When Noble Wray applied for a job with the Madison Police Department in 1984, a routine background check turned up a large number of contacts with police in his hometown, over mostly minor traffic matters. The interviewer jokingly asked, "Don't you think the Milwaukee Police Department has paid enough attention to you?"
It's been years since Wray, who went on to become Madison's chief of police, has been stopped by the cops. But his two sons still occasionally find themselves the subjects of law enforcement interest.
Brent Wray, a UW-Milwaukee student, was pulled over in 2005 by a Milwaukee County deputy sheriff, who followed him out of a convenience store. The young man, now 23, was issued a $10 citation for not wearing a seatbelt. State law says police "may not stop or inspect a vehicle solely to determine compliance" with seatbelt rules, but the officer never gave any other reason for the stop.
"Brent clearly felt that he was being harassed" due to race, says his father, who agrees this is possible. (He adds that Brent "should have had his seatbelt on.")
Such experiences instruct Wray's perspective as co-chair of a commission appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to address racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system. As Wray puts it, "There's probably no more pressing issue in Wisconsin than this one."
The numbers are striking: Wisconsin has one of the nation's highest arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans, Hispanics and other racial minorities. In January, a national group reported that African American males in Wisconsin are nearly 20 times as likely to be locked up as whites.
But pinning down the reasons for this phenomenon, and coming up with strategies to combat it, is a daunting challenge. Says Wray, "It is a complex issue that will require a complex response."
In his executive order creating the commission, Gov. Doyle asked that it determine "whether discrimination is built into the criminal justice system." At its inaugural meeting in early April, he urged members to "take an honest and full look at our system of justice, and offer concrete recommendations on what improvements ought to be made."
Staffed by the state Justice Department, the 24-member commission includes lawmakers, prosecutors, police officials, criminal defense attorneys, judges, academics, and community leaders. It met for two days in Pewaukee this week, to define its focus and set an agenda.
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, a committee member, notes that "the charge on this thing is very broad" - involving multiple levels of the justice system. His hope is that it can make specific and practical suggestions, not produce a report loaded with "aspirational statements" that sits on a shelf.
And while Blanchard agrees that laws like truth in sentencing have meant generally longer sentences and stiffer penalties for those who violate the terms of their release, he thinks the committee is wise to focus on improvements that don't involve changing the law, since the legislative process is "unpredictable and uncertain."
Wray says the commission hopes to cast a wide net, by holding public hearings throughout the state, including the Madison and Milwaukee areas. And he says its biggest challenge will be find a way to keep the process going. "We know we can't solve this problem by Oct. 1," when the group must present its final report.
One early critic is Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr., a black conservative. Clarke, in an essay, argued that young black males are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates because they commit more crimes.
"Black men and boys must begin making better lifestyle choices, [such as] not impregnating females they have no intention of committing to," he lectured. "If people still feel a need to form a commission, my suggestion is that it be made up only of crime victim survivors."
Wray says the commission must not lose sight of victims or its responsibility to protect public safety. And people do need to show "personal accountability" in making better life choices.
But he calls Clarke's perspective "one-dimensional" and the "kind of rhetoric that prevents us from addressing this issue." Some people do need to be incarcerated. But this cannot be the society's only response.
Wray says the "800-pound gorilla" in the room is the role of economics in driving criminal behavior. He cites Allied Drive as an example of the severe economic disparity - "a tale of two cities" - that exists in our midst.
"I don't think most Madisonians realize how socially and economically different Allied Drive is from the rest of the community," he says.
Bias, both deliberate and unconscious, may also be part of the equation, although it's usually hard to prove. Does an officer pull a car over because it has a broken taillight, or because its occupants are Hispanic?
But Wray says the notion of individual officer bias is "really oversold." Some disparities in policing owe to deliberate decisions to concentrate law-enforcement resources on particular areas. It's critical, he says, that such actions occur "with the consent of the governed" - that is, in response to neighborhood requests.
The commission, says Wray, was "asked to look at the whole criminal justice system, not just law enforcement." He believes there are many places within that system where bias can creep in - for instance, in sentencing.
"You cannot as a state have consistently some of the highest disparities in the country and not have some bias there," says Wray. "If law enforcement will acknowledge unconscious bias, I think everyone has to acknowledge bias all the way up the system."
A final factor driving high minority incarceration rates - and one in which individual citizens can have a major impact - is in reintegrating offenders. Wray points to a pilot program launched by Madison Urban Ministries and funded by the United Way of Dane County. He says it has achieved significant reductions in recidivism by pairing ex-cons with jobs, housing, treatment and support.
This is just one area in which Wray feels that the public can play a positive role. By giving former offenders a chance rather than further restricting their options, ordinary people can help create a safer society.
Wray says the public must also get past believing that complex problems like crime have simple solutions, like "lock 'em up." And it must "let go of this anxiety over someone saying you are biased." If the justice system is to confront internal bias, so should we all.
"People have to realize that this is not an African American issue or a Latino issue. This is a Wisconsin issue. I take great pride in this state, and it bothers me that the disparities are so high. I think we can do better."