More than a year after Madison’s last police chief abruptly resigned and in the face of unprecedented criticism of the city’s historically well-regarded police force, the citizens commission charged with finding a new top cop announced its four finalists Friday.
The ethnically diverse, but all male, group comes with decades of experience in traditional policing at large or mid-size departments.
The four finalists are:
- Shon F. Barnes, director of training and professional development for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, in Chicago. Prior to that he was deputy chief of police for the Salisbury, North Carolina, Police Department from 2017-20. He began his career in 2000 with the Greensboro, North Carolina, Police Department, where he rose to captain.
- Ramon S. Batista Jr., former police chief of Mesa, Arizona. He began his career with the Tucson, Arizona, Police Department in 1986, working in patrol, the traffic division, police academy, public information and investigations and rising to patrol captain, SWAT/hostage commander, chief of staff, investigations bureau chief and chief of the patrol bureau.
- Christopher A. Davis, deputy chief for the Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau. He was appointed to Portland police in 1998 and previously worked as a police officer for the Arizona State University Police Department.
- Larry R. Scirotto, retired assistant chief for the Pittsburgh police. He spent 23 years with the Pittsburgh department, including in a leadership role as the commander of Zone 3, the city’s most well-known entertainment district, and led the department’s Major Crimes Division and Professional Standards Branch.
The Police and Fire Commission (PFC) will conduct final interviews on Tuesday and later release 35-minute recorded question-and-answer sessions with each candidate.
Here is more on each candidate:
Barnes, who is Black and lives in Chicago, has only been with COPA for a few months, leaving his previous position in Salisbury, a city of about 33,000 people, in August.
His former boss in Salisbury praised Barnes’ work at a department that was then struggling with rising gun and gang violence and controversy over the fatal shooting in 2016 of a Black suspect by a white police officer.
“I would not consider him my subordinate in this,” said Chief Jerry Stokes. “We were much a team.”
He said Barnes helped repair community trust in the department, and last year the city saw crime fall to a 20-year low. He said Barnes would have been a shoe-in for the chief’s position in Salisbury after Stokes’ retirement and that Barnes moved to Chicago because his wife found a job there.
Barnes did not respond to requests for comment.
Batista, of Mesa, abruptly resigned from the Mesa department more than a year ago after the city’s police union issued a vote of no confidence in him, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper, which reported that he clashed with the rank and file over his attempt to reform a department that had been tarnished by repeated excessive use-of-force complaints.
“He was an outsider brought in to try to institute some reforms,” said Andre Miller, a police-reform activist and pastor at New Beginnings Christian Church in Mesa, a city of about 520,000 people. “I think he was a great chief.”
Miller, who is Black, said opposition to Batista was driven by the Mesa police union and its allies, who put pressure on city elected officials. Union officials went so far in 2019 as to put up billboards calling for a new chief.
Miller said Batista made it clear to officers they couldn’t use force against suspects simply for talking back, and said “he has a heart for the police and he has a heart for the community.”
Batista declined to comment Friday, and Mesa police union officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Davis, of Tigard, Oregon, was also a finalist for the chief position in Milwaukee, but on Thursday did not get any votes from that city’s Police and Fire Commission, which split 3-3 on two other candidates.
Davis told The Oregonian/OregonLive in October that his wife is from Wisconsin and most of his family lives in central Ohio and that they wanted to move closer to family. He told the news organization he had also applied for the chief’s position in Fresno, California.
Portland gained national attention this year as the hottest of the hotbeds for anti-police protest and rioting following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Over the summer, the Trump administration sent federal law enforcement into the streets to protect federal property in the city, a move that drew condemnation from local and state officials.
In July, Davis told state lawmakers that his department had no control over the federal officers but that his “preference would be to not have them outside their buildings unless it’s a life/safety kind of an issue, and I would prefer to police the outside of their buildings and all of the others downtown with local and state resources.”
Davis did not respond to a request for comment.
Scirotto, of Dallas, was also a finalist for the Grand Rapids, Michigan, police chief position in 2019 and a finalist for chief in Nashville, Tennessee, this year. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Feeling left out
Local police-reform activist Amelia Royko Maurer said she was not surprised but found it “extremely disappointing” that the PFC “completely disregarded” recommendations in two outside reports on the Police Department to better include the public in the chief-selection process.
Similarly, longtime activist Brenda Konkel, who leads the city’s newly assertive Public Safety Review Committee, said “we were not consulted or asked our opinion on what to look for in a new police chief,” but “will do our best to work with whichever man is chosen.”
PFC attorney Jenna Rousseau said 43 people applied for the Madison police chief’s position, and she cited restrictions in the state’s public records law for why she couldn’t disclose whether anyone from the Madison Police Department or other Wisconsin police departments applied for the job.
But Kelly Powers, president of the Madison police union, said no one from the department’s command staff applied. He also pointed to the lack of women among finalists to oversee a department that has about double the percentage of female officers of departments nationally.
“A number of my members have shared the surprise and disappointment that there is not a woman represented in this finalist group,” Powers said.
Interim Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl previously made clear that he was not interested in the permanent position.
Former chief Mike Koval resigned with one day’s notice on Sept. 29, 2019, after voicing frustration in recent years over the City Council’s oversight of the department and its unwillingness to provide what he deemed adequate funding.
That oversight and attempts to shift resources away from police have only escalated with the election in April 2019 of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and perhaps the most far-left City Council in the liberal city’s history.
In the wake of sometimes violent anti-police protests and looting over the spring and summer in Downtown Madison, city officials have heeded calls from activists to remove school resource officers from Madison’s four main high schools and to create an independent civilian review board and police monitor to oversee the department but have no formal power to discipline, hire or fire officers.
The council has also prohibited police and other city agencies from using facial-recognition technology, and some council members have sought to limit or curtail their use of less-lethal weapons such as sponge rounds and tear gas.
A string of seven fatal police shootings between 2012 and 2016 spurred the council to hire an outside consultant to study police, and in December 2017, it issued a report with 146 recommendations for improvement but that also deemed the department “far from ‘a Department in crisis’” whose use of force was “limited in volume and primarily minor in nature.”
Madison police have earned national recognition over the years for their problem-oriented policing approach and other initiatives, and Madison officers are also more racially and ethnically representative of the community they serve than many other departments.
Photos: Hundreds of protesters gather Tuesday in Madison in wake of Kenosha police shooting