Wray says that when he was hired in 1984, 'We talked abuot community policing, but I don't think we really understood it.'
This past summer was one of high anxiety for Noble Wray. From muggings to sexual assaults, bar-time mayhem to Allied Drive fights, there was no shortage of problems hounding Madison's chief of police. On top of it all is Halloween, a black hole for an already strapped police department.
'What people don't realize is that, in August, a good portion of the Central District Command staff's time is devoted to Halloween planning, between 20% and 30%,' says Wray. 'By September, it goes up to 70% to 80%.' This gobbles up resources that should be spent 'dealing with issues related to downtown, robberies, King Street, State Street and bar time.'
Wray, 45, who has just begun his third year as Madison's top cop, faces an array of daunting challenges. City growth has outpaced the department's crime-fighting and problem-solving capabilities. It is short on officers, detectives and crime analysts. In recent years, more officers have been hired than promoted, stretching the diminished management ranks unnervingly thin.
'Even before we talk about some recent issues related to crime, just keeping up with city growth, we were already behind,' says Wray. His department has about a $50 million annual budget ' a whopping 23% of the total city budget. His 398 officers and 92 civilian personnel ' spread across five districts covering 76 square miles ' serve roughly 222,000 residents.
'We really have a lot of unbelievable demands placed on the department,' says Wray. 'We've tried shifting some of the work to places with different commanders, but we're running out of bodies.'
Long touted as one of the most progressive departments in the country, the MPD has for a generation been a pioneer in community policing, an idea that champions problem-solving over arrest rates. Wray, affable and charismatic, cut his teeth on the philosophy as a rookie officer, and became immersed in its lessons during his 22-year policing career.
He was the first African American to serve in the MPD as a manager. He is a nationally recognized expert in community problem-solving. On becoming chief, Wray reaffirmed the department's commitment to community policing, which, like much of the department's progressive policies, had atrophied under his predecessor, Richard Williams.
But now the department faces fresh challenges, which Wray is approaching with his fingers crossed. He wants the revivals of violence downtown and on Allied Drive to simmer down. And he hopes this year's Halloween event has a smoother ending than in the previous four years.
'One of the most difficult things in my mind is having to call a parent and tell them their child has been seriously injured or killed as the result of a Halloween event,' he says.
Through it all, Wray has drawn both praise and criticism. He is faulted for the spike in violence and the past problems with Halloween. And concerns have been raised about his style and approach to discipline.
'It takes time for a chief to become his own person and put his stamp on the department,' says Gordon McQuillan, legal council for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. 'I think Chief Wray is headed there, but he has a ways to go.'
Style vs. substance
Wray spent a night last July patrolling the same downtown streets he walked as a rookie cop 22 years earlier. Much has changed since then ' especially the growth of downtown Madison as an entertainment district. From his squad car, Wray watched young faces spill from the bars, some stumbling along the poorly lit streets. He noticed packs of young people lurking with no obvious purpose, wondering if they were 'fishing' for drunks to mug.
'The work we do is a fine line between mayhem and the community being able to survive and exist,' says Wray.
Crime is not new to Madison, but the level of violence this summer unsettled many and left police looking for answers ' as well as suspects. No arrests were made in the spate of ultra-violent muggings that began in May. In all, police believe the same individuals committed as many as 17 attacks, part of a wave of more than 200 robberies in the central city during the first half of this year.
Moreover, the rising number of disturbances associated with patrons of the Club Majestic prompted a public outcry. Last month, Wray imposed severe restrictions on the club, effectively shutting it down as a hip-hop venue.
Meantime, there have been at least two savage attacks on young women in recent weeks, including last month's gang rape of a 23-year-old female behind Ian's Pizza on Frances Street. That crime hit close to home for Ryan Zerwer, whose wife works at the burger joint next door and often parks in the lot where the attack occurred.
'That alley has always been a problem,' says Zerwer, a financial consultant who moved to Madison from Chicago nine years ago. 'Requests have been made to police to better patrol that area. We had a feeling that it was only a matter of time before something happened.'
Zerwer, citing a 'climate of fear' he thinks will hurt business downtown, questions the city's priorities. 'We spend an entirely inappropriate amount of money and manpower on Halloween and the Mifflin Street block party. We seem to have resources for these events, but when it comes to the day-to-day problems, that's when the budget issues come up.'
Wray, in discussing his grand plan for fighting crime, often talks in terms of what Madison needs and should do. Against the reality of the department's strapped resources, this often amounts to an indictment of what the city isn't providing and what the department isn't doing because of it.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz seems to have taken this criticism to heart. His 2007 budget includes a $1.6 million funding hike to the MPD, including 10 new officers, seven new detectives and a $100,000 Downtown Safety Initiative. Wray has called these allocations 'important investments in public safety to protect our community.'
Already, Wray has beefed up the police presence downtown, and he talks tirelessly of increasing foot patrols, lighting and late-night transportation options. As in most things, he talks a good game, while giving himself plenty of wiggle room.
'We must move away from the culture of this entitlement of binge drinking,' Wray told the audience at a recent Rotary Club luncheon. 'Secondly, we have to develop some sort of alcohol management plan and continue to build upon our relationships with bar owners.'
What this means is unclear, and how it'll be accomplished is murkier yet. But Cieslewicz dismisses criticism of the chief's demeanor.
'Some folks want you to come out and scream at the bad guys,' he says. 'Noble's approach is to understand what's going on here, then design a program to deal with it. Some of the criticism is more related to style than substance.'
Seizing the moment
Autocratic chiefs issue decisions as edict. Wray, in contrast, is a consensus-builder. Sidestepping his broad discretionary power to enact and rescind policy, the chief has demonstrated on issues like verified response and Tasers that he's capable of embracing feedback.
'When you get the community and police officers in the room, you'll arrive at a better decision,' says Wray. 'You have to understand when a critical mass is starting to take shape. You'll feel a consensus beginning to grow on a particular issue, and you have to take advantage of that. You have to seize the moment.'
Wray's ideal of 'trust-based policing' was tested in January 2005, when police Tasered a 15-year-old high school student who was trying to run away, prompting an outcry. Initially, Wray defended his officers, but when concerns lingered, he opened the issue to community input and ultimately agreed to change the MPD's policy. Tasers are now considered a step below deadly force, and would not be used again in a similar situation.
'The substance of it is substantially different from what most chiefs would've pursued,' says Ald. Austin King, the president of Madison's Common Council. 'He believes in public process and we've now got a [greatly improved] Taser policy because of it.'
But just because Wray is able to change his mind doesn't mean he always will. Peter Munoz, executive director of Centro Hispano, has lobbied the department for a decade to reevaluate how officers respond to crises involving the mentally ill. When officers shot and killed a deranged man outside a Williamson Street gas station in April, Munoz went public with his effort.
The 'Memphis Model' of policing Munoz wants Madison to adopt trains teams of officers to handle the mentally ill and others in potentially volatile situations. 'The Memphis model views someone going through a crisis as a consumer versus a perpetrator that you have to take down,' says Munoz. 'It understands that the crisis isn't a result of criminal activity but is a result of the illness.'
Wray rejected Munoz's call for a crisis-intervention team, saying his officers receive more crisis training than state law requires. In short, he felt the 'Madison Model' was good enough.
Munoz begs to differ. 'The problem is that there is a certain amount of pride we have in our police department because it's one of the best we have in the nation,' he says. 'I was very disappointed in him. The fact is that Noble Wray doesn't respond to anybody he doesn't have to.'
Running a complex, sometimes difficult agency with so many political and public constituents, no chief can please everyone all of the time.
'Being chief is tough,' says officer Scott Favour, police union president. 'He's doing the best he can, and he's doing well. He's always going to anger someone.'
And he does. Attorney McQuillan of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association accuses Wray of mishandling disciplinary issues involving two officers charged with misdemeanors. Wray wants the officers fired. Under Wisconsin law, disciplined officers are entitled to a due-process hearing before the Police and Fire Commission. In both cases, the hearings have slogged on for two years.
'He formed his judgment about what actually occurred before he had all the facts available to him,' charges McQuillan. 'There remains the same concerns that I've heard from other officers: that the chief doesn't keep his own counsel as well as he should.'
Concerns have also been raised about the department's level of candor with the public. Last month, Wray imposed a five-day suspension on Lt. Wayne Strong for telling the press that a double-murder suspect was still at large, even though the man was then in custody.
For some, the subterfuge recalled statements made by acting chief Wray and others in early 2004. Then the public was told that police had no reason to disbelieve the abduction story put forth by Audrey Seilor, after the 21-year-old UW-Madison student was discovered in a south-side marsh. At the time, the police had obtained a videotape of Seilor buying items she used to stage her own abduction.
Wray has also faced criticism from residents of Madison's Williamson-Marquette and Truax-Straubel neighborhoods, which are losing their neighborhood officers. Pamela Hathaway of the East Isthmus Neighborhoods Planning Council says the move belies MPD's stated commitment to community policing.
'Neighborhood officers are a critical piece of what a strong community should be,' says Hathaway. 'But our main problem is with the process in which the decision was made, that the neighborhoods weren't involved.'
Wray, formerly a neighborhood officer in Broadway-Simpson, applies master spin to the decision to yank these officers. 'At some point, does the officer become a hindrance to that neighborhood empowering itself?' he asks. 'It should be viewed as a positive that a neighborhood has moved to the point where it can sustain itself.'
Favour agrees officers are often more of a 'Band-Aid' than a cure for societal problems: 'Noble fights a constant battle, because people want to see a squad car or beat officer. What an officer can do is very limited.'
And while McQuillan is frustrated over Wray's handling of personnel issues, he doesn't challenge his ability: 'I meet a lot of chiefs and would say, especially in terms of where he is today, that Chief Wray is as good as we've got.'
Born in 1960, Wray grew up poor in Milwaukee during an era when police were a menacing presence for poor black people. The seventh of 10 children raised by Catholic parents, he lived across the street from St. Boniface Church, ground zero for Milwaukee's turbulent civil rights movement. The brutality he witnessed made him resent law enforcement.
'I remember standing on the steps with my father and watching the tanks going up and down the street,' says Wray. 'I remember seeing a police officer batter a guy and how intimidating they came across. You did not ask questions. They were the ones who asked questions. But I also had relatives who were some of the earlier police officers, so I could reconcile some of those differences.'
As Wray approached adolescence, the first wave of Chicago street gangs arrived in Milwaukee. His parents secured a scholarship and shipped Wray off to a boarding school in northern Wisconsin, modeled on the leadership philosophies of John F. Kennedy. There he played sports and was a bright but average student.
After high school, he enrolled at UW-Milwaukee, where he pursued a political science major before switching to criminal justice. Following a post-college stint working in a liquor store, Wray, then 23 and married, filled out an MPD application. He was hired in 1984, when the department, under Chief David Couper, was on the cutting edge of community policing.
'When I first started here, we talked about community policing, but I don't think we really understood it,' recalls Wray. 'It was a novel idea for a chief to say, 'I think the way to go is community policing.'' Now, he says, the department has evolved to where it is gauging the effectiveness of various approaches.
Wray rose quickly through the ranks. His skills at problem-solving let him pursue a lucrative side career as a consultant for police departments across the country. Today, he sees himself as strengthening the progressive policies begun by Couper in the early 1970s.
Clearly, Wray is better liked and more respected than his predecessor, Richard Williams, who headed the MPD for 11 years and is politely remembered as 'detached.' Williams seemed to have no clear sense of purpose and suffered some embarrassing mishaps, like forgetting to remove his gun from an oven before baking a turkey.
'Williams did an awful job,' assesses Ald. King. 'A ficus plant could've taken over after Dick Williams and I would've been happy.'
Wray was picked by the Madison Police and Fire Commission in October 2004, after serving as acting chief for about six months. Since then, Wray has stressed building trust and resolving ongoing issues.
'I believe in the profession,' he says. 'The ultimate goal is for humanity to move forward. Not only have we evolved, but the community has evolved to the point where it can challenge us a lot better to make sure that we're living up to what we say we're all about.'
Effective leaders have vision. Successful managers know how to achieve change. Wray aspires to be both. He envisions a time when the way policing is done in Madison and Dane County will be radically different. With police agencies across the board reeling from budget constraints, Wray is pushing to establish a metro police force, which would break down the county's jurisdictional lines.
'We need to have a plan for how we're going to share resources,' he says. 'I think that needs to take place soon. If it does not take place, this issue is going to end up all over the map.'
Clear obstacles, like rivalries between the urban and rural departments, stand in the way of such a revamping, but Cieslewicz believes Wray can make it happen.
'Regionalism is the wave of the future,' says the mayor. 'Budget pressures are actually going to work in our favor. People are going to look around and ask, 'How can we get the most bang for our buck?''
Although the MPD still considers itself overextended, Madison is safer than most mid-sized cities, and its police force is well-respected. In late September, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing held its annual conference here. For four days, about 400 chiefs and officers from around the world met to discuss public safety issues.
Given the demands on his time, Wray no longer does outside consulting, and has sacrificed other things he enjoys, like collecting model trains. But he maintains his obsession with problem-solving, a fine quality for a chief.
'I've been in a number of communities where people have given up. I mean they're sitting around a table, but they've really given up,' says Wray. 'Madison is one of the few communities I've worked in where there is still a sense that if there's a problem you can actually solve it.'