by Brianna Rae
The City of Madison has recently been situated within the national discourse regarding issues of racial injustice and police brutality against communities of color. Since the shooting of Tony Robinson in March and the release of reports detailing the egregious severity of racial inequities that exist within Dane County and the larger state of Wisconsin, police relations with the communities they serve have been under both local and national scrutiny, led most notably by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tim Patton, sergeant and recruiter for the Madison Police Department (MPD), who oversees their pre-service academy. Our discussion explored Madison’s local police and community relations and what efforts MPD is making to ameliorate relations and build more trust in the community. This conversation addressed what has long been a rift of understanding and an open wound between the police and the community, and offered information on how to productively bridge and heal this gap.
Understanding the Lack of Trust from Communities of Color
Patton knows that the tension and animosity between the police and communities of color is not the something that began in Madison with the shooting of Tony Robinson. “There have been historical issues of trust, especially with communities of color, and this is not new to our community and this is not new to our country,” Patton said.
“What is new,” he continued, “is that more people are now paying attention to this narrative, people who maybe weren’t aware of these issues before.” The momentum and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized people who had not always been affected by or attuned to issues of police brutality. “There’s a small percentage of the population that’s been having the bulk of contact with the police,” Patton said, “and the groups who are most impacted by police contact have the least say in how the system works, whereas other groups have more say but less experience.”
Patton and MPD are working to change that imbalance and integrate the voice and needs of communities into police training and police awareness in a variety of ways.
The Use of Pre-service Training Hours
In order to become an officer for MPD, one must go through a 24 week training through the pre-service academy. This consists of 720 hours of pre-determined curriculum from the state, and 100-120 ‘discretionary’ hours, or hours that MPD can decide itself how to use.
“For 24 weeks, our pre-service officers, theoretically, are surrounded by nothing but law enforcement officers,” Patton explained. For this reason, he recognizes the need to introduce pre-service officers directly to the citizens, neighborhoods, and organizations that they’ll eventually serve. “What we need to do during [these 24 weeks] is incorporate more of the community into their time,” Patton says.
And it’s not a one-way street of bringing officers into communities — Patton emphasizes the importance of community input in how pre-service officers spend their time and training. “We want to focus on transparency and how to facilitate that,” he said. “The community should know exactly what we’re doing, how we hire, and how we train,” he continued, “and also have some say in what those 120 hours consist of.”
MPD is already taking the initiative to build community relationships. They’re partnering with the Boys & Girls Club to do officer ride-alongs and are hosting a day of taser instruction in which they are inviting members of the community and police critics to watch that instruction; they are partnering with United Way and Big Brothers, Big Sisters to conduct a four-hour lesson on poverty; they’re also working with the Warner Park Community Center, Centro Hispano, and Journey Mental Health on a variety of topics.
“We’re really excited about where this might go,” said Patton. “They [pre-service officers] really need to hear directly from the communities they are going to serve, and we want to facilitate as many positive interactions as we can.”
“We’re different than a normal police department in terms of how we hire,” Patton said, speaking to the way that MPD uses a holistic, non-exclusionary approach in hiring. “We’re not just looking for people who knew all their life that they wanted to be a police officer,” he said, but instead, are looking for people with a rich diversity of backgrounds.
Unlike other police departments, MPD uses reading comprehension, a vocabulary test, and an essay submission, paired with interview questions that are both broad and personalized, in order to obtain the most accurate and whole picture of a person.
“This kind of hiring process delivers an extremely diverse workforce – not just in terms of gender, race, age, or class, but in experience as well. It’s not unusual for us to receive 1,000 applications for 20 spots,” said Patton.
In terms of the diversity of MPD’s workforce reflecting proportionally the diversity of Madison, they’re doing well, especially when compared with other police departments. The female representation of the staff is around 30 percent, and minority representation is around 20 percent. In addition, the majority of hires are comprised of people who have a large variety of life experience. Sgt. Patton is a perfect example.
Born and raised in Madison, Patton obtained a degree in special education from UW-Madison. For ten years, he worked with students who had severe and profound behavioral and cognitive disabilities. “It was a phenomenal job, it was a blast,” Patton recalled, “but around the 8 or 9-year mark I started thinking maybe I should do something different.”
“I got connected to this job [at MPD] sort of on a whim, and didn’t necessarily think I was a ‘typical’ hire for them,” he said. Now, he acknowledges how much his seemingly-unrelated job in special education actually laid the foundation for his skill set at MPD.
“Working with people with disabilities, with different needs and learning styles, helped me to cultivate patience and an understanding of individualized attention, because every person and situation is different,” said Patton.
“Also, from a multidisciplinary approach, I was able to see how students’ success really required multiple people and backgrounds,” he continued, speaking to the fact that like students, MPD (and any public service organization) needs to have multiple and varying abilities, skill sets, and perspectives applied to it and holding it accountable in order for it to succeed.
The Call for Collaborative and Local Leadership
Sgt. Patton urges the community to participate in creating a collective vision for how we as a city and a community want our officers to be trained. “We need to meet and communicate often, and ‘check-in’ with each other about our needs, what we’re doing well, what we need to improve on, etc.,” he said.
Because Madison, like every place, is made up of a network micro-communities within a larger community, it is ideal for each micro-community to participate in these conversations. Since each community is an expert on their own specific needs and concerns, it is crucial for them to be at the table and influencing policy. In return, it is also crucial that communities learn and understand where curriculum and training for MPD officers comes from, and why.
Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, The Madison Times will present a more in-depth examination of the pre-service academy, the allocation of discretionary hours, and what MPD is doing to integrate community input into police training.