Protesters soon will find the Capitol a less forgiving place for some civil disobedience, according to its new top cop.
Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief David Erwin said Monday he will soon begin clamping down on protesters, strictly enforcing the Capitol's rules in an effort to restore normalcy and safety to a building that has become home to regular demonstrations.
"I need to make this building safe," he said. "I need to make this building where it is something all the citizens can enjoy, not just a select few."
Stacy Harbaugh, ACLU of Wisconsin spokeswoman, said the approach could infringe free speech. "We are very concerned about this kind of enforcement," she said. "We have to ask if it is targeted."
The news came during Erwin's first round of official media interviews as the new chief. The 49-year-old took over on July 23 for Charles Tubbs, who left to become Dane County's emergency management director.
Tubbs garnered praise for his handling of the massive protests that flooded the Capitol in February 2011. Then, thousands of people filled the historic Rotunda round-the-clock for almost a month straight, turning the grounds into a sort of protest village.
Critics said Tubbs coddled protesters. Some even blame his light touch for what has become the near-daily protests at the Capitol, which also is a tourist destination and working museum.
Erwin, a 10-year member of the Marines hired by state Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, worked for 16 years in the State Patrol. He brings to his new job a strict sense of discipline and formality.
He soon will have Capitol Police officers wearing official hats and is considering updating the uniform. He also got the Department of Justice to agree to handle the civil cases coming out of arrests at the Capitol, a move meant to deal with the slew of cases left unprosecuted by the Dane County District Attorney's Office.
Erwin would not say exactly when the crackdown will begin, but the move seems at least partially aimed at protesters such as the "Solidarity Singers," a group of people who gather four days a week in the Rotunda to sing songs of opposition to Gov. Scott Walker.
In December, the Department of Administration instituted a rule that required groups of four or more to get permits to protest at the Capitol. Tubbs took a lenient approach to the singers, allowing them to check daily with police before singing. Erwin plans to follow the book a little more closely.
"We have to manage this space," he said. "People love this building. And they want to come here, and some want to petition the government, and that's great. I support that 100 percent. Just get a permit."
The DOA has issued 355 permits this year, and denied only two. Last year, the department issued more than 400 permits.
Harbaugh said Monday that Tubbs never enforced the "four-person" rule because it was "ridiculous."
"The way they were handling it was working up until now, and the only thing that has changed is we have a new chief," she said. But according to Erwin, he has heard of, and witnessed, too many incidents involving protesters and Capitol workers and visitors.
"There has to be some consequences," he said. "You have to have rules. You cannot stalk people, or go into an office and go around their desk and intimidate employees. These are real stories."
According to Jeremy Ryan, a Capitol protester well-known for traveling around the building on a Segway, a crackdown would violate protesters' First Amendment rights. Ryan said the protesters he knows have always stayed within the bounds of the Constitution.
"I don't think there is much (the police) can legally do," he said, adding, "We are ready to go up against it."