Chief Koval's Blog

Response to an Open Letter

January 12, 2015 11:33 AM

On January 9, 2015, the group known as the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition sent an "Open Letter to Police Chief Koval" and recipients including Mayor Paul Soglin and City of Madison Alders.

While there were many concerns and "demands" that were directed to me, one paragraph stood out for its "shock" value.  The paragraph is as follows:

"Although Madison's model of community policing and attempt to build trust between the community and police, even acting as "social workers," may be a step above certain other communities, our arrest rates and incarceration disparities still top the nation.  THE RELATIONSHIP THAT WE DESIRE TO HAVE WITH THE POLICE IS SIMPLE: NO INTERACTION (my emphasis).  Our ultimate goal is to be able to hold our own communities accountable and to expel what we consider an occupying force in our neighborhoods.  Our people need opportunities for self-determination, not policing."

I feel compelled to respond to a letter that views the Madison Police Department as an "occupying force" and neighborhoods that would be better off without us.  My response to this "open" letter is contained in this blog:

At the outset of my remarks, I would like to thank you for acknowledging the efforts of my Department in attempting to facilitate your demonstrations over the past few months.  We have repeatedly reached out to you in an attempt to discern how we can best achieve outcomes that defend First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech.  Sometimes you have worked with us, other times our calls are not returned.  As I believe in the value of civic engagement, I have personally directed our command staff to ensure the exercise of the "Madison Method" like never before---fostering an environment of professional decorum characterized by pro-active dialogue, avoiding formal enforcement strategies where possible, and displaying the utmost respect and dignity in all of our contacts. We have more than lived up to my expectations.

Playing a seminal role in facilitating your demonstrations has not been easy.  Officers have been mustered from off-hours, traffic and contingency plans assembled, beats back-filled, significant overtime incurred and members of the general public have been patient---thus far.  This is the role of police in a free society and the MPD has performed in stellar fashion.  But please take note:  I evaluate our response on a case-by-case basis and there are limits to what is considered reasonable behavior(s).  For example, going into a privately-held venue (e.g. a mall) and using a bull horn to drop "f-bombs" or other profanity in the course of bringing attention to a cause is NOT protected speech and will subject the speaker to sanctions.  This has been explained to your group in private; now is it being noticed in a public forum.

I find it helpful to address those subjects where common ground might be articulated.  I have always agreed that the harmful impacts of racial disparity in Dane County are not in dispute. An education system that has underserved people of color, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, a lack of suitable guardians or mentors for our youth (leading to greater gang involvement), challenged neighborhoods and a criminal justice system that is fraught with inadequacies are but a few of the drivers that contribute to the malaise we face as a community.

I have used my office as a bully pulpit in urging the legislature to address issues of racial disparity as a priority.  I have spoken out publicly that there is a litany of things that could be done in one legislative session if politicians were truly serious about bringing about fundamental change(s):

1.  Under a revised juvenile justice code effected several years ago, a 17-year-old is now automatically waived into an adult court of original jurisdiction when a criminal offense is alleged to have been committed.  Change it back to 18.  High school kids are still dealing with maturation issues; let's not move them into the criminal justice system at 17.

2.  Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) is fatal to futures.  Once a record of an "arrest" is established (no matter what the disposition is), it has a shelf-life longer than nuclear waste.  That creates a de facto process of stigmatizing and punishment for those whose cases were never prosecuted or when they have already paid their "debt" to society.  Shouldn't there be a grace period established in which some offenses can be wiped clean after a certain period of time?

3.  Driving offenses (to include violations for registration and equipment infractions) should have a mechanism established for paying fines with time and talents in lieu of financial reparations for those who do not have the means to pay.  When poor people are saddled with insurmountable fees that they are incapable of paying, licenses are suspended, warrants are issued, our jails become "debtor's" prisons and the pursuit of job and educational options become more limiting if you can't lawfully drive to participate!

4. Possessory drug charges should be liberated from the criminal justice system and afforded an option for a treatment alternative.  Labeling people who have an addiction with a criminal record, and then employing a punitive model of response has proven ineffective.  Similarly, a discussion--statewide--with respect to regulating marijuana differently should be held.

5.  More restorative justice courts should be created as a means of diverting people from the criminal justice system.  We have seen some incredibly encouraging results in peer courts in Madison high schools (thanks to Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval) that could be replicated in other settings (e.g., neighborhoods).

6.  Provide resources to our youth before they are thrust into the criminal justice system.  Why is it that kids who are first experiencing "bad choices," and are sent to a municipal court, have very little programming offered? It's because the statutory options of municipal court are limited.  A kid literally has to commit crimes and be thrust into the juvenile justice system before getting a case worker and getting access to vital resources!

As the Chief of the City of Madison Police Department, I'm in this community for the long haul.  I will continue to be an advocate for public policy that makes sense without compromising public safety.  But some of your "ultimatums" are beyond the pale of what I can deliver or reflect inferences that are unsubstantiated.

I have repeatedly stated that MPD is sensitive to those areas where it can be demonstrated that officers (individually) or the Department (collectively) is engaged in purposed or unconscious bias toward any group or groups.  Based on the diversity and the strength of character personified in our workforce, the training which is second to none and ever-striving for best practices, coupled with checks-and-balances that serve to bring rogue cops or practices to the light of day, I will not buy into the naive supposition that our community's disparity issues are largely owing to a pervasive pattern of systemic racism by MPD.  In fact, I'm fed up with my Department being blamed for everything from male pattern baldness to global warming.  It is time for Young, Gifted, and Black to look a lot deeper at the issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the "blame game" of throwing my Department to the wolves.  I'm done with allowing this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged.  Perhaps others in Madison are afraid to violate the rules of political correctness and say what I am saying (including the media).  I cannot control the public debate, but I will not stay silent. I am 56 years old, this is my last job, and I am calling you out as a group (I guess it's a good thing that I don't run for public office and can say what I mean and mean what I say).

What I find most objectionable in your letter to me was the demand that MPD have no "interaction" with "our own communities."  This is absolutely untenable to me.  You are now comfortable making those kind of quantum leaps and have polled your "own communities" to come to this conclusion?  Suffice to say, that is NOT the message I get when I go to community forums--in fact, quite the contrary!  So, unless forced to resign or retire (and I think retirement is light years away at this point), MPD is not going to "reduce" our contacts with our neighborhood constituents--in fact, we are going to "increase" them!  That's because I view most of our "contacts" as relational opportunities for creating dialogues, establishing trust, identifying problem-solving initiatives, and improving the quality of life issues for everyone in our City.

I applaud and encourage our officers to get out of their squad cars, build relationships, and show our citizens that the cops are not merely reacting to calls for service. We are here to act as guardians to our community. That means being preemptive, pro-active, and collaborative. Your approach focuses exclusively on how the police deal with "offenders."    But what would you have us do about our care and support for those that are most vulnerable, voiceless, and victimized?  You infer that our very presence only contributes and compounds a dysfunctional situation. You would have us ignore and dismiss the rights of the neighbors who are complainants, witnesses, and victims? People in our neighborhoods rely on our assistance and hope that our influence will make these challenged neighborhoods safer.  Are you really advocating that the police abdicate our responsibilities to these folks?

With respect to your other "demands," we will always be amenable to exploring the "best possible resolutions" as dispositions to those we encounter.  Our first default is not to only think in terms of citation or arrest.  Officers are encouraged to think outside of the box in applying creative alternatives in resolving issues.  For example, we will be a critical element in identifying and referring offenders to a restorative justice court that is being piloted in the South District later this quarter.  At the end of the day, while committed to creating new paradigms in the way we police, this must be balanced with the amount of resources that are currently in place (limited) with the necessity for holding people who commit crimes accountable.

In Madison, we have many well-intentioned, forward-thinking groups and individuals who recognize that "business as usual" is no longer an acceptable refrain.  Count MPD in!  Similar to the Madison Metropolitan School District's policy referred to as "BEP" (Behavior Education Plan), which looks to avoid police involvement and fewer formal contacts with police to avoid premature labeling and suspensions, I say, great!  I sincerely hope it works!  I am all for it, unless or until it compromises public safety.  Similarly, I support many of the philosophical initiatives that you are striving for and embrace the sentiments behind them, unless or until it compromises my need to provide public safety to all of our constituents.

While we probably cannot achieve complete "consensus" in determining how our City will dismantle racial disparities, we can all agree that there has to be a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the effects.  But complex issues are unlikely to be solved unless everyone is held accountable, not just the low hanging fruit known as the "police."

Respectfully submitted,

Chief Koval

Posted by: Chief Koval

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