For most of his adult life, Noble Wray has always been thinking about how to make Madison a safer community and brainstorming to solve its problems. So it’s safe to say that the former Madison chief of police's recent retirement has led to a much less stressful life for the 29-year veteran of the Madison Police Department.
“Things are going well. I'm pretty relaxed. I feel good,” smiles Wray as he sits down for an interview with The Madison Times at Ground Zero Coffeeshop on Madison's near east side. “I think for the first month the challenge was 'What's my schedule?' But as soon as I went out and got a calendar and started plugging things in, I felt much better.”
Wray started as a police officer in Madison in 1984 and rose through the ranks to become chief of police in 2004. His focus throughout was to make sure that community policing and problem-solving were institutionalized in so many different ways. “As chief of police, there are programmatic things that you can count as accomplishments and then there are things in terms of culture that are harder to measure that I am proud of,” Wray says. “I feel like I created an environment where people could come in and talk to me — where people could have those courageous conversations both inside and outside the department. “
Wray is continuing the consulting work he has been involved in on a national level since the mid-’90s.
“Just in the last three months I did consulting work with an agency the size of 30 officers in the Phoenix, Arizona area and did consulting work with the largest law enforcement agency in the United States, the NYPD. I do enjoy that,” Wray says. “It gives me the opportunity to stay close to the profession without necessarily being in the profession.”
Wray is still affiliated with the United Way and now that he is retired, the demand for Wray in various Madison organizations, agencies, and non-profits is large. But Wray will take his time getting into things.“What I like to be is effective,” Wray says. “In 1997, I had a heart attack at age 37. One of the things I had difficulty doing [at the time] was saying no. So, moving forward, I want to be effective. I want to be a part of the community. I want to still give back to this city and state. Wisconsin is in my blood. But I don't want to be a mile wide and an inch deep in terms of what I can do. I've been asked to serve on a number of different boards and I've responded by saying, 'Just give me a minute to think.’”
His official date of retirement was Jan. 2 although his last day of work was months before. “What people may not have realized is that technically I still had to make some decisions even while I was on vacation,” Wray says. “The police and fire commission of the state of Wisconsin technically only recognized one chief in terms of making decisions.”
Now, Assistant Chief Randy Gaber is officially the sole chief as the Madison Police and Fire Commission vets applications to find a new chief.
“I was just thinking about that on my way over here to this interview because I remember when [former Madison Police] Chief [Richard] Williams left [in 2004] and he's walking out of the City-County Building and I said to him, 'Hey, Chief Williams, this thing with the missing person is really, really exploding here and really evolving. There are a lot of questions being asked. Do you want to deal with it?' And he told me, 'No, it's all yours!' It turns out that case was the Audrey Seiler case!” Wray smiles.
Seiler was the University of Wisconsin-Madison student who faked her own kidnapping in the spring of 2004 which sparked a massive search of the Madison area by hundreds of volunteers that spanned several days. As a result, during his first week as chief, Wray was getting plenty of national and international attention.
It was an interesting and demanding start for Wray as Madison chief of police. Two decades before that, in 1984, he got his first police beat —Madison's downtown area. “They reinstituted the walking beats in downtown Madison,” Wray remembers. “At the time, Madison had not experienced the renaissance that it had experienced 10 years ago. By and large, there was still a lot of prostitution taking place and in and around the Capitol was pretty dead after a certain period of time. It was a different downtown.”
After a year or two working the downtown beat, an assignment came open for Wray to be a neighborhood officer in the Broadway/Simpson neighborhood. “Eventually, in the late 80s and early 90s, it became the most-challenging neighborhood in Madison,” Wray says. “I actually lived on Simpson St. at the time and that was unique because I experienced some of the things that the residents experienced there. For example, going to Kohl's Food Store and writing a check and having someone tell me they won't accept it because it has a Simpson/Broadway address. Or trying to order a pizza and the pizza delivery guy tells me, “We don't deliver there.' It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Wray was actually considering leaving the profession before he got that assignment. “It was there where I could actually see how you could make a difference in policing,” Wray says. “I could see where you could work with citizens and solve their problems and have a positive impact on their lives. It was much different than the noise complaints and drunkenness and getting snowballs thrown at you from working downtown.”
It was in Broadway/Simpson where the seeds were planted for community and trust-based policing that he would use throughout his career at the Madison Police Department. “It became abundantly clear to me that policing with the community you could be much more effective,” Wray says. “At that time, the jury was still out on community policing. In the profession, not everybody bought into this idea of community policing. They thought it was soft policing. But right now, you can't find a law enforcement agency in the United States that would not say that they are a community-orientated agency. It was probably one of the best moves that the profession did was to move in that direction.”
Community policing was a sharp contrast to what Wray saw growing up very poor in inner-city Milwaukee. Wray lived right across the street from St. Boniface where Father James Groppie was leading a civil rights movement in the state of Wisconsin. But law enforcement was used to maintain and control minority populations on the North Side of Milwaukee at that time rather than working with them.
“When citizens know you by name and they are part of the public safety response, the level of success grows tremendously,” Wray says “This is not new. Sir Robert Peel said it back then [in the early 1800s] that the police are the public and the public are the police.”
Wray has a keen awareness of the tremendous racial disparities that exist in Madison —specifically related to incarceration. Racial disparities in incarceration is certainly a national issue, but it has really crystallized here in Madison. A recent report states that Wisconsin (at 12.8 percent) locks up the highest percentage of black men in the United States. The national average is 6.7 percent.
“We need to stop reacting to reports and to come up with a plan that we are committed to and that we have constancy of purpose,” Wray says. “If you go back to '98-'99, all we were talking about was racial profiling. After 9/11, we stopped talking about it. During my tenure, I chaired the governor's task force on reducing racial disparities, we had a county report, we've had the Race to Equity report. We seem to do these reports for a period of time where we focus on the issue and then we move away from it. We need to get a long-term and constant focus. It needs to be somebody's job. Somebody needs to be held accountable for this in a way where there's constant pressure put on making sure that we are having an impact on the disparity numbers.”
Wray explained that there are “root cause” disparities and there are “symptomatic” disparities.
“The ones you see from a policing perspective are the symptomatic disparities,” Wray says. “There is not the political will to deal with the root cause disparities. They are longer term and they are more entrenched. They take more resources and they take more time. But that is where the answers are — the root cause disparities — education, social and economic factors, etc..”
But once folks are in the criminal justice system there are still things that police can do more effectively., Wray says. “I think we understand how the disparities occur, but if there's one thing that the City of Madison and Dane County should have is the most robust, the most effective, and the most evidence-based re-entry initiative in the country,” Wray says. “I think that is where we can start to address these issues.
“When someone comes out of prison, the evidence is there in terms of what you should do and how you should do it,” Wray continues. “And if you can do that, you will have an impact on the repeat offenders and the rates of recidivism in a dramatic way. We can do better with re-entry because we have the worst numbers.”
“When can we return these people back to citizenship?” Wray asks. “When someone works hard and has done their time and they are not involved in criminal activity for a period of time…. when do we have them not carry the burden of CCAP [Consolidated Court Automation Programs case management system]? When do we not have them carry the burden of them being able to get a job or an apartment without looking at their criminal history? When can they return to citizenship? Especially, people who did bad things when they were really young…”
As Wray looks back upon his many years on the force, one of the things that he is most proud of is his work with ex-offenders
“I like that we brought the idea of focused deterrence and focusing on repeat offenders with the special investigative unit,” Wray says. “I liked that we expanded and implemented a gang unit that really has a comprehensive approach — they're not just focusing on arrests. They are working in partnerships with the Madison Metropolitan School District and neighborhood intervention teams and their real emphasis is crime prevention. In this community every day they are preventing incidents from occurring and they are working closely with kids and families and doing home visits.”
When it's all said and done, Wray says, what the Madison taxpayers want is to control costs and reduce crime. And that's what he wants to remembered for, too. “In my last year, the F.B.I. reports that we are the fourth-safest city in the United States,” Wray says.
During Wray’s tenure, the department has experienced unprecedented growth with the addition of 30 officers who hit the streets in 2008 and 2009, along with the creation of a Crime Prevention Gang Unit to address increasing youth violence, the addition of crime analysts for data-driven decision-making and the expansion of community policing teams to address problems no longer isolated to a specific neighborhood.
“We still have the highest percentage of women officers in the United States,” Wray says. “And one of the things that I'm really proud of is that under my watch the department really grew by both number of officers and the number of officers in promoted ranks. We were able to maintain or increase in many of those areas.”
Wray was the first person in 30 or 40 years to become chief after going through the Madison Police Department.
“For someone that looked like me in 1984, it was not a real reality in the state of Wisconsin that I could become a chief of police,” Wray says. “I'm so proud of that. When I first started, my dream was to one day to just get promoted. It was actually Milele [Chikasa Anana] who caught me in the hallway leaving a meeting at the mayor's office who said to me, 'Do you know that you can be the chief?' I had not even thought about it until she posed the question. Coming up through the ranks, there was not a path that said, 'This is how you can do this.' I had to create my own path. I'm really proud of that.”
Wray says that he's proud of the relationships he made inside and out of the Madison Police Department.
“As an officer, I was proud that I was able to connect with people and not lose sight of the purpose of being a police officer. I'm proud that I was able to grow up within an organization and that I know so many of the wonderful people at the Madison Police Department,” Wray says. “I'm proud that I can go into just about every neighborhood in Madison and I know people on a first-name basis.”
With his name recognition, his connections, his charisma, and his long track record in Madison, Wray seems like an excellent potential candidate for political office.
“Well, I know the city and I know the state. It's something that I've thought about off and on,” Wray says. “My father ran for office in Milwaukee; he was one of the first African Americans to run for alder in the city of Milwaukee. So, it's always something that I've tossed around in my mind. I haven't ruled out anything like that. But at this particular time, I'm enjoying traveling the country and working with law enforcement agencies both large and small. I'm pretty happy where I'm at right now.”