City Beautification


In Waukesha, Wisconsin, the city officials are dreaming of a pretty downtown, with fixed-up buildings, a rejuvenated business district, and none of those loud, alcoholic, pee-in-the-stairwell types who populate run-down city centers across the country. Rather than merely pine for such a place, police in this small city of about 62,000 just west of Milwaukee plan to ban people who have committed a crime in the downtown area from setting foot on its streets ever again.

Called "mapping out," the new law is sort of a geographic restraining order. To qualify, someone must be arrested for a crime committed within the downtown ban zone. Then police will look at the suspects' background to see if they have a history of committing crimes in downtown–or even non-criminal behavior that happens to be annoying, such as drunkenness, noisiness, or boisterousness. If they fit the profile, they won't be allowed back downtown upon conviction.

Early this year, this unique rule caught the attention of local newspapers. Milwaukee writer Joel McNally opined in the Madison Capital Times that "Waukesha law enforcement authorities have come up with a nifty plan to adapt some of the handy tools of a totalitarian government to clamp down on the wanton freedom of citizens in a democracy." He also likened the geographic prohibition to ethnic cleansing, positing that police would inevitably target racial minorities.

Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher argues that the ban is not that different from the already accepted practices of prohibiting sex offenders from the areas where they committed their crimes or keeping convicted retail thieves from returning to the stores they stole from. Law enforcement won't go after people "willy-nilly in a certain geographical area," Bucher says. "We're being very selective." To back this up, he points out that his office has already rejected the few candidates for exile that police selected in the first month of the ban.

Nonetheless, the county's public defender is concerned about the new system, noting that police could use it to kick vaguely defined "undesirables" out of town. Since the ban has yet to be actually applied to anyone, it's unclear whether anyone will challenge it in court.