As the 2021 Dane County Budget continues to move through the amendment process, the sustained growth of community pressure to decrease funding of the Madison Police Department has resulted in several proposals to remove funding from law enforcement.
The Public Protection & Judiciary Committee put forward two amendments to the budget, advocating for a reduction of funds away from law enforcement and redistributing resources to other initiatives supporting the wellbeing and safety of communities.
Initially, Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, presented a budget amendment to eliminate three sheriff deputies’ positions, decreasing the department’s operating costs by $283,000.
Wegleitner and Supervisor Elena Haasl, District 5, proposed an additional reduction in funding for “less-lethal” weapons. This proposal would eliminate $35,000 of funding for weapons typically used by law enforcement against protestors — such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and sponge-tipped projectiles.
Upon further consideration, this amendment changed to fully prohibit expenditures for chemical munitions, instead of a line-item reduction in funding, according to Haasl.
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After having difficulty pinpointing the exact spending on chemical munitions by the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, Wegleitner and Haasl said they spoke with the department regarding the funding of these crowd-control measures. Ultimately, they said they decided fully prohibiting the purchase of chemical munitions was a more effective amendment.
Haasl said they participated in local protests following the police killing of George Floyd and witnessed many individuals in pain as a result of interactions with tear gas. Haasl was “fearful” and “worried” for the constituents living in their district, as many of the protests occurred within the boundaries of District 5.
“Since chemical munitions are prohibited in international warfare in the Geneva Protocol, it doesn’t make sense we can gas our own citizens when they are protesting under their First Amendment rights,” Haasl said. “I believe the police should not be militarized in this capacity.”
Witnessing the use of chemical weapons and “less-lethal” weapons in their district led Haasl to propose this budget amendment.
Haasl wants all individuals in their district to have the ability to protest without fear of being gassed or harmed because they have a strong feeling about a particular political topic and want to initiate change.
“The police should have alternative methods to crowd control that doesn’t involve inflicting harm upon citizens,” Haasl said. “The very people assigned with protecting us should not be harming us, especially in a global pandemic.”
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Since chemical munitions target one’s respiratory system, Haasl said the use of these weapons is even more dangerous, as it inflates the current health issues of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As university students will inherit the current criminal justice system, Haasl encourages the younger generation to consistently push for a restructured criminal justice system, prioritizing better societal outcomes. According to Haasl, students are a crucial voice to initiate this change.
University of Wisconsin student and Associated Students of Madison Chair Matthew Mitnick is an activist and campus leader fighting for defunding of the UW Police Department. At the end of September, ASM passed a vote of no-confidence in UWPD, illustrating a lack of confidence in the department.
Mitnick supports the budget proposal for eliminating expenditures for chemical munitions, as well as an overall decrease in funding for law enforcement entities in Madison.
“It’s criminal and an abuse of rights that the police department has the ability to have these weapons,” Mitnick said.
In the summer, UWPD spent more than $6,500 on items like high-volume pepper spray and smoke grenades for potential use at Black Lives Matter protests.
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Mitnick said shifting funds away from law enforcement in order to increase community investment will mitigate the need for reactionary measures, such as the use of military-level chemical weapons against protestors. In other words, the funding of chemical munitions can be used much more effectively in community programs, such as mental health and housing services.
“This is not a reaction to current calls for social justice and change,” Mitnick said. “We have analyzed this campus’s relationship with police and saw that UWPD does not support student voices and protest but perpetuates cycles of harm.”
Mitnick acknowledges there is no clear, simple alternative to UWPD, but asserts the entity is not equipped to deal with diverse student needs, particularly those experiencing mental health crises.
When discussing the potential defunding and restructuring of law enforcement in Madison, Mitnick encourages students to not only consider their personal experiences with law enforcement but to listen to the adverse experiences of others in their community.
More than 20 people spoke during a public hearing on the 2021 Dane County Budget last week, with over half of the community members advocating for a decrease in funding for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
The funding of MPB will be set when the 2021 Dane County Budget is finalized between Nov. 10 and Nov. 12.