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After serving more than five years as the head of the Madison Police Department and more than 30 years in various other roles, Police Chief Mike Koval announced his retirement Sunday morning in his daily blog.

Starting Monday, Koval will no longer be chief.

“I did my best to be a guardian to the community and a guardian to the ‘guardians’ (cops),” Koval said. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this community.”

Assistant Chief Vic Wahl will step up as the interim chief of police, effective Monday, until the Police and Fire Commission conducts a hiring process for a new chief.

In his more than 1,500-word announcement, Koval did not explicitly say why he was retiring so suddenly, but outlined several challenges he has faced as chief including outspoken criticism from the public, negative media coverage and a shortage of staffing. Koval, 61, also said he is looking forward to a “forever vacation” with his wife, who also retired this year.

Koval did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

‘Subtle pressure’ from mayor

Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, said he thinks actions taken by Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway have provided “subtle pressure” for Koval to retire.

“I do not think the mayor applied direct pressure to Mike Koval to retire,” Skidmore said. “However, a reasonable person would look at some of the statements that she’s released criticizing the chief and the department … I mean, I think that that is subtle pressure.”

Skidmore pointed to Rhodes-Conway’s choice to condemn Madison police’s actions during an arrest of a 17-year-old in the midst of a mental health crisis before internal and external reviews of the incident. Skidmore also noted that Rhodes-Conway has appointed longtime police critics to groups that are reviewing police policies.

In a Sunday statement, Rhodes-Conway thanked Koval “for his decades of service and dedication to the Madison Police Department.”

She also urged the Police and Fire Commission to get significant input from the community on “the kind of police chief they wish to lead the Madison Police Department into the future” as the commission looks for someone to hire.

‘A different direction’

Skidmore said Rhodes-Conway’s statement implies that she wants to go in “a different direction” with the police department.

Matthew Braunginn, a member of a committee that is reviewing the police department’s policies and procedures, said he sees Koval’s retirement “as an opportunity for growth within Madison’s police department.” He said one of the committee’s recommendations is to have more community engagement when hiring police chiefs.

M. Adams, co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a local advocacy group that has vocally criticized and protested the police department, also saw Koval’s retirement as an “opportunity” to “try out ideas around community control” and give the community — particularly people of color — more power to influence the police department.

In a statement, the Police and Fire Commission’s board said it will release more information on the process for hiring a new chief soon. The board said it will likely designate a department officer to act as chief at its Oct. 14 meeting.

“The board will announce its recruitment, testing, and evaluation plans in the near future,” the board said.

Koval’s tenure

Koval’s sudden announcement came as a shock even to those who knew it was coming. Skidmore said “probably around a year ago” Koval told him he was thinking of retiring this fall.

“I know it was coming, but it was still a shock when he called me this morning,” Skidmore said.

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Koval joined the Madison Police Department in 1983, and has worked at the department ever since, except for two years where he worked for the FBI. He has served as a police officer, field training supervisor, SWAT hostage negotiator, critical response team supervisor, primary legal instructor and sergeant.

For much of that time, Koval was in charge of recruiting and training, serving as the Sergeant of Recruitment and Training for 17 years. He was hired as chief in April 2014.

Dan Frei, current board member of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, Madison’s police union, said he thinks Koval will leave “a lasting legacy.”

Frei, who is also a Madison patrol officer but said he was not representing the police department, said Koval was the kind of leader that called everyone on their birthdays and whenever they got injured.

“He really showed us that he cared for us and that he was there for us,” Frei said.

‘Tough climate’

Frei said most of Koval’s time as chief has been spent during “a very tough climate” for police officers, and Koval devoted a lot of time and energy into finding and recruiting quality officers “who still wanted to do this job.”

In March 2015, less than a year after Koval became chief, a Madison police officer fatally shot Tony Robinson, an unarmed black teen. The officer-involved shooting sparked several protests calling for increased community control of the police.

Adams said Koval has been “out of step with what safety looks like for black people.”

Adams said Koval has not given vulnerable communities the power to effect change within the police department after several critical incidents, including the Robinson death, a 2015 arrest of a woman who claimed self-defense in a stabbing death for which no charges were filed, and the arrest of the 17-year-old earlier this year.

During his career, Koval said he has been shot at twice, bitten, spat upon, been sued, received negative news coverage, “froze his butt off” on perimeters, sweated through his bullet-proof vest and has been “routinely insulted” with “every acrid name and profanity imaginable.”

Koval said he has also seen “acts of valor” from police officers, lives saved, “selfless service” and “extraordinary acts of kindness.”

“Not everyone can or should pursue the vocation of a police officer,” Koval said. “But for those who do, the rewards far exceed the perils and it is a noble calling.”

For the ‘haters’

In his blog post, Koval said he was “eternally grateful” to constituents who have encouraged and supported of the police department. He said those supporters will “never know how important” their efforts were “to the morale of our Department.”

Koval also had a message for those who have spoke in opposition to local police.

“To the ‘haters,’ thanks to you as well — for through your unrelenting, unforgiving, desire to make the police the brunt of all of your scorn — I drew strength from your pervasive and persistent bullying,” Koval said.

Braunginn said he has found Koval “combative” and “unwilling to receive criticism.”

But Frei said Koval has handled tragic incidents with “grace.” He said the chief prayed with the family of a person who had been shot by a police officer.

Koval said he was sorry if he “said or did anything” to cause members of the community to mistrust police.

“Blame me for whatever missteps or disappointments you may have but please give this Department and its dedicated employees the benefit of the doubt,” Koval said. “Let them impress you with their selfless desire to better serve you.”

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.