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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Madison Police Chief Noble Wray fought to change an imperfect system from within
Wray will retire by the end of September after 29 years on the force
Wray is keenly aware the system is still imperfect.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Chief Noble Wray didn't always view police work as an honorable profession.

He confesses that as a youngster growing up in Milwaukee during a militant period in the civil rights movement, "I spelled police P-I-G."

But he says a teacher at the Harambee Community School, the African-inspired private school that Wray attended, helped change his way of thinking.

"I was thinking everything negative about policing. I would never want to be a policeman," he says. "I was running around talking about Malcolm X and being militant, but there was this fifth-grade teacher who said, 'You don't always have to change things through revolution and protest. You can change things by being part of the system.' And that stuck with me."

The 52-year-old Wray announced on Aug. 6 that he will retire by the end of September after 29 years with the Madison Police Department, including more than eight as police chief. And though he's become part of the establishment, he's keenly aware the system is still imperfect.

Last April, a study (PDF) by UW-Milwaukee researchers found that Wisconsin incarcerates a higher percentage of African American men than any other state. About 13% of African American men of working age are in prison in the state, compared to 6.7% nationally. Wray co-chaired a commission (PDF) established by former Gov. Jim Doyle on reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

"If you had asked anyone in the profession 10 years ago, we didn't have answers," he says. "Right now, we know it's repeat offenders, conscious and unconscious biases within the system."

Wray says that disparities exist at all levels of society -- in education, the economy, housing, health care. They're usually first noticed when police get involved, "but the disparities are already there," he adds.

The criminal justice system can help deal with disparities by helping offenders integrate back into society. He praises the program Journey Home, run by Madison Area Urban Ministry and United Way, which helps paroled prisoners get established. He worked to address the problem by creating a special unit to monitor repeat violent offenders.

"When you focus on reducing rates of recidivism," he says, "you can have a major impact on racial disparities."

The last year of Wray's tenure has been tumultuous. Officers have killed three people while responding to calls. The most controversial incident happened in November 2012 when officer Stephen Heimsness shot and killed an unarmed Paul Heenan while responding to a burglary call. An intoxicated Heenan had come home early in the morning and mistakenly walked into the home of a neighbor, who called police. Heimsness found the two wrestling in the yard and claims Heenan lunged for his gun. Neighbors have disputed that account.

Although the department ruled the shooting was justified, Wray later asked the Police and Fire Commission to terminate Heimsness for violating numerous department policies. The officer eventually agreed to resign.

But the complaints against Heimsness -- based, in part, on numerous messages he sent through the department's message system -- reveal a dark cynicism at work behind the scenes at the police department. In one message, he expresses hostility towards both citizens and coworkers. "I don't know what's worse the dumb drunks or the dumb dispatchers." In another, "I'm ready to go on a shooting spree up in dispatch."

Wray admits that police work can foster cynicism and off-color humor. "There's dark humor in this profession," he says. "Some of it comes with the job, some of it comes with trying to deal with the more difficult, depressing issues, trying to minimize it so you can cope. That's been in the profession for a while, and I doubt it will leave the profession."

The work can be tough. Wray remembers a time earlier in his career when he contemplated quitting and returning to school. He had been working the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift patrolling State and Langdon Streets, and he says that dealing with drunken college students every night wore him out. "I like the students, but doing the same thing over and over again was a grind."

Wray was eventually transferred to work as a community police officer in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood on the south side of the city. It was a poor, high-crime neighborhood with a lot of problems, but it reinvigorated Wray's interest in policing. "It reconnected me with why I joined the profession, and that was to fundamentally help people."

He says the department has found a number of ways to help keep officers from burning out, including encouraging them to stay healthy and connected with family and friends, finding positive ways to interact with the community and rotating shifts and jobs.

One item the department will look at, in the aftermath of the Heenan shooting, is limiting how long officers stay on night duty. "All of the things that I talked about that are positive aspects of the job are reduced on nights," he says. "If [a resident calls] you at 1 or 2 at night, it's not to provide you with information or to thank you. Those are the more high-stress calls."

In his almost three decades on the force, Wray has seen the department steadily grow. In 2004, when he was named chief, the department had a $42.9 million budget (PDF). This year, it was $44.6 million (PDF).

In an Aug. 6 memo to the Common Council, Wray writes that the department is unable to keep its budget flat for next year, as requested. Doing so would mean cutting $280,782 in spending, since labor contracts require pay bumps for many employees. The continual need to replace equipment -- including laptops, Tasers, cars, software and weapons -- also drives up department costs, Wray writes.

Wray says police and fire departments are growing around the country, taking up larger and larger chunks of municipal budgets. But he points to several public hearings on the south side in 2007 -- which led the city to hire an additional 30 officers -- to say "the community supported the growth."

Will the city ever be able to rein in police expenses? Wray says the city has many needs that deserve resources.

"At some point in time, alternatives to problems that are facing the community should get more support and attention," he says. But the problem is, people turn to police for a growing list of concerns.

"Police are really the only ones you can call for assistance and know that they're going to respond," he says. "If you walk out into some of our neighborhoods... after 6 o'clock, for the most part the only ones you're going to see out there are police."

Madison has a host of problems, says Wray, including poverty and an achievement gap between minority and white students. "Until those things are addressed in a fundamental way, you're going to be hard pressed to reduce the back end."

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