwhile if it can prevent a single death, Findley noted. He said the fact that La Crosse was not currently in the midst of a crisis, such as the one that rocked Kenosha recently, meant this was a good time to be working on the formation of a civilian oversight board, rather than waiting until it’s too late.

“In the end if we can reduce uses of force, deadly uses of force, those often are followed by civil litigation that can result in multi-million dollar judgements against a city or a county,” he said. “If we can eliminate even one through this process, it more than pays for itself.”

Joella Striebel chairs the CJMC subcommittee on civilian oversight. She said the next steps for the subcommittee will include additional input from both local law enforcement and community members. 

“We have reached out to several local law enforcement leaders, who I was grateful to see attend Mr. Findley’s presentation to ensure that their feedback is heard as we move forward,” Striebel said. “The guidance Mr. Findley provided is invaluable, especially as it relates to the authority that rests with Police and Fire Commissions in the state of Wisconsin that cannot be usurped.”

The La Crosse Police and Fire Commission oversees the hiring, promotion, discipline, and terminations of police and fire personnel. Its five citizen members are appointed by the mayor and the commission’s duties are determined by state statutes.

Striebel said the CJMC subcommittee on civilian oversight will continue to consider the question of the composition of a possible oversight board and the geographic area it should cover.

“One of the biggest decisions facing us is whether to move forward with civilian oversight as a county-wide initiative versus city only,” she said. “Mr. Findley’s emphasis on the inclusion of those who are so often left out of these conversations was affirming and will remain a primary focus as we move forward.”

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