Urban Triage fears city will take power away from independent police auditor and civilian police oversight board

MADISON, Wis. — Local non-profit Urban Triage, which has led some of Madison’s protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, hosted a panel to talk about the city’s plan to hire an independent police auditor and create a civilian police oversight board.

Years ago, following the shooting death of Tony Robinson by a Madison Police officer, the city hired a national OIR Group to analyze the Madison Police Department’s policies and procedures and created an Ad Hoc Committee to make recommendations.

Out of more than 100 recommendations, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the Ad Hoc Committee’s “first and highest priority” was the creation of an independent police auditor and a civilian police oversight board.

“Like the Ad Hoc Committee – I believe the single most powerful action we can take toward meaningful and lasting police reform will be to move forward with due diligence to create this powerful, independent oversight position,” said Rhodes-Conway in a press release.

She said the auditor’s job will be posted as soon as it is approved by the Common Council.

But members of the Urban Triage panel said that job description was written by a former MPD captain, Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl, and Rhodes-Conway. They worry all of these people are invested in keeping the police union happy and making the city look good. Because of this, they fear the auditor will not actually be independent.

At protests, Urban Triage leaders have made it clear that their demands for the city include defunding the police department and creating community control. During Monday’s panel, representatives said the plan to hire an independent police auditor and create the civilian police oversight board is a step in the right direction, but only if the positions are given the power recommended by the Ad Hoc Committee.

“This doesn’t get us where we’re moving towards totally, but it definitely takes us in that direction and gives us a foundation to start with,” said the panel’s moderator Brandi Grayson.

Greg Gelembiuk, a scientist at UW-Madison who was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee, told the panel the recommendations say the auditor will have the power to oversee the police department, investigate and potentially sue the police department, monitor internal MPD investigations, refer cases to the Police and Fire Commission and make recommendations of discipline.

“The auditor could say ‘Hey Police and Fire Commission, this cop, you know what they did, they brutalized people. They violated a policy. They should be fired,'” said Gelembiuk.

He said the auditor can also appoint an attorney for a community member who brings up a complaint against the police, such as a brutality claim.

“Right now the system doesn’t work at all. Like it’s completely asymmetric. The cop has an attorney from the union, (and is) well represented. The complainant typically has no representation. If they can find a pro bono attorney they’ll be lucky,” said Gelembiuk.

He said if the auditor and civilian oversight board are created the way they were recommended by the Ad Hoc Committee, “this would be quite likely the most effective, most progressive, closest to community control oversight mechanism of any city in the country.”

But panelists said Rhodes-Conway is already removing some of the powers from the auditor.

Although the Ad Hoc Committee said the auditor’s recommendations should be public reports, Gelembiuk said Rhodes-Conway wants to change that. He also said she wants to make the auditor report to her, instead of to the civilian police oversight board.

The board is supposed to be made up of diverse individuals from different nationalities and backgrounds, and Gelembiuk said 20-40% of the board is also supposed to be comprised of members with lived experiences of homelessness, struggles with mental health or substance abuse, and/or arrest or conviction records.

Rhodes-Conway is encouraging people to apply to be on the board online, but Urban Triage hopes the board is given true community control.

“It’s imperative for us to push and continue to push for community control. The only way we shift paradigms within institutions and systems is giving the control to the people,” said Grayson.

Grayson said right now the system, including the mayor, elected officials, police chief and police union, is fixed to work as a human resources department.

“(They) say to you, ‘Come to us if you have a complaint, if you have a problem.’ But what they’re really saying is, ‘Come to us so we can figure out how to maneuver around that problem and make you the problem,'” said Grayson.