Madison Police Chief Mike Koval’s sudden retirement announcement Sept. 29 launched a process to find the next head of the police department and also name an official interim chief.
The vacancy in the Madison Police Department’s top spot also comes as Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway proposed funding an independent police auditor position and as a city committee is preparing to formally offer a full slate of recommendations to the MPD.
On Friday, the Police and Fire Commission met in closed session to discuss which officer would act as chief until a new, permanent head of police is appointed. Commissioners voted to address the issue at the next meeting Oct. 14.
“The motion to table is so the matter can be addressed at the next meeting,” PFC attorney Jenna Rousseau said.
As outlined in one of the board’s rules, in the event of a vacancy in the chief position, the commissioners “shall promptly designate a department officer to act as chief during the pendency of the appointment.”
Until then, Assistant Chief Vic Wahl is serving as acting chief. City Attorney Mike May said that when the chief’s position opens, the highest ranking assistant chief takes over until the PFC officially appoints an officer to act as chief.
Wahl started working for the Madison Police Department in 1991 with stints as a patrol officer and member of the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force. As a commander, Wahl has served on Professional Standards & Internal Affairs, as captain of the West District and on the department's SWAT team.
According to his MPD bio, Wahl has provided legal instruction to police officers for more than two decades as an active member of the State Bar, helped bring less lethal force technologies to the department and was involved in the development of the MPD’s K9 unit and the formation of Capital K9s.
In Wahl’s first message to the public Oct. 1, Wahl chose to recognize Koval and listed what he viewed as major accomplishments. Among the items on the list, Wahl noted that MPD’s commissioned personnel grew by 30 during Koval’s tenure, funding was secured for the Midtown District Station and his participation in an external evaluation process conducted by the OIR Group.
“Over the course of his 35 year career with MPD, Chief Koval has had a significant impact on the department and the community,” Wahl said. “I am personally grateful for the leadership he has provided, and it is clear to me that he moved MPD forward during his time as chief.”
Koval’s announcement that he would immediately retire came as a surprise. He published the news on his blog Sept. 29, and his resignation became effective the next day. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she learned the news the same day the public did.
“I learned over the weekend that the chief was going to retire just like everybody else, and I haven’t heard anything directly from him about why,” Rhodes-Conway said Oct. 2 during a press conference announcing her 2020 operating budget proposal.
She said she and Wahl have a good relationship and that she hopes to have a positive working relationship with the next chief.
“My hope remains what it has always been which is that I’ll be able to work collaboratively with every single one of my departments,” Rhodes-Conway said.
It is unclear when the city will see a new police chief. The decision is under the purview of the PFC, which is empowered by state statutes to hire police and fire chiefs, fire them and hold disciplinary hearings when necessary. The commission also oversees the hiring and promotion process for other department personnel.
Rousseau said she could not comment on the specifics of the recruitment and hiring process.
“I anticipate that there will be opportunities for public comment/input during this process,” Rousseau said. “Once the board determines the specific process it will follow, this information will be made available.
Former PFC member Wes Sparkman, who served from 2008-18 as a commissioner, underscored the importance of hearing from the community.
“Public input is critical part of the process and that was a primary concern during the previous effort to hire the chief,” Sparkman said. “I’m very positive that that’s going to be a very important conversation this time around as well.”
Madison’s PFC is comprised of five individuals appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council to five-year terms. The commission’s chief hiring decision does not require approval from city elected officials.
Of the commission members, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway appointed one, Jacquelyn Boggess. Nia Enemuoh-Trammell, Kevin Gundlach and Trent Jackson were appointed by former mayor Paul Soglin. Fabiola Hamdan was first appointed by former mayor Dave Cieslewicz and reappointed by Soglin twice.
“The individuals representing the Police and Fire Commission are just citizens,” Sparkman said. "They’re community servant volunteers who are really trying to use their own opinion but also really get an idea of what the public is thinking about, the needs for the city and which direction to go in.”
Koval’s swan song blog post illustrated the frustration he has felt as chief over adding police officers and the protectiveness he feels over the department.
In August, Koval said in a Cap Times interview that had grown weary of constantly defending the department.
“I feel outnumbered from the standpoint of those who are critical,” Koval said. "I feel that there are those in elected offices that are intensely critical of the police.”
In several interviews with local media following his retirement announcement, Koval said he wanted to avoid a fight over the 2020 budget. Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, said Koval had "lost hope" in working with the mayoral administration.
"The frustrations have been growing and growing," Skidmore said.
Skidmore said the "crushing blow" for Koval was realizing the mayor's budget priorities.
Rhodes-Conway did not include Koval’s requested funding for 10 new officers in her operating budget proposal for next year. Koval said in his blog post that the MPD is short 31 officers and efforts to address that by diverting specialized positions to patrol are “not sustainable.”
“I have tried ... educating (councils and mayors), and appealed to the media to focus a light on the issue,” Koval said in his blog post. “But I couldn’t get it done.”
In a major policy change, Rhodes-Conway included $200,000 for an independent auditor position on a recommendation from the Madison Police Department Policy Procedure & Review Ad Hoc Committee, which is completing a full report of recommendations for the police department.
The mayor did authorize the MPD to apply for federal COPS grants, which would allow the department to hire more officers. Without the COPS grants, no new officers would be added in the 2020 budget, Rhodes-Conway said.
The mayor also included $150,000 for annual wellness and mental health checks for all MPD commissioned and civilian staff and $65,000 for a program meant to improve the quality of interactions between police officers and those who have, or may have, mental health concerns.
Both these items were requested by the MPD and are recommendations of ad hoc committee. The group’s full report is expected Oct. 15.