Skip to content Skip to footer

Lessons From the Original Occupation: Madison’s Sheriff Dave Mahoney

On February 11, 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill that would limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, require 100 percent voter participation in union recertification and end the state's practice of withholding and reimbursing union dues. The bill was perceived as a deathblow to public-employee unions and prompted massive, sustained and peaceful protests inside and outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in the winter of 2011.

On February 11, 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill that would limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, require 100 percent voter participation in union recertification and end the state's practice of withholding and reimbursing union dues. The bill was perceived as a deathblow to public-employee unions and prompted massive, sustained and peaceful protests inside and outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in the winter of 2011.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is a 31-year law enforcement veteran. As the elected sheriff of the county surrounding Madison, he was one of the top-ranking officials responsible for public safety during the protests, which at times topped 100,000 people. With the Occupy Wall Street movement spreading across the country and with damaging videos of police overreaction, (see video below) he sat down with Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) to discuss lessons learned from the Wisconsin experience.

Public Safety Before Marble

CMD: As “occupy” protests are popping up all over the country, Wisconsin is often referred to as the “original occupation.” Would you share with us some of the lessons you learned dealing with crowds of 100,000, as well as with the physical occupation of the Capitol building?

Sheriff Dave Mahoney: Absolutely. Within the Sheriff's department we have almost 600 employees, and almost 500 of those are sworn deputies, from Command all the way down to Street Deputies, and within that we have a specialized unit which we refer to as our special events team. Those are the individuals who are called upon to keep the peace during large events. Historically, it's been the Mifflin Street block party, the annual Halloween Party, and then different demonstrations that may occur throughout the year. Based on information given to us by the Capitol Police Department and the request for the Sheriff's office to assist, we began preparing the special events team for what we thought would be for a short period of time … which in actuality grew to several months. But what we put in place with those teams is something that we had based our entire philosophy of law enforcement upon, and that's communication and protecting individual rights.

As we were asked to stand by on what I refer to as the “terrace” area of the Capitol, which is the area surrounding the doors that give you immediate entry into the Capitol, I jumped at the chance because I knew that if an incident occurred, it would be at that location. And I wanted the men and women of the Dane County Sheriff's office to be in that position because we pride ourselves on our ability to communicate and work through stressful, oftentimes highly charged incidents. I knew that we would come through with a positive outcome.

As the incident continued, we started to utilize law enforcement from all over the state; there were well over 2000 police officers from around the state involved in keeping the peace. The number one direction that was provided by Chief Tubbs of the Capitol Police Department, Chief Wray of the Madison Police and myself was that we were going to ensure that it was a safe gathering, and that we were not going to be protecting marble; we were going to be protecting people's rights to assemble and their right to free speech, because we knew this was a highly charged gathering.

Experience and Communication

CMD: What makes a good deputy in these circumstances?

DM: I pride myself on the fact that each of our deputies begins their career working in the Dane County jail. Our inmate population doesn't want to be there, so we're dealing with highly charged emotional issues. This is one of the training grounds for the members of our special events team. Some of them are very experienced, very seasoned, deep into their careers, but we also have brand new deputies and across the board their response and the behaviors, and really the mission, is unified, and it is to protect people, and the safety and security of individuals, as our top priority. That was a commitment throughout this incident by command level law enforcement. We were there knowing that people were directly impacted by some of the decisions being made and that it had a personal impact on their lives.

By reaching out to individual leaders within the groups that gathered, having that initial communication and discussion about what our expectations were and recognizing their expectations and desires, we were able to come to common ground. We worked with individuals on both sides of the issue. Not just those who gathered and were directly impacted, but also by those who were supportive of everything that went on and those who were not supportive. For example, there was a gathering early on with busloads of people from the Tea Party. They wanted equal time speaking. They immediately contacted law enforcement, both the Madison Police and our office, talking about how they feared for their safety. Throughout that weekend there were no incidents – our deputies were present throughout that gathering, and they had their rights and freedom of speech protected just as well.

CMD: The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Capitol to be kept open while legislative business is being conducted. Democratic legislators held a continuous hearing on the collective bargaining bill around the clock for many days. Still, some were surprised that protesters were allowed to stay in the building. Can you explain why the authorities decided to allow people to sleep at the Capitol?

No One Was Injured and No Property Was Damaged

DM: It goes back to the original decision that we were there to protect the rights of people, not protect marble. There wasn't a belief that this would go on for an extended period of time, but I think all the law enforcement leaders there agreed that it was no problem allowing people to remain in the Capitol. We would meet regularly with the leadership of the protesting groups and talk about ensuring that government business could continue to go on, but that we would guarantee the right to speak and to remain in the Capitol.

I think law enforcement felt very strongly about this, right up until the last days when eventually the Capitol was vacated, at first for cleaning purposes. There was a need to do that. There had been large numbers of people, food providers, etc. and the building needed to be cleaned. We recognized that from a standpoint of freedom of speech, with people putting up placards and posters, that those could remain up. In the end, the vast majority of the posters were turned over to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

At the end of the day, most people left under their own accord. But some people said they wanted to stay to make a point, they wanted to be carried out. And we successfully accomplished that as well. No law enforcement officers were injured, no protesters were injured, there was no damaged property. There were no reports of police brutality, no complaints, I really just feel it was a success on all aspects.

Not the “Palace Guard”

CMD: Perhaps one of the more famous comments you made was about the your deputies not wanting to serve as a “palace guard.” Would you tell us what prompted that statement?

DM: This occurred after the Capitol had been closed for cleaning and protesters were assured that they could reenter the Capitol on Monday morning. The unions had requested a court order that the Capitol be opened because there had been discussions that it be closed during certain hours. The court issued a temporary order that the Capitol be open pending a hearing. When the building remained closed, people started to get upset, gathering at the doors, pushing at the doors. Deputies started questioning “Why aren't we opening, what's our responsibility?” I was contacted. I went over to the Capitol. As the Dane County Sheriff, who knew that there was a circuit court order to open the Capitol, I made the statement that our deputies would not be palace guards, and that we would not be taking part in violating a court order. As a sworn officer, it's my duty to take every measure to uphold a court order. Our people were pulled from the doors and remained on the terrace. We still had a responsibility to protect everyone there, but we pulled back from the doors. And then at 1 o'clock the doors finally opened.

CMD: Concluding thoughts?

DM: This was a momentous occasion – not only in state history but one that will go down in national history and probably internationally. The goal of law enforcement was to protect the rights of the people while at the same time ensuring a safe and orderly gathering and allowing normal business to go on. I think how things took place in Madison, Wisconsin is an example of how law enforcement can successfully achieve both goals, not only in this state but across the country.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?