April 24, 2014

Returning normalcy to the Capitol

While large crowds of protesters are no longer present at the Capitol on a daily basis, a handful still show up regularly. Capitol Police Chief David Erwin says some of them can be aggressive and disruptive to the point it makes others in the building feel unsafe, and he says it needs to stop.

Erwin, a former Marine and part of the State Patrol’s delegation protection team, took over as head of the Capitol Police force earlier this summer. While he was not in charge last year during the height of the protests over Governor Walker’s collective bargaining legislation, he wants to make sure that climate of contentious daily protests does not occur again.

Erwin says he supports freedom of speech and the First Amendment, but believes there is a difference between normal political discussions and the “screaming at someone, cussing at someone” that many in the Capitol have witnessed during much of the last Legislative session. He says some people don’t seem to know where that line is and cross it too often.

Erwin says he plans to crack down on protesters who cause frequent disturbances.

One way he plans to achieve that goal is a change in how cases are being prosecuted. During the last year and a half, Capitol Police have issued dozens of citations tied to disturbances in the building caused by protesters. They have ranged from videotaping lawmakers from the Assembly gallery to demonstrating during Legislative committee hearings. Most of those civil cases have been sent on to the Dane County District Attorney who has declined to pursue charges.

Erwin says an agreement has been reached that will have the state Department of Justice taking over prosecution of those cases, while any possible criminal cases will be referred to the district attorney.

Police will also be more active in enforcing state rules that require anyone demonstrating in or around the Capitol to obtain a permit 72 hours before the event. Many groups have been applying for those permits already. Of the 355 requests this year, all but two have been approved. One of those was denied because the location was actually on city property while the other was rejected because it conflicted with an already scheduled event.

Chief Erwin says his officers have a duty to make sure the building remains safe, so visitors and those who work in the Capitol do not feel threatened or intimidated. He worries that some of the more confrontational demonstrators could cause an escalating situation that could eventually result in violence.

Erwin says his goal is to see a sense of normalcy return to the Capitol.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:16)