In an unusual display of public criticism, two police unions from Dane County issued a statement (PDF) Wednesday morning condemning the recent crackdown on protesters at the state Capitol under the direction of Capitol Police Chief David Erwin.
The Madison Professional Police Officers Association and Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association charge in their statement that the Department of Administration and Capitol Police leadership have "commenced enforcement action against peaceful protesters coming to the Capitol."
The two unions also warn that the recent enforcement actions present a "substantial safety risk" to the officers who are charged with these duties.
"Simply stated, these officers are being forced into emotionally charged confrontations that are neither necessary nor advisable."
Brian Austin, who sits on the executive board of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, acknowledges it is unusual for one police group to publicly criticize another. But he says the issues of free speech and assembly are too important to be silent about.
"We felt really strongly about it," says Austin, who himself protested Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law and publishes Badger Blue, Times Two a blog about state political matters.
Austin says that during the February 2011 protests there was an "amazing relationship between the citizenry and police" because police leadership and protesters realized that dialogue over public policy and open government has value in Wisconsin.
"I think we're seeing an erosion of that at the Capitol," says Austin.
The respectful relationship between protesters and police was widely credited for the peaceful nature of the protests, which sometimes drew tens of thousands to the Capitol. Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs was in charge at the time of the February 2011 protests. In June 2012 he became the director of Dane County Emergency Management. He has declined to comment on recent developments at the Capitol due to ongoing litigation he is involved with.
In their statement, the police unions cite in particular the enforcement actions recently taken against protesters who participate in the Solidarity Sing-Along, some of whom have been issued tickets for holding signs and assembling without a permit:
"The right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly are two of the fundamental rights upon which our democracy is based. Since the birth of our nation, the courts have taken great pains to protect these rights vigorously, and view any infringement upon these rights with great skepticism. We believe the recent enforcement action at the Capitol clearly violates these rights in a way that should be unacceptable in a free society."
In response, Erwin said that it was "unfortunate" that the unions issued a statement without talking to his department first. "Our officers would never judge another police department's enforcement without knowing the facts of the situation," Erwin said in a written statement (PDF).
Erwin also said that "everyone has access to the Capitol" and that his department upholds the fundamental right of freedom of speech. But, he adds, "There are more than five million citizens in the state, and all should have the same opportunity to voice their views and opinions at our state's Capitol. This is not an issue about saying what you want -- it's about sharing the space at the Capitol and there is a process to do it."
He also acknowledged the role the police unions played last year "in keeping the environment safe for everyone involved."
Erwin did not address the specific charge that his officers were being put in harm's way due to these enforcement actions or indicate he would be changing any tactics in the future. "We are sworn to protect and serve the citizens of our state -- as all other police departments in Wisconsin -- and we will continue to do so."