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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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The Madison Police Department's secret beatings
When violent assaults happen, the public has a right to know
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The other day, I called "Jake" to apologize.

Jake (a pseudonym) is a north-side Madison resident who contacted me in mid-June. He was wondering why a brutal beating near Warner Park in the early morning hours of June 14 received no media attention. Someone who claimed to be an eyewitness told him that a group of young black men had attacked a group of young Mexicans, beating them with clubs and a split-rail fence. The witness saw police standing over the immobile bodies of two men.

"One was dead and one critically injured," Jake said, passing on what he'd heard.

I told him I'd check it out, and did. I called the Madison Police Department's public information office. The officer on duty (regular spokesman Joel DeSpain was on vacation) looked into it and told me there was no record of any such incident. No fatality. No serious injury. Not even a fight.

And so I called Jake back to say he must be mistaken. The cops, I assured him, would never cover up a serious crime. More likely the person who reported these events to him was not telling the truth. (It might surprise people, cops most of all, how often in an ordinary week I defend police.)

Later I wrote about another incident, in which a 50-year-old Madison man was badly beaten by a group of teenage thugs in early August. His ribs were broken, his lung punctured, his cheekbone shattered, his psyche scarred. And there was nothing in the media about it, not a word. DeSpain says it's the kind of incident he would have written up, but he never heard about it ("Brutal Attack Kept Under Wraps," 9/5/08).

Afterward, I heard from another north-side resident about a brutal beating near Warner Park on June 14. This time, when I asked the cops about it, I had the incident report number. It was confirmed that a fight had broken out between two groups of young men. Two individuals were beaten unconscious, with "baseball bats and what have you," according to the lead detective. One ended up in a coma, from which he subsequently recovered - or so I'm told ("Cops Kept Mum About Another Beating," 9/19/08).

I left a message for Jake, to say I was sorry. I had trusted what the cops had told me. That was a mistake.

Yet I can't help myself. Chastened as I am by experience, I still want to believe the best about Madison police.

Yes, there are reasons to be suspicious. Both of these violent assaults involved victims who were not likely to run to the media about what occurred. The 50-year-old is vulnerable and reclusive; the victims of the June 14 beating may have had immigration issues. (One of them, police say, has since returned to Mexico.)

If police wanted to deliberately suppress news to avoid stirring concern about public safety, these would be pretty good picks.

My instincts tell me, however, that these incidents fell through the cracks by accident. Most serious crimes are flagged, and the public is informed through the media. That's as it should be.

Still, something bad happened here, and reform is needed. We cannot tolerate police failures to reveal incidents in which citizens are savagely beaten.

The problem is that police have decided it is their job to decide what crimes are brought to public attention. Reporters are no longer allowed to thumb through unfiltered incident reports to make up their own minds about what is and isn't newsworthy.

That practice must not be allowed to stand. If there are legitimate concerns about the release of certain kinds of information (like the names of confidential informants or privileged medical information), systems should be designed to filter this, and only this, out.

More and more, the Madison police are operating as though their job is to keep secrets from the press. I'll give just one example:

At the press conference announcing the arrest of Adam Peterson for the murder of Joel Marino, I asked whether police ran Peterson's photo past the various eyewitnesses who saw the presumed killer on the day of the crime. I thought it was a pretty good question, because otherwise any subsequent identifications would be compromised by the fact that Peterson's photo was widely published.

The police refused to answer, one way or the other. But within a few days, the Minnesota search warrant used to get DNA from Peterson was released; it confirmed that the cops had in fact taken photo lineups to the eyewitnesses, who picked Peterson out.

So why the secrecy? Who knows? Perhaps the police like secrecy for its own sake.

So, let's agree that things need to change. How is that going to happen?

Not easily. Police have vast power and almost no accountability. They have enormous protection from the courts; officers accused of misconduct are due more due process than just about anyone (except maybe lawyers). The Madison Police and Fire Commission is purposely impotent. The mayor and other elected officials are, as a rule, disinclined to stand up to police in any circumstance. The same is true of most citizens.

Oddly, the best hope for change comes from the police themselves. Chief Noble Wray likes to talk about "trust-based policing," a legacy that traces back to former Chief David Couper. Usually, this is akin to saying: "Just trust us." But Wray, to his credit, seems to understand that his department must earn the public's trust.

Earn it now. Find out what went wrong in these cases and make sure it doesn't happen again. It's the right thing to do, and I believe police in Madison are committed to doing the right thing.

There I go, sticking up for the cops again.

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