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Saturday, January 31, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 23.0° F  
MADLAND: A group blog about life in Madison, Wisconsin
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Madland: The militarization of police is a problem -- even in Madison
We've gone too far in treating hostile scenarios as the default.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

You can tell things have gotten bad when I support Rand Paul's position on an issue.

The police in this country have gotten too militarized, and that includes Madison too. Hell, this problem includes the police in Neenah!

Even Madison's relatively new police chief, Mike Koval, who has made statements decrying the militarization of police, has grudgingly accepted a surplus military vehicle, something that looks more like a tank than the standard cherries and berries of a cop cruiser.

I like most of our local law enforcement. Chief Koval is a nice guy. His predecessor, Noble Wray, is a nice guy. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is a nice guy. The cop that gave me a ticket a few weeks ago because my plates were expired seemed like a nice guy.

But Michael Brown was a nice kid -- and he will never have the chance to be a nice guy.

Our local leaders recognize that tragedy. Sheriff Mahoney briefly spoke at a Madison vigil for Brown on Thursday evening, as did several other civic figures. I'm glad he did, but that doesn't mean we don't have to be wary about our current law enforcement.

To prepare for rare active shooter situations, we have given our police too much power. Of course, we want law enforcement to be prepared, but we've gone too far in treating hostile scenarios as the default. Aggressive training and lots of weaponry conditions normally level-headed people to be ready to attack the moment they feel threatened. In this country, it seems like threatening means black and brown men.

The end result is dehumanizing, not just for citizens but for cops as well. Police become a threat, not a community resource. Conflicts simmer over time, and Ferguson did not happen overnight. With Dane County's and the entire state's ludicrous incarceration rates for African-American Wisconsinites, it is easy for distrust to grow. From there, all it takes is one tragedy, and Madison could be another week's racial shame of the nation.

Our police handled the 2011 labor protests well, but that was a bunch of predominately white people with cameras every two feet who were angry at the governor, not the cops. Put our officers in riot gear, in a situation where anger is directed at them, where the media spotlight isn't shining so bright, and change the skin color of the protestors, and everything may not work out so peacefully.

Dave Mahoney spoke at the Madison vigil about the work his department is doing to support the broader community. Mike Koval has set a goal of moving away from a militarized police force. Both of them deserve to be applauded for these good words and goals, and we are lucky to have them in leadership positions.

As citizens, we need to pressure them to follow through on those goals, and that is something else all together. It's hard to make change once you are in an office. Gitmo remains open, after all.

These are huge problems, national problems -- and while Dane County has so much it needs to work on when it comes to race, this seems like one area where we can make real progress. We need to encourage Chief Koval, Sheriff Mahoney and the rest of our law enforcement leaders to achieve the appropriate balance between preparing for the worst while still doing the day-to-day work of serving the entire community.

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