By Jason Huberty, Arthur Kohl-Riggs, Nicole Schulte, and Craig Spaulding
The mission statement of the Wisconsin State Capitol Police could not be more clear.
The Wisconsin Capitol Police Department is committed to providing the highest quality of personalized services to all who live, work, visit, and learn in our State. We believe in the dignity of all people and respect individual and constitutional rights in fulfilling this mission. We are committed to working cooperatively with the public to preserve peace, protect life and property, reduce the fear of crime, and provide needed services to the State of Wisconsin.
In theory, their mission is to protect and serve. In practice, their efforts are to intimidate and harass.
In the last two weeks, 21 tickets have been issued to 13 people from blood donors who held small signs and t-shirts to participants of the Solidarity Sing Along who held banners, and in one case the gathering’s conductor. One person was even taken to the Dane County jail for his second arrest. Listen to him relate his story just before another peaceful sign-holder is taken away in handcuffs by a group of 8 armed officers.
The citations have been issued under parts of the Wisconsin Administrative Code that have not previously been used for decades and include 2.07(2) “unlawful display of signs”, 2.08(1)(b) “introduction of equipment and hazards”, and 2.14(2)(v) “obstruct access, passage, ect. [sic] (no permit)”.
The Capitol Police have not given citizens warnings, nor have they told them they will be ticketed for specific conduct. Repeated requests by citizens and media for interviews with Chief Erwin and phone calls to the Department of Administration media line have gone unanswered. Michael Kissick, an occasional legal observer for the ACLU who attends the Sing Along, cannot understand why Chief Erwin or the officers he supervises can’t even answer simple questions:
Recent events have sent the Rotunda into a Kansas tornado as citizens wonder if they will be arrested for simply going to the Capitol.
The Capitol Police have used intimidation and harassment to dramatic effect in the last week.
On Tuesday, Capitol Police Officers Mitch Steingraeber and Andrew Hyatt sought out two citizens hours after their alleged violations of code had ended. Bart Munger was visited at his place of work on the UW Campus while Ryan Scot Conner found the same two officers waiting for him at home after work.
In a month where the Capitol Police have changed enforcement tactics on a daily basis, citizens have become inured to the blatant harassment and intimidation.
Wednesday, the police took their tactics to a new low and threatened an ACLU legal observer Mary Ellen Schutz with arrest for obstruction for having taken down police badge numbers and observed the police. Schutz explains what happened to her. These actions constitute the basis for legal observation. The act of threatening a grandmother with arrest reaches a whole new low for the Capitol Police.
Mary Ellen had this to say to WCMC about her experience: “You would think that the Capitol Police would be interested, for their own protection, in having the fact that they are on duty here at the Capitol documented, just as people who are here as individuals wanting to voice Free Speech. I was horrified that this was not the case and that for some reason, some of the officers did not want it to be documented, that their badge numbers and they were on duty here that day.”
Wisconsin citizens are not alone in their attempts to retain 1st amendment rights at the Wisconsin State Capitol. On Wednesday, Senate and Assembly Democrats sent letters to Chief Erwin and DoA Secretary Mike Huebsch demanding meetings to address a number of issues related to the recent crackdown. Chief Erwin and DoA assistant Wendy Coomer for their part have been unwilling to answer basic questions or provide a set of guidelines for permitted behavior in the Capitol.
On Thursday, the Capitol Police warned citizens of arrest for obstruction for following police who were filming the singers, and they pursued 74 year old Mary Beth Schlagheck outside of the building.
Mary Beth was carrying a bag full of song books used by people who attend the Sing Along. According to eyewitness Karen Tuerk, “They said they were told the she organized today’s event and that she did not get a permit to to do so. She said that she did not–she was just in the neighborhood and dropped by to sing, and she was just returning the song books.” Tuerk continues, “They asked her who gave her the songbooks and she said that she did not care to give out that information. They told her that they would be investigating her and did she understand that. She answered that she understood that they were doing their jobs and doing what they were told.”
WCMC reached Mary Beth by phone later in the afternoon and recorded an interview with her. This is what she said about her interaction with the officers: “They were about learning who’s the leader (of the Sing Along), what their names were, what was in the red bag… this is just totally bizarre… but I was shaken, I was really shaken.”
The week is not over. On Friday, the Solidarity Sing Along meets outside on the Capitol Lawn.
Will we see an attempt by Chief Erwin and the Capitol Police to enforce the State Facilities Access Policy to the outdoor gathering should the number of participants exceed 100? Or will new requirements of a permit for the folksy band Moldy Jam at the West side Farmer’s Market mean enforcement for the sing along regardless of its size? While the DoA and Erwin continue to spin the Wheel of Citations, Wisconsin citizens fight back to retain their constitutionally protected rights.