When Noble Wray left his native Milwaukee to join the Madison police force in 1984, he may not have imagined how the topic of racial equity in policing would dominate his career.
Yet, here he is — at 58 and the grandfather of two — reflecting not only on his decade as Madison’s police chief until 2014, but today as one of the nation’s most prominent African-Americans training police on racial bias.
“I’ve done training in South America; I’ve done training in Canada,” he told me in a recent interview in my office. “There are only four states, I believe, that I have not done training in: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana.”
Wray and I reconnected at a Martin Luther King Day event in the state Capitol last month. He and his wife, Michelle, split time between homes in Madison and Washington, D.C.
These days, his primary focus is implicit bias — the unintentional kind — in policing. In moments of stress, officers who lack facts may rely on racial stereotypes, potentially leading to tragic outcomes.
In his long career, Wray has worn many hats. He was hired in Madison under former Chief David Couper, who shepherded in the modern era of community policing — the notion of police partnering with residents. While on the Madison force, Wray was part of a cadre of national community policing trainers during the Clinton administration.
After leaving the police department here five years ago, Wray served briefly as interim head of the Urban League of Dane County. “I had never stood in front of a group of people at a meeting without a gun on,” he recalled with a smile.
In the years since, Wray has often found himself on the front lines when policing intersects with issues of race. He was part of the independent police monitoring team in Cleveland, brought in as part of a settlement between that city and the U.S. Department of Justice after they identified a pattern of unconstitutional policing and excessive use of force there.
Wray left that role to join a task force created by the Obama administration in the wake of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. In that role, Wray said he worked with former Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch among others.
Wray found the sight of President Obama to be inspiring even as he felt worn down by the constant travel to trouble spots across the country. “But I would go to the White House and he would come out, and I would be tired because of travel, but to see that guy ... at roughly my age, I was uplifted again. I was like ‘OK, where do you want me to go?’ ”
After Obama left office, Wray returned to a Florida-based consulting company, Fair & Impartial Policing. When he started a decade ago, Wray was one of two people in the company. Now there are 22, he said.
Wray spent much of last year in New York City, helping train about 3,000 police supervisors — the total police force numbers some 36,000 — in implicit bias awareness. The city had contracted with his firm as part of a police-reform agenda by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Wray told the New York Times last year that race remains the most powerful bias in policing. “Yeah, there are other biases,” he said. “But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is racial bias.”
Wray, typically training about 40 officers per session, said he tries to overcome the suspicion that the training is only “for the white guys in the room” by sharing his own biases.
He said he explains how we all make assumptions about people when we lack knowledge about them. “If you don’t know someone, you start to fill things in with what are called ambiguous stimuli. ... It’s like filling a cup. The challenge with policing is that we typically are operating in a rapid environment. We’re doing everything fast.”
Wray added, “The goal is to slow things down when you can, and that’s a culture of ours, of not slowing things down. The more you slow things down the more you reduce the ambiguous stimuli and then human beings emerge in front of your face.”
New York police supervisors received eight hours of such training. Wray said it was imperative to demonstrate why it mattered. “Critics say that if everybody’s got implicit biases, it’s just the way we’re wired” and therefore there’s not much to be done about it.
Wray said he tries to counter that argument. “We have a mantra, and we go over it again and again, and it is that having biases is unsafe, and that’s what the officers always clue in on. It’s unsafe, unjust and simply not good policing,” Wray said.
“We’re not telling them not to make split-second decisions; we know that they will,” Wray said. The training is about “when you have time for reflection, and you ask yourself: ‘But for this person being a young Latino male would I be doing this?’ ”
As with so many things that make sense and appear pragmatic that have been harmed by the election of Donald Trump, so too has any national focus on racial awareness training in policing.
When I asked Wray where things stand, he said: “So, what’s happening now is that we are in a standstill. There were some (local police officials) who just didn’t want to do it,” referring to the work on racial issues in policing. “So when the Trump administration gets in — being very frank — there was a group that said: “‘Thank God. We don’t want to do this, and Washington is not pushing it.’”
“Policing does need something like Washington every once in awhile,” Wray added. “So, if you ask the question right now, the answer is it’s at a standstill.”
In a nationwide Pew Research Center poll from 2016, some 84 percent of black respondents said they believe police treat them less fairly than white people.
Apparently, in his promise to make America “great” again, Trump sees no urgency to address that perception.