Wisconsin Capitol chief plans protester crackdown


The Wisconsin Capitol’s new police chief said he plans to crack down on protesters who don’t follow the building’s rules because he wants to restore a sense of normalcy and safety to the statehouse.

Chief David Erwin told The Associated Press he has struck a deal with the state Justice Department to prosecute civil citations against protesters and plans to enforce dormant rules that require organized groups to obtain permits. The moves come after Dane County’s Democratic district attorney dismissed scores of tickets over the last year and a half.

Erwin said he respects the right to petition government but some protesters’ behavior has crossed into intimidation. For example, he said he was following a woman and her 5-year-old granddaughter through the Capitol after he was hired last month when a protester screamed, scaring the girl enough that she wanted to leave.

“There are some incidents where we have some protesters who are really pushing the envelope,” Erwin said. “I understand it’s a political environment and some people feel that they have the right to do that, but there’s a line.”

Democrats immediately cried foul, calling Erwin’s tactics heavy-handed.

“These policies are designed to intimidate people,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “This guy looks like he’s going to stifle people’s ability to express themselves in peaceful ways around the Capitol.”

Protesters have become a fixture at the Capitol since February 2011, when thousands of people converged on the building for three weeks straight to demonstrate against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to limit public unions’ collective bargaining rights. The protesters became Democrats’ primary weapon in their fight against the measure, drawing national attention to the issue.

The Republican-controlled Legislature eventually passed the plan, but a number of protesters haven’t let it go. They’ve spent the last 18 months disrupting legislative committee meetings and spewing insults at Republican lawmakers, sometimes even chasing them down the corridors.

The legislative session ended in March, and Walker scored a resounding victory in June’s recall elections, which he touted in a speech to the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28.

But the protesters remain undaunted. They wander the halls hooting “Who’s John Doe,” a reference to a secret investigation Milwaukee prosecutors have launched into some of Walker’s former aides, and gather in the rotunda almost every day to shout anti-Walker songs, punctuated with random shrieks that reverberate off the building’s marble walls.

According to the Department of Administration, a Walker cabinet agency that oversees the Capitol Police, officers have issued protesters 159 citations for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest since February 2011. A little more than two dozen were for criminal violations; the rest were civil citations.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, has dismissed 118 of the citations, including 12 criminal charges and 106 civil tickets. When asked why so many citations have been dismissed, the district attorney said in an email that his office looks at every case individually and whether prosecutors can meet the burden of proof.

Enter Erwin.

Walker’s administration hired the retired Marine and Wisconsin State Patrol veteran in July to replace outgoing Chief Charles Tubbs. Erwin already has plans to reform the department, banning beards and goatees and ordering new uniforms with traditional police dress hats.

Erwin said Ozanne’s office is overworked. He reached an agreement with Ozanne and the state Justice Department last week that calls for the district attorney to handle criminal complaints against the protesters and the Justice Department to handle civil violations. The agency, led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, already has taken over two citations against protest leader Jeremy Ryan.

The new chief also promised to start enforcing administration rules requiring groups of four or more gathered to promote a cause to obtain a permit and making applicants liable for damage and police protection costs.

The administration drew up the rules in December, but held off on enforcing them after the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about their constitutionality and threatened to sue. DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said Monday that court decisions in other states have upheld the permit process. It’s unclear when Erwin will begin enforcement.

Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, applauded the chief.

“I don’t think anyone who wants to express their opinion through their right of freedom of speech will be stopped,” Kleefisch said. “But those who are there just to heckle, scream, denigrate, breaking the rules, should be and apparently will be stopped.”

ACLU spokeswoman Stacy Harbaugh said the organization plans to watch how Capitol Police implement the crackdown.

Ryan said he welcomes any fight.

“Anytime individuals want to express their grievances against the government, the government does have an interest in shutting that down,” Ryan said. “We know what we’re doing is legal. They can send whoever they want (to prosecute the protesters). We’re not going anywhere.”