“I’m pivoting, OK? I’m pivoting.”
That’s how Capt. Joe Balles said he prefers to think about his retirement this month — as a strategic shift, not an end — after 32½ years with Madison police, including the last seven years leading the department’s vibrant, diverse and often challenging South District through a period of high-profile redevelopment that continues today.
“It was kind of a surprise (to myself) that I’m actually doing it,” Balles said in a recent interview at a South Side coffee shop, where he was an animated jumble of forward-looking energy, excitement and nerves during his last active week of work. He officially retires Jan. 22.
“I’m calling it transitioning to emeritus status,” Balles added. “I’m going to be very busy.”
Balles, 54, will start a nonprofit foundation to fund small neighborhood policing projects in Madison, while he consults nationally to help police departments make progressive improvements called for in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
John Patterson, a former lieutenant, is replacing Balles as captain of the South District, where Balles, at 28, was one of the city’s first six neighborhood officers and sunk deep roots that today have made him an icon of South Side policing.
“He is very committed to the concept of community policing, where you would really become part of the community,” said longtime South Side resident and advocate Percy Brown, who first met Balles in his days walking the beat in the city’s drug- and violence-plagued former Broadway-Simpson neighborhood starting in 1989.
“He had great vision and great passion for the neighborhood,” Brown recalled. “We were working with a lot of very serious drug problems, and he really did connect very well with the people in the neighborhood, and a lot of them were people of color, people from all the trenches. (He) really came across as very people-oriented and in tune with the needs of the community.”
Brown, as deputy director of the city’s Community Development Authority, worked with Balles and others on a $14 million plan to revitalize the troubled neighborhood, now known as Bridge-Lakepoint, and later on similar issues in other South Side areas including the Burr Oaks neighborhood after Balles returned to lead the South District as captain in January 2009.
“He was always well respected as someone who really did embrace enforcement of the law,” Brown recalled. “But he had that certain touch, where he could make that human connection with people, too. It was more of a rare gift or art that you don’t see every day, especially in an officer.”
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Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, who was in the same police recruit class as Balles in 1983, also speaks warmly of his longtime peer, who was a semifinalist for chief in April 2014.
“From the time he began his career, Balles had a gleam in his eye and a passion in his heart for all things community policing,” Koval said, citing his “zeal for engagement, fostering relationships, networking and problem solving.”
“He established himself as a fixture in South Side neighborhoods,” Koval added. Balles “knows everybody in his district, and his reach extends throughout the city.”
Balles ended his four-year tour as a South Side neighborhood officer in 1993, when he was promoted and moved Downtown through 2008. There he worked as a sergeant and then a lieutenant supervising technology and other support projects, and finally patrol duties for the Central District. There, he handled logistics for the city’s first Freakfest on State Street and kicked off the Downtown Safety Initiative, which staffs extra officers on weekend nights to help control alcohol-related mayhem.
Balles’ first big technology project, in 2004, put in-car video systems in all Madison squad cars. He also led development of the department’s records management system and created an online consortium that let several Dane County police departments share records easier.
“He coaxed, prodded and sometimes even threatened to bring (the Madison Police Department) into the next era of data-driven, ‘smarter’ policing,” Koval said.
But throughout his career, Balles also maintained and deepened his South Side relationships. He’s been a member of the Madison South Rotary Club for 22 years, he helped coach South Side youth basketball for 10 years, and he’s still an active member of the founding board of the Simpson Street Free Press, a volunteer commitment that dates to 1989.
And he still gets invited to an annual picnic organized by former Simpson Street mothers known as the Simpson Street Family Reunion. A native of Freeport, Illinois, Balles said he felt a bond with the mothers of Simpson Street as he walked the beat decades ago in that neighborhood.
“I grew up in a single-parent family — six kids, and my dad died when I was 10,” Balles said. “When I looked around all those families down there (on Simpson Street), I saw a lot of single moms raising kids, just like my mom did. So there was kind of a connection I always kind of had to those mothers from Simpson Street.”
Citing economic and community renewal including Madison Area Technical College’s proposal to move its Downtown campus to the South Side and a $5.2 million plan to transform a shuttered Beltline motel into a new hotel, Balles said he is relieved and proud to see the South Side “definitely turn the corner.”
The problems in policing that remain citywide, including gang activity, gunfire and a “no-snitching” mentality that frustrates investigators of certain crimes, aren’t new and have solutions based in building relationships with neighborhood residents, Balles said.
“We constantly have to be challenging ourselves and try to figure out how can we do things better,” he added. “Keeping this community safe, it’s something you have to roll up your sleeves and do every single day.”