History, backstory, and possibly necessary disclosure. First of all I support the Oxford comma. Now that the most controversial statement has been made I can move on.
I think the following is necessary because of the events and dialogue that are currently infused into our lives stemming from the tragic shooting in Madison. All of our back yard.
I have old school ties to the Madison Police Department. My dad was a police officer in the 70’s and 80’s. He did patrol and some undercover work until an injury took him off the street. During that time we would often visit on the 3-11 shift, bring him supper from The Parthenon or Zorba’s before the roach content in the burritos became too high for human consumption, and we would hang out with the officers. As a kid this was the coolest thing we could do. They all knew us. A few years later he retired because of the same injury and we moved away from Madison. We had a party at our new house and it seemed the whole department was there including the horses. It was a grand affair. Each year after for sometime we would attend the police picnic in Madison and those ties remained in tact. Being around those cops was always comfortable and familiar.
Soon that started to taper off. Those ties faded. Friends from the department who would come hunting on our land stopped showing up and it was evident that being part of that world was difficult for my dad. My mind was set however. That is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a cop, but not just any cop, a Madison Police Officer. To me they were the standard by which other departments should strive to operate. Yes I was biased. I probably still am. Okay to be honest I know I am.
So after barely graduating high school I enrolled in Police Science at MATC. For all the youngsters that program is now called Criminal Justice. I went through the academy taking the Defense and Arrest Tacticts, Firearms, and Defensive Driving. As an aside the driving portion was completed at the 151 Speedway and that was a wicked good time. Then I did my internship. Anyone want to venture a guess where? Oh yes. The Madison Police Department. I was able to spend my time in the Special Investigation Unit. I think we all have moments in our lives when we experience something we know most people will never get the chance to see. This was but one of those moments. It only further galvanized what I already knew. This was the path for me.
Even back then I could see the divide that existed between races and classes of people. I was not able to identify it as racism at the time, I am not even sure when that word officially entered my vocabulary but it was there. On ride alongs there were special rules and warnings for patrolling certain neighborhoods disguised as safety measures. It was made clear to me that some black officers at the time who were making strides in the hierarchy were only able to do so because of the color of their skin. One eventually ascended to the highest post and that takes skill, experience, respect, and professionalism. Race cannot explain it. Unfortunately when I heard of his promotion, what I heard years earlier was the first thing I thought of. It shaped and informed my view. These incidents were few but they were apparent and they stuck with me. At every other turn, the good in the department outweighed the bad.
I also spent a winter writing alternate side parking tickets for the city. Again, it felt like home. Life would eventually move me around but this goal was always in sight. I ended up living in Northern Wisconsin and became a correctional officer for the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department. I was living in Manitowish Waters at the time. I looked for jobs around the community and was also working on becoming a volunteer EMT. Because of this I was promptly introduced to a whole new language of racism. It was so new and pervasive that when the person I met to discuss the ambulance service told me about the Native American population we would be working with he did not say Native Americans or Indians. He threw out the term prairie ni****s. This was so ok with him that in our first meeting, in nearly his first sentence about the job, he said it. My response? None. Not because I was shocked but because I had no idea what he meant. The last part of that word sounded familiar but I had no frame of reference for the concept. It was completely over my head. I still became the EMT and later worked for the county.
My fellow officers were a stellar bunch. And I wish there was a font for sarcasm. Not all were bad but a majority had no business working with people let alone inmates, let alone one of our primary populations, Native Americans. The racism wasn’t as overt but it bubbled easily below the surface. My colleagues had developed a philosophy of fight first because there was no need to ask for compliance politely. That would never work. Well guess what? It always worked. Those inmates who I was told would rip me apart if I tried to talk to them alone? Great conversations with good people who made shitty choices along the way. You could almost write an algorithm on it. It just didn’t fit into the racist, macho, white, asshole narrative that seemed to be the singular commonality between many of these officers. After less than a year an opportunity arose to be part of the private security at a private boarding high school near Land O’ Lakes. I knew a thing or two about that and after seeing the campus I had to take the job. Law enforcement was still my end game. Before I left the county I met with the Sheriff and told him my plan and motivation. He was supportive and said that he would consider my return should I reapply and we would talk about training for the deputy side of things at that time. All was well.
Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and when you don’t play baseball, that somebitch will hit you square in the neck. I got up one morning to get ready for work at the school and was brushing my teeth. I swallowed and noticed a nice lump off center. I asked my ex-wife if it looked normal, knowing the answer. Short story here: doctor, doctor, doctor, scan, blood work, test, test, inconclusive nasty fluid drained from my neck, and two open-neck surgeries within 5 days to remove a cancerous thyroid changed the course of things. They had to open me up from ear to ear twice that week. The highlight was having kids stare at the fresh scar and me looking mean about it.
That was the year of tests and medication trials and changes and scans and radiation. All of which messes with the hormones and can drive a person pretty batty. It wasn’t fun. Neither was I. By the end of that year I had been notified I was being laid off from the school as my job was being outsourced. I had a decision to make. With monthly blood tests and semi annual scans for a while I decided the law enforcement route was done. I had to do something else.
I knew I had a particular talent for the people part of law enforcement. But I wanted to be preventative. I wanted to help before things got to the point where people got in trouble. Social work was pretty logical. I went back to school for that.
I have lived and worked in northern Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota but Southwest Wisconsin is home. Madison is a place I will go and drive around just to be around those old familiar places every now and again. Atwood avenue, Fair Oaks, Olbrich park and Gardens. None of it very far from Willy street. When I started showing my wife, Stefanie around, Willy street was a place we visited and will continue to visit. After high school I lived at 1314 East Wilson for a couple of years next to a psychic and was neighbors with a converted school bus. These were my neighbors. These were my neighborhoods.
At the same time, MPD officers were my family and friends. And in some strange way the memory of all of them still are. I pay close attention to what happens there. I always have. MPD is not perfect. No police department is. Guess what? It’s because they are people. But dammit I think they are giving it a pretty good effort. One of the biggest complaints when I was at MATC was from white males who wanted to get a job there. They were complaining that you had to be gay at that time to be hired. Diversity. My greatest mentors there were Hispanic and African American. Although the old guard that came up with my dad were the white male cops for the most part.
So here we stand. Two worlds colliding. Each screaming for people to take sides and me with a stake in each. I have history with both. This is why I call for reason and patience while evidence and facts are evaluated.
Whatever the outcome, it is worth repeating. We need our police to be safe. We need our neighbors to be safe.
At the end of the day my family is affected by the greater narrative here and the fallout from acts which have shown time and again to be tied to and entrenched in institutionalized racism. And I will stand up for my family in whatever capacity necessary to ensure that the right truth is realized from the facts. I do not want to take sides. For once I want the sides to blend and meld and work together. But if we must, we shall.