Public Safety Can’t Be Left to Public Officials

It’s time for sensible people in Dane County — which, I am convinced are the vast majority of people here — to wrest control of public safety issues from our paralyzed public officials.

Three issues demand a reasoned approach.

First, there is the Dane County jail. Former Sheriff (and star public servant, in my book) Dave Mahoney was shepherding through a very forward-thinking approach to a new facility. His proposal was to close down the inhumane, 1950’s era jail on the top floors of the City County Building and the aged Huber Center on the county fair grounds, and replace them with a new tower behind the current Public Safety Building. His plan would reduce the overall number of beds by about 10% while providing better, safer, more humane facilities, plus more space to provide services to inmates and room for visitors. (I urge you to have a look at the images here of the current and planned new facilities.) When Kalvin Barrett took over as sheriff after Mahoney’s retirement, he took a long, hard look at Mahoney’s plan and endorsed it. Barrett, not irrelevantly, is Black.

But none of this is good enough for a handful of radical groups and individuals. They just don’t believe in jails. They think there are no bad guys that need to be locked up for the safety of innocent people. They live in an alternative universe. They want something that they haven’t specified. No jail at all? A much smaller jail, even beyond the 10% cut in the proposal — at a time when Dane County is the fastest growing part of the state? What, exactly?

Just one view of the new jail facilities that “progressive” activists oppose.

These folks are not tethered to the real world, yet they have the ear of enough supervisors to stop the project dead in its tracks. Because supervisors dragged their feet, construction cost estimates have grown. It would now require a two-thirds vote to amend the budget and add enough money to get it done. The result is that the very inmates the radicals pretend to care about continue to live in inadequate, even dangerous, facilities. How is that progressive?

With the County Board paralyzed, there are a couple of solutions. One, as suggested by County Executive Joe Parisi, is to send the thing to a referendum in November. But the other idea would be for Parisi to simply put the higher budget amount into his next budget. Since it would be a new budget and not a budget amendment, that would require a simple majority vote. But, of course, there’s no assurance that there is even a simple majority to move forward.

Maybe the two moves could be linked. Supervisors could pass a resolution committing to abide by the results of the referendum and, since the 2023 budget will pass just after the November election, they could accept or reject Parisi’s jail capital budget based on that vote. The referendum would give cover to supervisors who want to do the right thing but are worried about the radical left.

Look, it’s ridiculous for us to be in this position in the first place, and there’s no reason to think that costs won’t go up even more with this kind of delay. But anybody got a better idea?

Public safety issue number two is police body cameras. Oh for cryin’ out loud. Many of the same out-of-touch activists who oppose the jail also oppose body cams while the police chief, police union, the NAACP and many others support them as an accountability measure. So, why do the radicals oppose them? Because they worry that the body cams will catch cops doing the right thing and criminals doing awful things. Cameras won’t support their narrative. Simple as that.

The Madison City Council has tied itself up in knots over this for the very same reason that the Dane County Board can’t make a decision on the jail. It’s obvious that body cams are the right thing, but a small minority of very loud activists have the ear of enough alders to freeze the council in place. It’s also beyond comprehension that Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway refuses to even take a position on this issue. If she’s against cameras, well okay I disagree, but I’d respect her for taking a forthright position and defending it. Hiding under her desk is not a great look.

Here again, for lack of a better idea, maybe we should toss it to the voters. Put it on the November ballot, air out the arguments, and let the public provide the leadership that the council and the mayor cannot.

Finally, we have the school violence issue. There seems to be a significant increase in violence in Madison’s public schools since School Resource Officers were removed — again at the insistence of a handful of radical activists — after the 2019 school year. We don’t know for sure because the district is stonewalling on releasing data on the subject, but why would they do that if the numbers showed that removing the SRO’s had had no effect? Anyway, sketchy data that the MMSD finally gave up after an open records request indicate a significant jump in violence since the SROs went away.

There have been some high profile incidents, including a couple of melees outside East High School, a kid with a loaded gun at La Follette and another student with special needs who was beaten so badly that he required dental work. That student was attacked again when he returned to a different MMSD school recently. The first incident was not even reported to Madison police because of the district’s wrong-headed policy to avoid contact with the MPD. If our school district can’t protect a special needs kid from a violent attack (twice), if they can’t provide basic physical safety for our kids, what good are they? Where’s the uprising?

I’m at a loss about what to do about this one. The public had its chance with three school board seats up for election this spring and no voices of reason showed up. Conservative blogger and former Dane County Supervisor David Blaska is running a write-in campaign and I plan that protest vote, but it won’t amount to much.

The best thing I can suggest is what I’ve suggested before. The sane, left-center needs to get organized, recruit good candidates and support them to the hilt in the next round of school board elections. Until that happens, I’m afraid we’re in for more of the same.

Crime and public safety is a huge and growing issue that is going to contribute to a Republican landslide in the fall. In the liberal bubble that is Dane County, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated yet. But Parisi’s got the right idea with a referendum this fall on the jail. Let’s at least take that one positive step.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Public Safety Can’t Be Left to Public Officials

  1. My understanding is that the votes for Jail funding is there if all was needed was a simple majority. I also think a referendum would pass easily and attempts to drive jail supporting Sup.’s from the local party haven’t worked.
    The school board is a problem and it feels like we missed our window to fix it till next year. Simkin seems good and would make the board better. Anyone who doesn’t follow the Freedom Inc line is subject to harassment and personal attacks it’s hard to blame people really.


  2. Agreement on all points Dave, including writing in for Dave Blaska. If the jail goes to referendum, I will certainly support that as well.

    I’m guessing that the Mayor has supporters somewhere, but I ain’t one of them.


  3. Found your comments on public safety (jails, body cams, schools) interesting and persuasive. Particularly disturbing with respect to the jail is the wacky woke’s apparent inability to propose an alternative around which they are relatively unified.

    It’s like the climate-denier scientific community where the 3% of climate-denier scientists can’t agree among themselves regarding the nature, cause and extent of global warming. Yet, among the other 97%, there is an overwhelming consensus about the reality, cause and extent of warming–and increasing convergence on the irreversible risks.

    In both cases, a majority of liberal and conservative VOTERS agree with the consensus, but their elected officials on the left (public safety) and the right (climate change) fear the 3%.


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