Madison Police Chief Noble Wray is stepping down after nearly nine years at the helm of the department that has seen a tumultuous year marked by controversy surrounding an officer-involved shooting.
Wray, 52, announced his upcoming retirement after 29 years on the force Tuesday at the department’s Training Center, just hours before a celebration marking the completion of the facility that is part of his legacy.
His last day on the job will be around the end of September, he said.
Assistant Chief Randy Gaber, the department’s highest-ranking member, will become acting chief until a new chief is hired by the city’s Police and Fire Commission, Wray said.
“This today is one of my happiest days because I think this is a celebration of next steps. But it’s also one of the more difficult days,” an emotional Wray said. “I love this city. I love this department.”
Wray said he planned on retiring at the beginning of 2013 to spend more time with family, but the Nov. 9 fatal police shooting of Paul Heenan and investigations that followed made it impossible for him to leave without causing too much upheaval in the department.
“I am so excited for him I don’t know what to do, and for me, too,” said Wray’s wife, Michelle, who retired from her job with the Social Security Administration last year and joined him at his announcement along with their sons, Elliot, 26, and Brent, 29.
“He gave 110 percent, even when his mom died in April,” she said.
Wray said he will do consulting for Illinois-based Blue Courage, which works to reinvigorate officers’ commitment to policing.
Agent of change
A native of Milwaukee, Wray joined the force in 1984. He was named chief in October 2004 following a protracted selection process by the Police and Fire Commission, which selected him over two other popular department members, former Capt. Cheri Maples and Sgt. Mike Koval.
In addition to the Training Center at 5702 Femrite Drive on the city’s Far East Side — where the department trains its own officers and offers training for officers throughout the region — hallmarks of Wray’s leadership include his emphasis on what he termed “trust-based policing,” an extension of the community policing philosophy espoused by his predecessor and mentor, Chief David Couper.
Along with his emphasis on improving the effectiveness of the department by building relationships and trust between officers and community members, Wray led efforts that turned around the violence and mayhem that for years marred the Halloween celebration on State Street and the Mifflin Street Block Party.
For the second time in six years, the department has been named a finalist for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing’s Goldstein Award for its years of work in turning around problems in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood, where Wray served as the department’s first neighborhood officer.
Tumultuous recent months
Wray and the department have taken much criticism following the shooting of Heenan, who was intoxicated when he entered a neighbor’s home, then struggled with the homeowner and an officer responding to a reported burglary in process. The department and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne cleared Officer Stephen Heimsness of wrongdoing in the shooting, but Heimsness later agreed to resign from the department after Wray sought to fire him for unrelated allegations.
The U.S. Justice Department is now reviewing the shooting, and Heenan’s roommates are pursuing a complaint against Heimsness with the Police and Fire Commission.
Wray has disputed claims by the police union that the department suffers from a lack of communication and leadership and a deteriorated working environment. Those tensions came to light after Wray filed a complaint against Heimsness with the Police and Fire Commission alleging 118 counts of violating departmental policies, many having to do with comments Heimsness made about citizens, dispatchers, supervisors and fellow officers on his squad car computer.
In a July 2 letter to Mayor Paul Soglin, Officer Dan Frei, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, asked Soglin to work with the union and Wray to improve the climate and working culture.
Kind words in parting
On Tuesday, both Wray and Frei said they were in the process of moving forward on those issues.
“(Wray) deserves a debt of gratitude for all that he and his family have put into the department,” Frei said. “The department will miss Noble.”
Soglin said Tuesday he had “made it very clear” to Wray “that he had my complete confidence and that I was not going to waiver in terms of my belief in his leadership.”
He said he had mixed feelings about Wray’s retirement.
“I’m really happy for him and his family. It now gives us the challenge of finding new leadership,” Soglin said, adding that he’d like to see “more of the same” in the next chief.
“He contributed at every level to making this a safe community and he knew that he couldn’t do it just with police officers. ... He knew that it was a team job,” Soglin said.
“I think he leaves with two different things,” Soglin added.