Sgt. Mike Koval of the Madison Police Department is so enlightened he doesn't even say it couldn't happen here. What he says, with refreshing clarity, is that it shouldn't.
"Cops should not subject a citizen to arrest for acts of disrespect and incivility [toward officers]," says Koval, who since 1991 has been teaching Madison police recruits the dos and don'ts of the job. "That comes with the terrain."
Madison police, says Koval, are trained to tolerate abuse: "We have to have a thicker skin." He's proud that, while some police departments seem to be "pushing the envelope" in terms of what they can get away with, Madison cops are taught to respect constitutional boundaries.
The issue of police response to irate citizens has been thrown into sharp relief by the July 16 arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, said in his report that, after showing his ID, Gates "continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias." Gates was handcuffed and taken into custody; the charges of disorderly conduct were later dropped.
David Couper, Madison's former chief of police, cites the law as he remembers it: "In Dane County, you can't be disorderly in your own home and you can't be disorderly because of what you say to a police officer."
Koval, who has a law degree, agrees, with appropriate caveats. Disorderly conduct, he notes, is a common charge against people in their homes due to their interactions with others, as in domestic disputes. But a person all alone in his or her home enjoys considerable protection.
"Our homes are our last true vestige of privacy," says Koval, who laments the degree of "government intrusion" into people's lives.
Another caveat is that physical conduct and threats are not part of what police are trained to tolerate.
"As an officer, I've been called every name in the book," says Koval. "But clearly, when I've been spat on, that's disorderly conduct. I won't take that."
As for spoken words, officers must make judgment calls. "If someone threatens to kick your butt, that's potentially disorderly," says Koval. "But if you get called a racist, then I think you've got to take it."
Koval says an officer who encounters a belligerent citizen in a situation that provides no basis for arrest should offer an explanation and, if appropriate, an apology. If that doesn't work, the officer should walk away.
Of course, Koval knows the expansively defined charge of disorderly conduct "translates very nicely into contempt of cop." He knows officers do not use always appropriate restraint.
And yes, it does happen here. As Isthmus reported at the time, in May 2002 Madison Taxi driver Janet Tessier was loudly complaining to her boss at an accident scene about the responding officer, summing up his attitude toward her thusly: "What do I know? I'm only a woman." He placed her in handcuffs.
Tessier's boss told Isthmus he sympathized with the cop: "The officer took a lot. He really did."
Not enough, apparently. The officer was given an 11-day suspension, which counts as serious discipline, for violating MPD rules against "oppressive, overbearing and tyrannical conduct."
Tessier recounts the incident in a recent blog post, which comments on the Gates affair: "There are cops who are incredibly hung up on the power part of their jobs. They are always looking for someone to disrespect them so that they can flex their muscles and put people in their place."
But that's not how it's supposed to be - especially not in Madison, Wisconsin.
Raising high holy hell
Two years ago, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick says he politely pointed out that a Madison Area Youth Soccer Association event conflicted with Yom Kippur. This year, when the same fall event was set for Sept. 18-20, overlapping with another Jewish High Holy day, Rosh Hashana, he was not polite.
"I now consider it anti-Semitic," says Spitzer-Resnick, a Madison attorney. "This is the equivalent for Christians of scheduling an event on Christmas or Easter."
While the hue and cry he's raised has not prompted MAYSA to change the date of its annual Toe Bash, played in Verona, Spitzer-Resnick is claiming a victory of sorts. His son's team is declining to participate. Moreover, he says, "I have received many supportive emails, including one from a professional colleague who was once kicked out of her high school marching band for refusing to perform on Rosh Hashana. She and many others, both Jews and non-Jews, were thrilled that I was taking this issue on."
MAYSA, predictably, is less so. Executive director Chris Lay says there was no attempt to offend, just a logistical need to schedule the event, as usual, on the third weekend in September.
"The accusations here are discouraging and saddening," says Lay. The Toe Bash is not a qualifying tournament, and participation is voluntary; plus, a "multitude of other soccer groups across the country" are holding events this same weekend. He's not heard complaints from others and doesn't know if other teams are not participating because of the conflict.
Interestingly, both Lay and Spitzer-Resnick say they spoke to Steve Morrison of the Madison Jewish Community Council, who expressed his support for their positions. Morrison ducked Isthmus' attempts to get his perspective.
Inside smoking outdoors?
A new analysis by the Wisconsin Tavern League suggests the state's impending smoke-free law may not put an end to smoking in enclosed areas, and could marginally undercut Madison's existing ban.
"If an outdoor structure has four solid walls and no permanent roof, as opposed to a tarp or removable roof, it would not meet the definition of an enclosed area and smoking would be permitted," says the group's Final Analysis, posted on its website (PDF).
Madison City Attorney Michael May thinks the group is correct in concluding that a structure with no roof is considered outdoors. He's not sure if the city's ordinance addresses this issue or "whether we would agree that a tarp or removable roof qualifies as no roof."
The state's "ban" does not become effective until July 2010, so that gives the city plenty of time to ponder definitions. May says an assistant will conduct a review to make sure the city's law conforms to the state's.
It has to. The state's law, May notes, "does preempt the city's ability to regulate outdoor smoking, unless it is a public facility. Thus we will have to follow the state law on what is outdoors."
Smoking tents, anyone?
Okay, this is juvenile - but too good to pass up. A July 24 letter from Madison's City Engineering Division to property owners in a west-side Madison neighborhood, notifying them of a special assessment to fix a drainage problem, mentions a city program to ease their burden: "This program provides pubic funding for ½ of the cost of the storm sewer required to solve these problems," so long as the affected homeowners pay the rest.
The letter really grabbed one recipient by the public hairs. "There was an obvious lack of attention to detail in the production of this notification letter," says Dennis Appleton, a freelance copy editor. "I'm not sure if this is just sloppy work, or if the homeowners in question are being subliminally forewarned that they're about to be screwed!"
Adds Appleton, "I only hope that the proposed construction will be subject to a higher standard of implementation and oversight than this communication was."
Word to the wise: When you send letters notifying people of their need to pay money, look it over real good.