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Mike Koval

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval on Oct. 3 told his officers they no longer had the discretion to call off their backup. 

A new rule adopted last month that was framed as reminding Madison police officers to wait for their backup at crime scenes in fact represented a clear departure from then-current practice in the department, according to internal records obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.

The procedural change — referred to as “significant” and an “important initiative” in a Sept. 30 email to command staff and sergeants by Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, who ordered it — took effect Oct. 3. In short, while officers previously had the option of rejecting backup, now they don’t, in an effort to keep officers and the public safer.

Codified in two short paragraphs added to the department’s rules for dispatching officers to calls for service, the new language tells officers they “shall not disregard backup” and, specifically, shall wait for backup “before physically approaching any involved subject(s),” unless someone at the scene is in imminent danger.

In practice, that means the first or primary officer sent to an incident can no longer unilaterally call off, or send back, other officers who have been dispatched to the same call, as the primary officer was free to do before.

The primary officer typically did that by telling dispatchers via squad radio, often while en route to the scene, that he or she could handle the incident alone, or that he or she would check it out alone and report back. Doing that now, absent an imminent danger, requires a supervisor’s OK.

“You no longer have the discretion to say, ‘Call those other officers off. I can handle this,’” Koval said, in a video message he made for rank-and-file officers.

“The officers do NOT have the discretion to disregard backup any longer,” Koval said in the email to supervisors.

Now some six weeks into the change, Koval on Thursday said he believed officers were accepting the new approach. “I absolutely do,” he told the State Journal. “I think they get it.”

Safety over efficiency

The new approach also requires all officers dispatched to a scene to “arrive, stage, approach and assess the dangerousness of the situation together” before a decision can be made about anyone leaving the scene, Koval said in an Oct. 6 followup email to supervisors.

Koval’s emails and the video were released to the State Journal in early November in response to a public records request.

Koval last month called the change “not a ‘new’ protocol” but rather just a codified reflection of how officers “have been trained, for decades, in the interest of officer and community safety,” in emailed answers to questions from a State Journal reporter. He did not mention in those emails that officers had previously been allowed to call off their backup, despite that training. On Thursday, he said he didn’t get into those details previously because he considered the new policy a “work in progress,” with minor changes to it still possible through next week.

In his Sept. 30 email to command staff, Koval noted that despite the police department’s training emphasis on waiting for backup, “It has become painfully evident that this is not happening as much as I would like to see.”

“I am concerned,” Koval added in the email, “that our ‘business efficiency’ is trumping and thereby potentially compromising officer/public safety.”

Koval said officers were calling off backup to try to work faster as calls for service in the city increase.

And he praised their work ethic in doing so but said it was posing an unacceptable risk, potentially to both officers and members of the public. Citing the July assassinations of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Koval said it would be safer for officers to employ more teamwork at scenes. Sending both primary and backup officers to “priority calls,” to which two or more officers are always dispatched, is a necessary approach in a city where officers routinely patrol one to a squad car, he said.

“So much has happened over the last three years,” Koval told officers in the video. “Anything and everything that could be calamitous has happened, especially during my tenure of office. And the one thing, God forbid, that I don’t want is to have to pay a visit to anybody’s family or friends with dire news of anybody being hurt or worse.”

Koval also said in the video that there had been management discussions after those July killings about assigning two officers per car, but no agreement was reached. Koval then developed the waiting-for-backup mandate as a necessary alternative, he said, and because it could help officers de-escalate conflicts, an outcome long sought by both police and critics of police.

“I want our officers kept safe(r), and the benefits of arriving at a call with more than one officer has certainly shown that with a greater ‘presence,’ the necessity to go ‘hands on’ in using force could be mitigated, at least to some extent,” Koval told command staff in the Sept. 30 email.

“Will that mean more calls stacking up?’” he added. “YES! But I am willing to take that issue on because it pales in comparison to officer and community safety.”

Change emphasized

Koval also told department supervisors he was sending them the Sept. 30 email as an early “heads up,” so they could “begin to process and consider what this change will mean, fundamentally, in how we move forward.”

Further underscoring the importance of the changes, Koval sent spreadsheets to each of the department’s five districts, which supervisors were to return by Oct. 17, certifying that each officer had received an electronic copy of the new language and had watched Koval’s videotaped message, along with the date they had done so.

“I want this (change) to stand out,” Koval said.

Koval also told supervisors “the major points to bear in mind” about the policy were that:

“This procedural change will be significant and require us to slow down and be safe.”

“Primary and backup officers should stage” — meaning to meet up near the scene — “and approach together.”

“Primary and backup officers should handle the call together until it is resolved.”

“If another officer volunteers/assigns themselves to the call, the net effect should be the same as if two were dispatched: stay together until the call is resolved.”

Koval also exhorted his street sergeants to pay close attention to the new policy, calling them “the linchpin” to whether it “is given a fair chance to be evaluated.”

“If you are ambivalent and do not hold people accountable, this effort to slow things down and keep our officers safe(r) will not be fully realized,” Koval said.