The right to dissent at the Capitol must not be abridged.
The Capital Times
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney earned local, state and national praise for the mature and professional approach he brought to the many challenges posed by the mass protests at the state Capitol in February and March of 2011, and to the protests that have continued to this day.
Mahoney recognized immediately that the crowds pouring into Madison from across the state were not coming to destroy Wisconsin’s Capitol. They were coming to defend it against the assaults being implemented by Governor Scott Walker and his partisan wrecking crew.
Working with other law enforcement professionals — and supported by deputies and police officers organized as “Cops for Labor” — Mahoney implemented smart policing strategies that kept the peace.
It was a testament to Mahoney’s approach that weeks of mass protests saw no serious violence, no serious destruction, no serious arrests.
Mahoney and the law enforcement professionals he worked with recognized that sheriff’s deputies and police officers are not positioned inside the Capitol or around it to serve the will of the governor, state legislators or their aides.
Law enforcement is there to serve the people who pay the salaries of the officials and of the police.
“I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards,” said Mahoney.
“Law enforcement agencies have responsibilities: They have to keep the peace. And they have to assure that citizens are able to exercise their First Amendment rights,” the sheriff explained. “There’s something very troubling about the notion that law enforcement agencies should play a role in preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights. That’s not how it is supposed to work.”
The Mahoney way worked. And he had an ally in Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. Chief Tubbs was not as outspoken as Sheriff Mahoney. But, for the most part, the chief practiced what the sheriff preached. And the public was well served.
Now Tubbs has taken a new job as the director of emergency management for Dane County.
The new Capitol chief is a veteran officer, Dave Erwin, who has announced plans to alter many practices and procedures at the Capitol. It has been suggested — mainly by Walker’s right-wing amen corner — that Erwin will adopt a “get-tough” approach to dissent. This would seem to be the case, as Erwin has moved to establish a much stricter permitting process for protests, along with a much more aggressive approach to dissent.
This has prompted Senate Majority Leader Mark Miller to point out in a letter to Erwin: “As the law enforcement division acting on behalf of Governor Walker and the Department of Administration (DOA) it is incumbent upon you to recognize the rights of the citizens of Wisconsin to have free and open access to the state Capitol as guaranteed by Wisconsin’s Constitution.”
That’s a vital message that Chief Erwin should take seriously.
The chief’s duty is not to serve the governor, or Miller for that matter.
The chief has a duty to keep the peace.
And he has a duty — just as absolute — to ensure that Wisconsinites are free to exercise the rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution and in the state Constitution, which declares: “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
The key word there is “never.”
If the peace is not kept on Erwin’s watch, his tenure will be counted as a failure.
If the right to dissent is not maintained on Erwin’s watch, his tenure will be counted as equally failed.
Professional law enforcement officers recognize that there are few gray areas regarding the right to dissent.
They know there is little reason for legitimate leaders, or law enforcement agencies, to fear that right.
If Chief Erwin has any questions in this regard, he should consult with Sheriff Mahoney.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the opinion section of the Capital Times.)
September 6, 2012
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