Madison, Wisconsin, home of the largest arrest ratios between its black and white citizens in the nation and with a police force that has about 50 more officers than the average city its size and crime rate, wants to add 40-plus more police officers. This would cost the city about $5 million annually. The Madison Police Department (MPD) already accounts for about a third of the city’s budget. One third.
Here’s what the mayor and our police chief don’t understand: police don’t address the root causes of crime. In a way they help perpetuate the root causes. Poverty and social oppression are the root causes. Most crimes are crimes of poverty, meaning that if people weren’t struggling to survive poverty, they wouldn’t be committing crimes. When you start to eliminate poverty, that’s when you really start to see significant drops in all crime.
Police officers are first responders, meaning that they respond when a crime is already committed. And when someone is arrested, they go into our criminal justice system and they probably go to jail. Then once they are out of jail, it becomes almost impossible to find a job and housing. It’s almost impossible to get housing without a job and it’s almost impossible to get a job without housing. That is beyond the fact that black people have a harder time getting hired to begin with — let alone a black person with a criminal record — this is what we call extra judicial punishment.
Our society has punished these people multiple times. We’ve punished them for being born in poverty, which is almost impossible to escape. We then punish them for surviving poverty with our criminal justice system. And then, since “justice” apparently isn’t enough, we punish them once they are released from our so-called justice system.
Our city is failing its most marginalized from birth. This $5 million annually that it would cost to put more police on the streets of Madison, of an already large police force, would be far better invested, annually, in direct investment in Madison’s black communities. Direct investment in black-led and centered mental health resources, black-led and centered economic development, housing needs, public transportation needs, and more. We could also reduce our police force to the size of other cities that have the same population, with the same crime rate, and save about another $5 million annually. And look at that, we have $10 million annually that we can use to target those most marginalized in our city.
“But one of the biggest shifts have to be who does the police serve? Because right now they are serving the protection of white society at the cost of black society. We have been taught that law and order and punishment is what is needed, but it doesn’t work to address root causes. Our police are not accountable to this city’s citizens, or its citizens it hurts the most.”
This would only be part of the shift that is needed. We must also move away from punitive punishment. This is our society hurting those that we feel hurt us, even though the original crime was that of our larger society and its failings. Every time someone commits a crime to survive poverty, it is a derivative crime of larger society. And we understand this.
But one of the biggest shifts have to be who does the police serve? Because right now they are serving the protection of white society at the cost of black society. We have been taught that law and order and punishment is what is needed, but it doesn’t work to address root causes. Our police are not accountable to this city’s citizens, or its citizens it hurts the most.
This means the centering of those most marginalized in this city. This means black community control/oversight over the police. If that means dedicating majority spots on the police and fire commission for non-mayoral appointed black — especially black queer and black women — members, or the creation of an entirely new community board, this must be done.
They would be in charge of the hiring and firing, what policing looks like in different neighborhoods, the training: such as why are our police officers being trained to escalate situations to “control” situations, opposed to keeping things calm? Why are we looking to invest in more police equipment with armored vehicles and drones?
No. None of this will get at the root cause. Divesting in the militarization of our police, divesting in an oversized and discriminatory police force and investing in our community, in people, in community-led solutions, in economic investment solutions … that is what’s needed.
Only then will we be able to start to address the root causes of violence and poverty in this city. Not only that, but this city can then truly brand itself as progressive. This city could then say that instead of leading the nation in racial disparities, we are leading the nation in addressing these disparities. We can invite in black entrepreneurs and businesses, create a pipe-line from UW-Madison and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) in saying “be a part of the solution.”
We can do things right.
To show your support, join the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, Freedom Inc, Groundwork, No Dane County Jail Working Group, and the family of Tony Robinson — a family this city failed to protect with its “law and order” — on Friday at 3 p.m. at Cathedral Park, 404 E. Main Street, to call for people and to call for an investment in humanity and not police.
And if you can’t make it, make sure you let your alder and our mayor know that we want investment in people. Let them know that it is no longer acceptable to let our city fail and harm its residents. Investment in so-called law and order is failing us, why are we continuing down this path?