In the wake of summer 2020’s uprisings against racism and police brutality, municipalities across the U.S. instituted Civilian Complaint Review Boards (CCRB), some of which had already spent years fighting for approval.
Madison, Wisconsin, is no exception to the movement for independent police oversight: Its Common Council passed an ordinance in September 2020 officially establishing an 11-member police oversight board and independent monitor with the power to conduct investigations into the Madison Police Department.
But the board is facing complaints that have little to do with the reason it was created. Conservative critics say the Madison CCRB is excluding a certain group from occupying its seats.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, filed a notice of claim against Madison in January, alleging “unconstitutional racial quotas” in response to the city’s membership requirements for its CCRB.
Right-wing media, particularly The Federalist‘s Daniel Lennington, is leveraging the legal argument this week, accusing Madison of “banning white people” from CCRB consideration.
The foundations for CCRBs, long disdained by police unions, emerged in the 1950s as a way to hold municipal police officers accountable. The powers of these independent bodies vary from city to city and are composed of civilian community members who look into accusations of police misconduct apart from police Internal Affairs, typically with the purpose of making disciplinary recommendations and increasing transparency.
In Newark, New Jersey, officials are taking their case for a CCRB with the ability to issue subpoenas to the U.S. Supreme Court following a losing, four-year legal battle with its local police union. By comparison, New York City’s CCRB has had subpoena power since the early 1990s.
Madison’s CCRB 11 members are recommended by a committee of nine community groups and then approved by the mayor and Common Council. Following WILL’s January legal threats against Madison citing “unconstitutional racial quotas,” The Federalist‘s Daniel Lennington authored a blog post on Friday under the headline “Wisconsin’s Capital City Is Trying To Ban White People From Police Oversight Board,” sparking controversy on social media.
According to Section 5.20(3)(a) of the ordinance authorizing the formation of a CCRB, which establishes rules for CCRB recruitment and membership, 40 percent of the board’s membership must have “lived experience with homelessness, mental health, substance abuse and/or arrest or conviction records.”
City Attorney Michael Haas told Newsweek that diversity requirements stipulate that at least 50 percent of the board and its two alternate members should be Black. At least one member from Asian, Latinx, Native American and/or LGBTQ communities must be represented, as well as a member with a past criminal conviction.
There is no language banning white people from sitting on the board; there is a white member on the board.
“The Common Council sought to establish a Civilian Oversight Board which represented the entire community and ensured representation from communities with diverse backgrounds and experiences, including experience with police interactions,” Haas said.
“At the time the Board was created, the Common Council also passed a resolution stating that the Board shall be composed of at least 50 percent Black members. Of the Board’s current 13 members and alternates, eight are Black, two are Latinx, one is Asian, one is Native American and one is White.”
According to the municipal ordinance, there is no truth to the claim that white people are banned from the Madison Police Oversight Board.
In creating certain diversity requirements, the Common Council’s goal was to seek “representation from individuals with specific and relevant backgrounds,” Haas said. As such, according to the ordinance, groups disproportionately impacted by police violence, as well as individuals with experience in social services, comprise a majority of the board’s membership.