As Tarah Stangler scrolled through her Twitter feed on a Sunday afternoon, she came across a tweet from the University of Wisconsin Police Department. It was a solemn scene: a picture taken inside a UWPD office, with five officers standing proudly behind a display of 18 green and red exit signs.
“This is what happens when you and your roommate attempt to ‘collect’ an exit sign from each residence hall,” the tweet read. “Please don’t steal exit signs. Or anything.”
Stangler, a UW-Madison student and activist, didn’t think much of it at first. It wasn’t the UWPD’s first comedic attempt on social media. However, when a friend later sent a screenshot of the tweet in a group chat, imploring Stangler for her reaction, she finally realized what was in the background of the photo.
“They were like, ‘Did you see the tweet?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I thought it was stupid,’” she recalled. “And they were like, ‘That's all you have to say?’ I said, ‘What do you mean,’ and I looked in the back of the photo and then I saw it. All I could think was, ‘No, no, that's not what I think it is.’”
Displayed behind the officers was a tattered and torn decal of the “Thin Blue Line” flag, or the Blue Lives Matter flag.
“I've never equated that flag with anything other than anti-Black Lives, anti-trans lives, anti-anybody that speaks out against the oppressive system that is the police force,” Strangler said.
While the weight of the historic symbol is abounding, the “Thin Blue Line” tweet came at the heels of a much broader, semester-long endeavor by UWPD to engage with students both online and off, following a chaotic summer of protests and calls for police accountability in Madison. From meetings with student government, department initiatives and social media campaigns, the campus police have embarked on several controversial attempts to spark “conversations” with students.
ASM reform efforts begin
In September, members of the Associated Students of Madison hoped to address the UWPD’s presence at the downtown protests on May 30, which Chief of Police Kristen Roman called “mutual aid” in assisting the Madison Police Department. Faced with first-hand accounts from students who were harmed with chemical irritants, and further accusations that the department supplied the city police with pepper spray, they set forth to create a list of 12 proposed reforms to present to the UWPD in a scheduled meeting with campus police representatives. The reforms were suggested to make students safer, and many of them, including a ban on stop-and-frisk, chemical weaponry and impacts munitions, had already been implemented in police departments across the country.
“We had heard that they were willing to work with students so we were like, ‘Alright, well, maybe we can make some changes.’ So, we got a team together,” ASM Finance Chair Samuel Jorudd said. “We really thought we were going to actually get something productive done.”
The group scheduled a meeting with Chief Roman, Director of Communications Marc Lovicott, Assistant Chief of Operations Brent Plisch and several other members of the UWPD. ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick, who was present at the meeting, stated later that the UWPD disputed every reform that the student representatives put forward. In an attempt to compromise with the department, the team removed four of the reforms.
In their second meeting with the UWPD, the department remained nonetheless unresponsive to the students’ concerns. They took particular issue with a proposal to prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles. Confused by the department’s vehement response to their suggestions, Jorudd took another look at the proposals after the meeting adjourned.
“They just said that it's completely out of the realm of possibility and that it was ridiculous to ask. I thought that was weird. So I decided to do my own research and it turns out, the Los Angeles Police Department has completely banned shooting at moving vehicles. If the police force of our country's second-largest city can ban shooting at moving vehicles, I see no reason why a campus police force can't,” he said.
On the UWPD’s Racial Equity Initiative page, it directly addresses Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait project and lists each guideline and how the department is exempt from fully enacting several of the reforms. The UWPD policy is to allow officers to pursue these options if “the officer is justified,” from chokeholds and strangleholds to shooting at moving vehicles.
After the second meeting came to a close, with no agreement between the student representatives and the UWPD, Jorudd introduced a vote of no confidence to ASM that passed 9-5, with nine abstentions. The student government of UW-Madison had officially lost faith in its campus police.
Student activists take center stage
As ASM wrapped up its talks with the UWPD, student activists ramped up their efforts in addressing university administration.
The UW BIPOC Coalition, which Stangler co-founded, repeatedly called on UW to remove cops from UW-Madison as one of their central demands on behalf of students of color. In early October, the Coalition worked with the Teaching Assistants Association to hold rallies where both undergraduate and graduate students could voice their opposition to the continued presence of campus police.
“This system is held in white supremacist ideologies, it's held in abuse, it's held in neglecting communities. There's just no possibility of reform at this point,” Stangler stated.
In light of student organizations coming together against the UWPD, Mitnick announced via Twitter on Oct. 12 that he too supported abolishing — not reforming — the department. The campus police account soon responded, stating that Mitnick was sending them “#mixed messages” by saying he was in favor of doing away with the department after previously being a part of the ASM team’s efforts to reform the UWPD.
“There's political motives with their use of social media,” Mitnick recalled. “Up until that point, the whole narrative was about their department, having clear discrepancies and issues with standard operating procedures and with it participating in the suppression of student voices at peaceful demonstrations in the summer. They turned the narrative and made it about me.”
As the responses piled on, alumni and students alike accused the department of publicly shaming and trying to silence not only a student, but a member of the student government which represents all of the student body. Criticisms of UWPD’s conduct online also arose, with Mitnick pointing out that the tweet may very well be in violation of the department’s own social networking guidelines.
UWPD reaches out
Following ASM’s vote of no confidence, UWPD began to take a personal approach to its conflict with members of the student council.
Both Jorudd and Mitnick stated that Roman herself called the personal cell phone of one of his team members. Without the input of the rest of the team, Roman and the student decided to cancel further meetings.
Lovicott denied that Roman called a student privately, but stated that she had taken part in a call after “[Roman and the student] both agreed to speak on the phone as a more convenient and efficient means of communication.”
“This is the only ASM student with whom Chief Roman spoke [with] via phone last semester,” he held.
Additionally, Roman was in contact with students on the council including those opposed to the vote of no confidence, and allegedly worked with them to create tensions within the team.
In a meeting transcript provided by Mitnick, Roman referenced the emails she exchanged, stating that “at some point, I'm sure you will see through your Open Records requests.”
“Someone else on the student council reached out to us and said they were interested in working on this with us. And I was skeptical at first, because they were opponents of the vote of no confidence, but I thought I'd give them the benefit of the doubt,” Jorudd recollected. “I found out soon after I let them on the team that they'd been in contact with Roman, exchanging private emails.”
In that same meeting, the final meeting between UWPD and the members of ASM, the BIPOC Coalition was in attendance. Jorudd skipped the call, believing that no real reform efforts would take place. And sure enough, Stangler noted that nothing was resolved on either side. However, Roman did leave the team with an insight into how the UWPD chooses to engage with students, especially on its official social media.
“We use it to push information out. We use it to have fun and play ... There's banter,” she said.
The BIPOC Coalition’s founders, Stangler and Julianna Bennet, presented their concerns with the UWPD’s actions against the ASM Chair on Twitter and their department policies, but Roman offered no apology and little explanation during the meeting. Roman stated that she was receiving conflicting messages from other student groups, and was unsure how to proceed.
“While this group may have their set of priorities, there are other groups that I meet with and other feedback and exchanges that I have with other students,” she said.
Mitnick found the UWPD’s conduct “damning.”
“They really didn't give a shit about any student, because they've defended their tweets. They've defended their social media usage. They've even defended the clear issues in their department. They had no willingness to change,” he remarked.
While the UWPD severed its final ties from the ASM’s reform team, Jorudd expressed that it became abundantly clear that the department’s new direction was the result of hostility towards the student council’s declaration of no confidence.
“I told them explicitly that [the vote] was for what has been done previously by UWPD. This was not intended to interfere with going forward with the compromises in the work we were trying to do together, to hopefully try and re-instill trust and confidence in UWPD,” he said. “They obviously didn't see it that way.”
Lovicott stated that while the UWPD agrees that talks between the department, ASM and BIPOC Coalition were proving unhelpful, they nonetheless remain open to “continuing conversations with student leaders among other stakeholder groups.”
As the semester moved on, the department dealt with continued allegations of the degree of its involvement in the May protests.
The UWPD seemingly spread misleading information regarding an incident during the May protest, as the department stated on Twitter that they did indeed pepper spray protesters in downtown Madison, but only after “explosives, large rocks, bricks, bottles, etc.” were thrown at them. However, when asked for documented evidence of explosives being thrown at university police, the UWPD could only locate an incident report from three months later on Aug. 26 — an incident that involved the MPD, not the campus police.
In late October, as discussions regarding the department's involvement continued and new information came forward, the UWPD chose to update an open records request made by an individual affiliated with the university.
The request, originally made for documentation of “of any purchases goods and services over $500 made by the UWPD from 5/29/20 to 7/13/20” held several redacted items. After the information was shared among various campus and community groups, UWPD elected to release the updated purchase requests in a blog post. The updated record revealed a previously concealed $4,999 purchase of pepper spray to replenish stock following the George Floyd demonstrations.
The posting of the updated records requests occurred three weeks after Lovicott contacted the Daily Cardinal, insisting that the UWPD did not supply the MPD with pepper spray or any other chemical irritants for protests. He also made sure to point the Cardinal towards the Chief's statement that UWPD officers have only deployed pepper spray nine times in the past eight years, three of which occurred that night.
The department’s hefty purchase of chemical irritants was unrelated, Lovicott said.
Students look to spring semester for change
Still, as if serving as an ever-present reminder of ongoing tensions between students and the UWPD, the Thin Blue Line American flag remains hanging on campus — a symbol of what Roman referred to as an “us vs. them” mindset.
Roman wrote on her blog that the flag, flown in 2017 at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, in November at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Madison and among the insurrectionist mob that stormed the US Capitol building in January, was meant to symbolize a commitment to public service, not to “support white supremacist ideologies” or “shirk police accountability.”
The past semester, however, has only seemed to leave an impression on some students that the UWPD does not hold itself accountable to the population it’s meant to protect. Jorudd and Mitnick both hope that the student council can take additional actions towards the campus police in the future, actions that will have a greater impact on how the department operates.
“Hopefully we can actually make campus a safer place, especially for students of color, who are disproportionately affected. Everything this semester has shown that this campus doesn't care about students of color. It's hard not to get pissed,” Jorudd said.
While the UWPD claims to be open to working with students in the spring, student leaders hold that now is the time to sever ties with the campus police and pursue real change. Either through petitions to university administration or direct student council action, the UWPD has been put on notice.
Many students will no longer be pursuing reform this spring semester.
“We're not here to work with the UWPD anymore. We're here to be a voice for those on campus that are being abused,” Stangler concluded. “If we can eradicate that system from our campus and figure out alternative solutions, then we can finally change our campus for the better. But we can't reform the police anymore.”