The UW-Madison Public History Project published the results of a year-long research endeavor Monday morning, detailing the creation and contentious early years of an organization that may feel like it has been on campus forever:
The University of Wisconsin Police Department.
“We actually started our research in January of 2020, prior to George Floyd, because we believe this was an important topic, and it was something that people kept asking us for,” Project Director Kacie Lucchini Butcher explained. “That's why we chose to invest a lot of time and energy into it, because we really wanted to make sure that we did it justice.”
The Public History Project was met with plenty of challenges as research began on the UWPD, including multiple departmental reorganizations, the private nature of police communications and structures as well as “poor archival records.”
The UWPD started in the 1930s as a group of night watchmen in the Building and Grounds Department. Their main job was protecting the physical infrastructure of the university, looking for vandalism and ensuring buildings were locked and secure.
“If they saw a window that was broken into, they would look into it. If they found drunk students out after curfew, they would take them back to their dorms. But mostly, it was about protecting the physical infrastructure,” Butcher stated.
Over time, the duties of the watchmen expanded to investigating theft, filing incident reports and conducting traffic stops. Their power was granted by the Board of Regents, not through Dane County or the State of Wisconsin. If a case was found to violate city or state law, it would then be transferred to the appropriate authorities.
Despite its humble beginnings, multiple complaints were made by students and community members in the UWPD’s first ten years of operation. By the 1950s, the department faced public outcry and sharp criticism from local law enforcement. The project asks, “In the span of less than 15 years, how did the relationship between police and community sour?”
Instead of trying to cover the entirety of the campus police’s history, the Public History Project focused on what the researchers believed to be the root of mistrust in the UWPD.
The wide distrust stemmed from one officer in particular, and his name was Joseph Hammersley.
Officer Hammersley began his 20-year career at UWPD as a night watchman in 1938, then a police officer and finally, the department’s sole investigator. His time on campus was marked by controversy due to his coarse, unethical and illegal methods of policing. Under his leadership, the UWPD engaged in practices including, but not limited to, throwing leaded billy clubs at students, searching dormitories without warrants, threatening students with firearms and improperly handling student sex activity and homosexuality.
“There is an opinion article in the Wisconsin State Journal that compares him to the Gestapo. Then in 1943, the cab drivers of Madison threatened to go on strike unless Hammersley [was] fired, [and] they detail a long list of complaints about how they're being treated by Hammersley,” Butcher said.
In 1951, The Daily Cardinal editorial board published an op-ed expressing their disdain for the campus police practices. “Gruff, antagonistic, blunt and belligerent conduct has surrounded the police with a cloudy myth that cannot be refuted," the board wrote.
The UWPD formally reorganized in 1952 in an effort to “professionalize” the department, but to perhaps also distance the university from allegations of campus police misconduct. UWPD was moved from the Buildings and Grounds department and began reporting to the Vice President of Business and Finance. The department even moved to hire a full-time director to assume the role of Chief of Police.
According to the project, Hammersley’s behavior continued to be a problem for the university even after the complete reorganization. In 1953, Genevieve Dohse was deputized as the UWPD’s first female officer. She later lodged a formal complaint alleging misconduct by Hammersley and others within UWPD and soon resigned from her post.
Hammersley was never fired from the UWPD. Further, he was never punished or reprimanded by the university. Despite student and faculty calls for Hammersley’s dismissal, he remained on the force till he died in 1959 after his car rolled into a creek.
Hammersley is still hailed by the current department as a formidable figure in UWPD history, with Facebook posts made to honor his legacy.
“Today, Hammersley’s history has largely been rewritten by UWPD. He is often embraced as UWPD’s first police chief, though he never held this title,” the project reads. “In various UWPD annual reports, Hammersley’s actions are often celebrated, if not excused. Yet, the history [of] Hammersley’s behavior is instructive about the pattern of mistrust between the UW-Madison community and UWPD.”
The UWPD provided a statement to the Public History Project denouncing the actions of Hammersley while acknowledging the importance of learning from its history. “This blight does not represent today’s UWPD — your UWPD — in [spirit], policy or practice,” the department wrote.
Butcher hopes that this project will contribute to the Public History Project’s mission of bringing to light injustices and learning from the University’s past.
“What I like to tell people is we are not going to go a mile deep, we're gonna go a mile wide. We will not find every instance of discrimination, but what we're hoping to do is get people a more general awareness about some of this history,” Butcher said. “The broader goal is that we as a university will need to reckon with that history. We'll need to have a very serious conversation about what we want to do about it, and how we plan to enact historical forms of justice.”
The full text of “The Hammersley Method: The History of Mistrust between the UW-Madison Community and the UW-Madison Police Department” can be read online at the Public History Project website. Responses can be submitted at firstname.lastname@example.org.