Nikki Baumblatt would like to make one thing perfectly clear: She does not approve of people having sex in public. But the development director of OutReach, the local advocacy group for gays and lesbians, feels something is amiss with the Madison Police Department's efforts to crack down on sexual activity at Olin-Turville Park.
"I don't think the law is enforced equally and across the board," says Baumblatt. "If you're male and they think you are gay...."
Baumblatt has fielded complaints about the MPD's latest enforcement action, which took place on Monday, May 21. One man, who didn't leave his name, said police came to the picnic table where he was eating lunch, said they knew why he was there and warned that he'd be ticketed if he walked near the woods.
"Last year, we had a guy sitting in his car and reading the newspaper - the same thing was said to him," relates Baumblatt, adding that one OutReach volunteer has stopped visiting the park. "He's so afraid he's going to be ticketed just for being there."
Madison resident Bruce Hoefs, who also contacted Baumblatt, says he was at the park for the first time in years on May 21, around midday. While walking, he noticed another man alternately appearing and disappearing into the bushes off the designated path.
"I started hearing a bunch of branches breaking," says Hoefs, 60. "I walked in there to see if something was wrong." The other man emerged, announced he was a police officer and wrote Hoefs a $172 ticket for "Preservation of Conservation Park" - the term for off-trail walking.
Hoefs says a female officer subsequently said, "We know what you're here for," and, when he replied that she didn't know anything about him, told him to leave the park.
"I didn't even do anything," protests Hoefs, who plans to contest his ticket. "To me, they are targeting anyone."
Capt. James Wheeler, head of Madison's South District police station, says the May 21 action involved as many as a dozen officers. Twenty-three citations were issued to 21 people; two citations were for lewd and lascivious behavior (for having sex) and one for urinating in the park.
The remaining 20 citations were for wandering off-trail, as signs warn visitors not to do.
Wheeler says enforcement actions - there were "two or three" last year; May 21 was the first in 2007 - are "in response to people complaining about sexual activity," especially as warmer weather draws more people to the park.
"We're just going after the behavior, the sexual activity," says Wheeler, who denies officers are targeting gay men. Last year, he notes, police busted a man and woman for having sex in the park.
And he rejects that having officers go off-trail unfairly induces others to follow suit: "If somebody runs a stop sign, do you then run the stop sign?" He says someone who felt entrapped can argue that in court. "For me, it's a trust thing. I don't want for us to be going out there and tricking people just to write citations."
But Baumblatt believes "there is a fine line between legal tactics and enticement." And she questions whether the problem merits the investment of police resources.
"Most of these people are not predators," she says. "If they are out there [seeking sex], they are trying to find someone else who is out there for that purpose."
Dangerous work, take 1
Overcrowding is a growing problem at the Dane County Detoxification Center, run by Tellurian UCAN, on Madison's south side. Lynn Green, the county's human services director, recently told a county committee that police are complaining they can't get people into detox, capacity 29, because the agency is renting beds to other counties.
Attests Capt. Wheeler of the MPD's South District, "During the weekends and major events, it gets full pretty fast." But Green told the committee the facility is rarely full.
There are also growing worries about safety. In early April, a center employee was assaulted by a man being taken to a seclusion room; he allegedly clamped his arm around her throat, preventing her from breathing. The man, Johnathan Linden, is charged with felony recklessly endangering safety. His victim testified last month in court that she believed she would die.
So far this year, records show, police have responded to at least nine disturbances and one sexual assault at the detox center.
"It's not unusual for things to happen," says Melody Twilla, the center's clinical director. "When people are drinking, they do things they don't normally do." But staff are trained for such situations: "We're always conscious of the possibility of an explosive episode around us."
Dangerous work, take 2
Early last month, a staff member at La Follette High School was taken by ambulance to the hospital after being struck by a student engaged in a fight.
Luis Yudice, the school district's safety coordinator, confirms the incident, one of at least two recent cases where staffers were injured while breaking up fights. The other was at East High. In both cases, police decided against seeking charges because the students did not intend to cause injury.
"To commit a crime requires criminal intent," says Yudice, formerly a Madison police captain.
A teacher at La Follette says there have been several other worrisome incidents, including a threat that led to a restraining order against a student and a very recent case where a student hit a teacher taking him to a job site.
"The public needs to know what's going on," says the teacher, outraged that the boy who hit the staff member will not be charged. "That sends a really bad signal."
John Matthews, head of Madison Teachers Inc., rebuffed repeated requests for comment, without explanation.
Barking up the left tree
Ben Manski calls Liberty Tree "Madison-based evangelists of democracy." The national group, an outgrowth of the No Stolen Elections campaign of 2004, now has a $250,000 annual budget, 1,000 members who've given anywhere from 50 cents to "six figures - eight including cents," and nine paid fellows, including himself and one other fulltime staffer. It publishes a quarterly newsletter and, of course, has a Web site: LibertyTreeFDR.org.
"Our short-term mission is to bring a democracy movement into being in the U.S.," says Manski. By that he means implementing reforms that restore local control and the right of the public to shape the actions of government, in areas ranging from voting rights to education to peace.
"We're working on the ground with a lot of different venues and on a lot of different projects," he says. "But the overall goal is to bring these together to create a broad-based, deeply rooted, very assertive movement for democracy."
The name comes from an actual tree in Boston Common prior to the American Revolution. When it was felled by the British, similar trees were consecrated in all 13 colonies. Manski sees the tree as part of "a very deep and positive democratic tradition that is wholly American and very much in contradiction to the kind of corporate state and empire the U.S. has become."
File it away
You'd think something called the City Clerk's Office would be pretty good at keeping important correspondence. You'd be wrong.
In November 2005, an aide to U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic sent Madison's deputy clerk a letter seeking voter data, including confidential birth date information. This letter was recently given to Congress, along with correspondence showing that Biskupic was under tremendous pressure from state and federal Republicans to initiate fraud prosecutions. (The material provided by Madison failed to substantiate suspicions of fraud.)
But the only copy of the November 2005 letter Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl has been able to locate is the one faxed to the Mayor's Office last month by The Capital Times, from the documents released to Congress.
"I do not have the original letter in the City Clerk's Office," confesses Witzel-Behl, who was not clerk at the time. "I imagine it was submitted to Information Services as a request for voter data."
For future reference: The next time a federal prosecutor seeks confidential data as part of a politically driven criminal investigation, keep a copy.