By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Less than two months into his tenure, new Capitol Police Chief Dave Erwin in the past two weeks has found himself in the headlines after police cited 11 protesters for displaying signs in the Capitol without a permit.
Erwin previously said he would enforce administrative rules more diligently than former Capitol police chief Charles Tubbs. While following through on his promise, some see Erwin’s tactics as undermining the First Amendment and a citizen’s right to protest.
Erwin, a former Marine and 16-year member of the Wisconsin State Patrol, sat down with Wisconsin Reporter to give his account of the activity at the Capitol since he’s arrived. Here’s what he said:
An account in one of the papers described an incident in which a young girl and her grandmother were harassed at the Capitol. Can you speak to that a little and describe the approach you’re taking as new Capitol police chief?
I had an incident on the second day I was here, where I was walking through the Capitol and I saw a grandmother and her granddaughter walking through the Capitol ahead of me a few paces, and I heard someone let out a really extremely loud scream in the Capitol.
And so what I saw was the little girl tell her grandmother, ‘Grandma, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this Capitol. I’m scared….’
And it was unfortunate. I watched a grandmother and her granddaughter coming here to have a positive experience at our state Capitol be frightened and startled and leave terrified.
And I knew right there what my mission was here. I knew that as new police chief my job was to make this building accessible to all. To the 5-year-old, to the grandmother, to the person taking a shortcut through the building, to whoever, to people petitioning their governor — government.
What’s been the disconnect with getting that message across?
In any situation, news media likes a good story. If they tell the entire facts that we support freedom of speech and that it doesn’t make maybe for good media sometimes, but it’s the truth. It’s just something that you have to do respectfully.
We just had a Red Cross event last week, three days in a row and the story is we had a crackdown. We didn’t have a crackdown. We had a permitted event that took place on the first floor of the rotunda.
I did receive complaints, and we are currently investigating where one of the nurses (said) she would never come back here again. She said people taunted her. They were disrespectful totally to her and were even calling her names.
And that is unacceptable. The people had a permit and they expect to be protected and we didn’t have that. And so we have a group of people that come here, and last week they were holding signs and they are part of this group that, for lack of a better word, are terrorizing people at this Capitol.
On Friday, 150 people descended here for the solidarity sing-along and no arrests were made. What was the difference in policy there?
The difference is resources. We didn’t have a permitted event, so we weren’t expecting 150 people to come, so what we have to do is protect the people that are here, the people that work in this building. So we have to patrol and protect and ensure everyone’s safety.
Where you have an event when you hand out song books and you meet every day, that’s not a spontaneous event. When the same players show up every day in participating in an event, whether that’s holding signs — that they’ve put a lot of labor of love into. Some of these signs are large, they’re many yards long and you know they meet here every noon hour and display them over the edge. It’s prohibited. It’s prohibited clearly. You don’t have a permit to do it and it’s prohibited. And so it has to stop.
How do you balance the enforcement of spontaneous protests we saw at the Capitol last year and the permitted activities we’ve discussed?
In the administrative codes we have an exemption for spontaneous events. Spontaneous events will occur and we will protect and there will be no enforcement actions.
But permitted events, if you have a permit, we have to share this building. We can’t let a few people — because they’re vocal — have their way here in this building and we’re not going to. And we’re going to move forward with enforcement. If you don’t have a permit, ask for one. It doesn’t cost anything to get a permit. I sign them all the time.
What about the difference in holding signs and, as you’re talking about, displaying signs?
I’m a law enforcement officer and you know we have court cases that happen every day and we adjust our enforcement to that. So we’re looking at it under review, but it also says there are some disclaimers or disqualifiers for that. It says if you’re part of a group of more than four ,that disqualifies you. This is clearly people that are with a group. So, there are disqualifiers and we’re going to look at those citations and evaluate what was issued and what was done last week, because that is new information to us as of Thursday.
Before deciding to go this route with enforcement, were you in contact with the administration? Did this directive come from them?
This has nothing to do with the (Gov. Scott) Walker administration … no one. Like I told you, I’m the police chief here. I’m the decision maker here. The first thing I did was look through our department. I saw we had a large number of cases that were dismissed. And I’m like, ‘What are we doing wrong?’
I looked — the administrative code was in place since 1979. So I’m like — what’s different? What did this administration change from the (former Gov. Jim) Doyle administration?
And you know what I find out — nothing. It’s written down and we’re moving forward with it.