Much of the coverage of Mike Koval’s resignation as Madison police chief carried a tone of surprise, as if his decision to drop a weekend blog post and give no notice was out of the blue.
For some time, Madison’s loquacious and strident top cop had indicated he thought the city police force was neither fully staffed nor adequately respected, especially since Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway took office this spring.
Koval made his plan to bail pretty clear recently, with timing the primary variable. Reporter Abigail Becker captured his attitude in a superb Cap Times cover story in August timed to Koval’s fifth anniversary in the job.
“I will be candid,” Koval told Becker. “I feel outnumbered on many fronts. I feel outnumbered from the standpoint of those who are critical. I feel that there are those in elected offices that are intensely critical of the police.
“I have grown weary of the constant defense of people like (school resource officers) who do incredibly good work being scapegoated for everything from soup to nuts at a school district which has its own issues and they should just as soon deal with their own house before they start throwing stones at mine.”
So imagine Koval’s response when he learned the mayor’s proposed budget would not add the officers he requested and would instead reallocate 12 positions to patrol duties from gang, community outreach and neighborhood programs. On top of that, Rhodes-Conway proposed spending $200,000 for an independent police auditor who would report directly to her on police matters.
Hardly a vote of confidence.
Through the years, I have written about many public sector leaders in Madison. When I wrote about Koval’s promotion to chief in 2014, my headline was that he was “off and talking,” suggesting his penchant for gab.
Koval and other public sector leaders tend to last only a few years in these high-profile jobs. Recently, I’ve detected a pattern — a series of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-your-way-out sendoffs.
I was bothered by the gratuitous snark directed at Paul Soglin during his last mayoral campaign earlier this year. Yes, Soglin could be cantankerous, but I wondered whether some of his snippy critics realize how he has in many ways fundamentally reshaped Madison for the better over nearly a half century.
And when Jennifer Cheatham left as Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent this summer and I wrote about it, in came the snarky emails about how she never won over the city’s teachers, many of whom I am told felt inadequately supported.
Whether the Cheatham critique was fair or not, that’s apparently not the case with Koval, whom I am told enjoyed rank-and-file support for his aggressive public advocacy of the department. Yes, Koval did like a microphone, any microphone, they joke, but they knew he had their backs.
So, just when was the last time someone left a high-profile public sector role in Madison to rave reviews? It’s been awhile.
Which brings me to my question: Can whoever succeeds Koval as police chief succeed in a city so prone to criticism?
I posed that question to Noble Wray, who preceded Koval as chief and who has since built a successful career as a consultant on racial bias in policing. Wray joined the Madison force in 1984, rose to chief and retired in 2014 after a decade in that post.
His answer was yes, a new chief can succeed, but that person will face a far different landscape than did Wray or other predecessors. A key difference is technology, he said, both the easy creation of video and the world of social media.
Wray said expectations by citizens have also changed. David Couper, the father of Madison’s modern community policing model, was chief from 1972 until retiring in 1993. When Couper was chief, Wray said people did not fully understand community policing. They do now, he says, and look for police officers to be “procedurally just” in the field.
“They want to involve and engage themselves in a more sophisticated way,” Wray said. “Citizen oversight, that’s not just an issue in Madison, but that’s what people are asking for all over.”
Wray also said the new chief will face unresolved issues around race: “I think there is even more frustration through the decades of not being able to properly address the underlying issues with race in this country and in this city.
“A number of things have been tried, but both community members and police officers ask themselves, ‘Are we really ever able to deal with this?’ ”
He added, “There have been some improvements, but there still seems to be that chasm that ... especially manifests itself in high-profile incidents.”
Wray worries that the independent police auditor proposed by Rhodes-Conway might sour the crucial relationship between a mayor and the police chief.
“I think it could create some complexity,” he said, adding that a close and trusting relationship between the two is imperative. “When you’re calling someone at 2 a.m. and saying ‘Hey mayor, we just had this homicide,’ there has to be trust,” he said. “Anyone who gets in between that relationship will create problems.”
So, if asked, what would Wray say to council members evaluating the auditor position?
“Yeah, I would caution them,” he answered.
Still, Wray is too much the consummate professional and optimist to buy into my concern that Madison police chief is evolving toward being a no-win job in 2019 Madison.
Said Wray, “I think it is definitely possible to succeed, but I do think that in Madison, looking at how we deliver high-quality public safety to a diverse community, it does take a constant assessment of where the community is and what the community is asking and what are the trends and what’s going on and then applying a response to that.”
For Madison’s sake, one hopes he’s right, but there seems to be a chasm between the many Madisonians who have long thought that the city’s officers — especially compared to elsewhere — are unusually sharp, well-trained and almost always well-intentioned, and another more vocal and activist contingent that is far more skeptical of them.
For the next chief, figuring out how to improve public protection in a way that impresses both groups, now that’s a heavy lift.