Wes Sparkman, who served on the city's Police and Fire Commission from 2008-18, said Police Chief Mike Koval is passionate about his work and for serving the public, which can be difficult to see from a role that requires management and administrative responsibilities.

The outspoken, at-times unfiltered Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has inspired strong supporters and detractors over the past five years and four months.

While some say Koval is doing the best he can to lead a law enforcement agency and build bridges in the community, others argue his bluster and reaction to criticism is problematic.

Attention focused on Koval in 2016 after he published a scathing blog post about the City Council funding a $400,000 study of police department practices. His behavior at a subsequent City Council meeting landed him in front of the Police and Fire Commission after two community members filed a complaint against him.

In support of Koval and the MPD, a group cropped up to “defend the defenders” of Madison and its members spread bright yellow “We Support the Madison Police” yard signs around the city.  

Anthony Cooper, a member of the Focused Interruption Coalition and re-entry coordinator at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership, said Koval is “in a hard place,” navigating a tough line between leading a police agency while also working with communities that have historically not trusted law enforcement.

Cooper said Koval has improved the trust between police and some communities, but not all, and is striving to make connections with African Americans and Latinos.

But others think Koval has maintained a divide between the police department and city residents. Greg Gelembiuk, a frequent speaker at City Council meetings, said he sees Koval as a “champion for police” rather than “chief of police for all Madison.”

“That mode has widened the ‘us versus them’ divide, where he really should be seeking to close that divide,” Gelembiuk said.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway recently appointed Gelembiuk to the MPD Policy Procedure & Review Ad Hoc Committee, a controversial move. Gelembiuk said he spoke to The Cap Times as an individual and not as a member of the committee, which is preparing to release its final recommendations.

Gelembiuk is also a member of the Community Response Team, which formed following the officer-involved shooting of Paul Heenan in 2012 to address policing and public safety issues

Gelembiuk remembers the first time he encountered Koval — and his temper — in a public meeting in 2014. Gelembiuk said he asked Koval a question about how to reduce the frequency of officer-involved shootings in Madison and the chief “exploded.”

Fellow CRT member Amelia Royko-Maurer said that incident demonstrated how Koval can be overcome by his emotions which “repeatedly get the best of him.”  

Gelembiuk also pointed to Koval’s response to policy changes from a City Council workgroup. Koval said in a May 2017 memo that the council was seeking to direct police operations — “a dangerous precedent,” Koval said

By state law, the chief is required to follow any “lawful written orders of the mayor or the common council.”

Gelembiuk is confident that recommendations from the ad hoc committee and a consulting firm that studied the police department, which include a periodic performance review of the chief, would improve the MPD.

“I would deeply hope that Koval is receptive to the committee's recommendations,” Gelembiuk said.

Former Police and Fire Commission member Wes Sparkman, who served from 2008-18, said Koval is passionate about his work and for serving the public, which can be difficult to see from a role that requires management and administrative responsibilities.  

Sparkman, who was involved in Koval’s hiring process, said the chief’s “care for humanity” stands out. With Koval’s background as a trainer in the police academy, Sparkman said the commission expected him to translate those characteristics to his role as chief.

“I think that he has still served that role and has been vital in that role and has tried to deal with the nuance of contemporary policing,” Sparkman said.

Koval was a sergeant when he was promoted and bypassed the traditional ladder of moving from lieutenant to captain to assistant chief. Royko-Maurer said this did not allow Koval the opportunity to learn how to deal publicly with criticism. She called him a cheerleader who does not accept criticism well.

“There’s a place for a mascot, and there’s a place for a chief,” Royko-Maurer said. “His inability to process criticism in a healthy manner has been really bad for his department.”

Dane County Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson highlighted Koval’s daily blog as an area for improvement.

“The rhetoric in those blogs could be defensive, and that is one piece of advice I would give him, is to be very mindful of the content in which he writes,” Johnson said.  

When tension from a police incident spills over into the community, Johnson said Koval has been responsive.

For instance, Johnson called Koval after officers used force during the arrest of teenager Genele Laird outside of East Towne Mall in 2016. Johnson recommended Koval meet with Laird’s family, which had been trying to reach the chief.

“(Koval) responded right away, and I appreciated that,” Johnson said. “On the flip side, while he met with everybody, we heard feedback: ‘Why did it take a community leader?’”

Johnson also recalled Koval accompanying him to meet with the mother of Tony Robinson, who was shot and killed in 2015 by a Madison police officer.

“Some people didn’t like it, but he tried to extend an olive branch and I appreciated him going over there,” Johnson said. “I would say I think he tries, but sometimes it’s difficult being an urban police chief.”

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