Growing up in Milwaukee amid the turbulent struggle of the civil rights movement in which his parents played a prominent role, Noble Wray never dreamed of becoming a police officer.
And in his 29 years with the Madison Police Department, he never saw a year like his last one as chief.
“Law enforcement was used to maintain and control us on the North Side of Milwaukee when I grew up, so when I talk about the importance and value of community policing and building trust, that has a different connotation for me. That’s real,” said Wray, 52, who steps down Friday as Madison police chief after nearly nine years that have seen urban challenges for law enforcement.
During Wray’s tenure, the department has experienced unprecedented growth with the addition of 30 officers who hit the streets in 2008 and 2009, along with the creation of a Crime Prevention Gang Unit to address increasing youth violence, the addition of crime analysts for data-driven decision-making and the expansion of community policing teams to address problems no longer isolated to a specific neighborhood.
But in the past 10 months, the trust building that has been the hallmark of Wray’s approach to policing has taken a significant hit in factions of the community amid controversy centered on the first of three fatal shootings by officers. Some have questioned Wray’s integrity and that of the department, based on its policies and procedures for investigating the use of deadly force.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Wray said.
“You dedicate your entire career to build that. One of the sayings that I’ve always said, and it has helped to keep me focused and
intact, is that I don’t want to just be right, I want to get it right, and that, to me, has really helped me to, at times, to take a deep breath and say let’s keep going, let’s try and get this thing right.”
In the first half of his tenure as chief, Wray initiated so many changes, he said, “One of the mistakes that I would acknowledge that I made early on was too much too fast.” He responded to the resulting unrest among the rank and file by pledging to slow things down and increase communication and participation in decision-making.
As Wray retires, saying he wants to devote more time to his family, the department leadership is continuing to work with the Madison Professional Police Officers Association to address matters both have agreed not to talk about publicly. The union asked Mayor Paul Soglin last summer to help repair a deteriorated work environment after a lengthy investigation of the officer involved in the controversial fatal shooting of Paul Heenan last November.
There also is pending a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Heenan’s family. And Heenan’s roommates are appealing a court injunction preventing the Police and Fire Commission from proceeding with an excessive-force complaint against Stephen Heimsness, who was cleared by the police department and district attorney in the Heenan shooting, though Wray later sought his dismissal for alleged policy violations unrelated to the shooting.
The Heenan shooting, along with other officer-involved deaths in Milwaukee and Kenosha, has fueled an effort by legislators to establish a statewide protocol for more independent investigations and reviews of officer-involved deaths.
“When someone believes that an injustice has taken place. I think they have a right to exercise their rights, and so I’ll do full circle with that,” Wray said, adding, “I fundamentally believe that the Madison community still trusts this department. I think the men and women have worked hard to earn that.”
For Wray, the choice of a career in law enforcement ran contrary to his experience of law enforcement growing up across the street from St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, which he describes as “ground zero” for the civil rights movement in Wisconsin, and seeing his parents marching and being arrested.
“When the National Guard was called in to Milwaukee to quell the riots,” Wray said, “I literally saw tanks going down the street ... In my mind, the relationship always had to be protests, riots, that’s how you bring about change.”
But then a teacher told him, “If you really want to bring about positive change in a system, you can be part of it. It’s not always revolution. And that stuck with me over time,” said Wray, who now sees law enforcement as “the most noble and honorable profession in the world.”
Wray said his background “has made me appreciate the profession more.”
Former chief David Couper, Wray’s predecessor and mentor, had a philosophy of community policing and moral standards that still looms large in both the department and the
That legacy has been invoked in the firestorm surrounding the Heenan shooting.
Couper had two pictures in his office, Wray recalled. “One was Martin Luther King and the other was Ghandi. He symbolically embraced that. I lived it,” Wray said.
“Sometimes, it feels like I took over after David,” added Wray, who succeeded Richard Williams as chief. “It’s amazing how (Williams) is not brought up.”
When Williams was hired, there was a sense that the department needed to get back to “the nuts and bolts of policing,” Wray said, adding that under Williams, the department laid out “a very practical and pragmatic strategy” to decentralize and build district stations throughout the city.
But during the Williams era, “I think we did take a step back on community policing,” said Wray, who set out to redefine and re-engage in the concept. “My emphasis from community policing was on relationships. That’s why I talk about trust-based policing.”
“He really gave a kick start to having the police department engage in problem-solving,” said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at UW-Madison.
An unparalleled force
Quelling the years of violence associated with Halloween on State Street by creating the ticketed Freakfest “was a radical departure from conventional policing,” Scott said, as was addressing the decades-old problem of illicit sex in Olin-Turville Park by redesigning the park and bringing in family-oriented activities.
But Wray’s greatest legacy, Scott said, may be the highly educated and diverse force he’s hired.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find its parallel or its equal in any other department in the country,” he said, adding that every officer Wray hired “had his personal stamp of approval.”
“He’s made a contribution to the city and the department in every capacity of service, whether a patrol officer, a community officer or police chief,” said Mayor Paul Soglin.
Wray has led the department well through many difficult periods, Soglin said, adding that his greatest achievement has been “the overall safety of the community.”
“Madison has grown in size,” he said. “Because of population shifts, we have more challenged neighborhoods, and yet we are one of the safest cities in the country.
“We are still a city where a shots-fired call is going to generate attention, as opposed to a city where a homicide is sometimes buried in the back of the paper,” Soglin said.
“I think the confidence level in the department is high,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any kind of a major labor-management issue here that’s going to create serious problems.”
“In general, I think we have a very good relationship between the union and management,” said Officer Dan Frei, president of the police association who also sits on the management team.
“A great deal of that is definitely attributable to the chief,” Frei added. “We’ve always had a good relationship and been able to talk to each other.”
Frei said that though there is a what he would characterize as “a small, vocal group” critical of Wray and the department, officers have “had a lot of words of encouragement and support from the community.”
Assistant Chief John Davenport described Wray as “a very principled person” with the courage “to do the right thing for the right reasons, regardless of how popular it might be.”
“I know that we’re losing a man with great integrity and honor,” Davenport said. “That’s going to be hard to replace.”
While Wray is leaving the department, he doesn’t plan to leave law enforcement entirely.
“If the question is ‘Are you considering being a chief somewhere else?’” Wray said, the answer is “no.”
But Wray said he plans to continue the consulting work he has been involved in since the mid-1990s on a national level.
“I think that I can help the profession if I stay in it in different ways,” he said.
Wray said he believes that the department, too, is ready to move on.
From those in the community whose trust has been challenged, he asks for “a renewed commitment on their part” that “this is a good department,” as members of the department renew their commitment to its core values.
“We still have a city to police,” he said.