Mike Koval says he expected a short “breaking-in period" at his new job leading the Madison Police Department after taking over for long-time Police Chief Noble Wray.
But that's not the way things went down for the new police chief. Shortly after he was sworn in, Koval was dealing with a double homicide and an officer-involved shooting on East Washington Avenue.
“Our first shooting was on May 2nd and that was my third day on the job,” Koval tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Madison Police Department Station downtown. “It’s the worst-case scenario at any time when you are the police but particularly when you’ve been sworn in 2½ days prior to that. You’d like to think that you would get a break when you are just starting, but that was seriously baptism and indoctrination by tragic consequence.”
Being the head recruiter and trainer for the Madison Police Department (MPD) 17 years prior to becoming chief of police, Koval knew the many officers at the scene very well. “Your heart goes out to the people involved in that incident,” Koval says. “You always train for these incidents and you always hope and pray that it doesn’t occur that way, but when it does — as a trainer — it’s a moment of redemption to know that they did what they were trained to do.”
Koval has long overseen efforts to recruit and train hundreds of officers who have bought into Madison’s commitment to progressive policing. Koval estimates that he’s trained about 80 percent of the current force. If there’s a police officer in Madison, chances are he or she has been influenced by Koval.
“I can be indicted on that count,” Koval smiles. “I have trained many. The thing that I liked best about being a trainer is that when they come in through the front door, they are filled with this unbridled I-want-to-save-the-world enthusiasm. That’s the essence. That’s what keeps you young as an older person to think: I remember that look; I remember that vibe. What a great thing.
“At some point, some lose sight of that exuberance and inspired motivation,” he adds. “It’s up to me as the chief to continually re-cultivate that vibe and to continue to inspire and motivate.”
Koval joined the department in 1983, and, with the exception of two years working for the FBI, has been there ever since. He has seen the city evolve over the years.
“When I grew up in Madison it was more in the context of nostalgically remembering us as this college town/Norman Rockwellian photo,” Koval says. “It’s clear that over the course of my three decades here that Madison has become much more metropolitan and [that includes] all the good that that brings but also all of the byproducts and the bad attributes that it brings. We have gang issues that are on the rise. We have heroin use that has become more pervasive in this community as the price point for that has become more obtainable.
“But what creates increasing dilemmas for me as chief of police is seeing this incredible economic chasm — this big gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’” he adds. “I think this issue in and of itself is the underlying cause of so many things that people perceive are dysfunctional in Madison. Everything from deteriorating neighborhoods, increasing challenges in schools, and over 50 percent of MMSD students who are qualified for subsidies. What we see playing out in the schools is a microcosm of what we see in the greater community. It plays itself out on a greater stage in the city.”
It’s something that has happened in many cities in the United States from the mid- to late-20th century as they grew. Madison is at that unique point right now. The tipping point.
“As we look to solve this, there has to be a little less finger-pointing and blame-naming in a sense of whose responsible for who’s doing what and who’s not doing enough,” Koval says. “We need to find a more-coordinated and comprehensive community response to these issues.
The police — the only 24/7 social service that I’m aware of — are increasingly being asked to do more with less in terms of diagnostics for people who are mentally ill and in crisis. As the tip of the spear, so to speak, we are the first point of harmful impact. But after we have had our first drive-by treatment of whatever it is that we can offer, where are the commensurate public services that we used to see so indicative of this community?”
Through defunding and having other priorities, Koval says, they have become casualties. “Over time and politics, many things have been gutted and defunded and now the criminal justice system is being cannibalized in dealing with people who are mentally ill who are without service or without infrastructure to provide them with medication,” he says. “In so many of these tragically consequential events that we’ve been involved with, [there] have been people who were acting out in that context.”
Koval says Madison has a lot of people doing wonderful things, but collaboration is needed. “Let’s take an issues like homelessness. There are an awful lot of people with good hearts and great intentions working for not-for-profits or pastoral ministries who individually have a lot of great ideas,” he says. “But marshalling those resources and coordinating them together on the same template with others would create a more-efficient delivery system if we weren’t all sort of going in 20 different directions.”
What he’s seen in Madison he calls ‘analysis leading to paralysis.’ “We’ve studied these core problems for gosh knows how long. It’s time to galvanize,” Koval says. “I wish that all of the social services agencies and corporate sponsors came together [to] understand that as go the fortunes of Madison, so go all of the fortunes. It’s in everybody’s best interest to make Madison the emerald city that it’s capable of being.”
Former Police Chief Noble Wray was always big on community policing. Koval sees the importance of that legacy and is continuing it.
“What concerns me is that in our heyday we were at 18 [community neighborhood officers]. Now, with our neighborhoods ever-more challenged, we’re at 11,” Koval says. “My immediate budgetary priority is to grow the neighborhoods again because now more than ever that is where the in-the-balance issues are hanging on in some of these neighborhoods that are on the cusp of going up or down. My first budget requests has five more neighborhood officers.”
Koval says that he also wants to pump things up at the grassroots level. “We need to get out of those squad cars. Getting involved at the grassroots level is what made us great and that’s what we have to double down on and reinvest our resources in,” Koval says.
There has been a nationwide trend to move past the simplistic “tough-on-crime” policing to smart policing that places an emphasis on attacking core problems.
“Remember when cocaine and subsequently crack where pandemic? At that time, the feds had a lot of money spent on ‘Weed & Seed’ where you first go into troubled areas, you identify the bad and destructive players … weed them out,” Koval says. “Now, you’ve created some measure of stability and you fortify it with the social services and the empowerment and the extra grants to reclaim the area.
Nowadays, contemporary police have put so much emphasis on the weeding out, but I don’t see the commitment to the fertilizing of the job.
“I think we need to find diversions to the criminal justice system to people that are being maligned, labeled, and therefore stigmatized and trapped,” he adds. “As we capture data from that prolific group of 17-25-year-olds who are in adult formation and not getting it together all right, would it be better to give them a ticket for disorderly conduct, battery, or theft or to charge them with the crime? I think going with the forfeiture route is a mechanism in getting their attention while not labeling them and putting them into the system. I feel like we can do more in terms of restorative justice, too, for those people who don’t have the means to deal with the impetus of their sanction. Can they be re-routed into some sort of fulfilling opportunity to give back to the community or the victims?”
While the MPD is always under heavy scrutiny, Koval likes his force.
“For every miscue, hiccup, speed bump, and fender-bender that we have as an organization that gets reflected negatively, I have a hundred wonderfully driven, employee-initiated acts of kindness and graciousness and professionalism that I see every day,” Koval says. “I see someone who has been just dropped here from a bus and doesn’t know anything or anybody, and I see a downtown officer connecting with them to tell them where they can go for a meal, housing, and making those kinds of extraordinary efforts. That’s what I’m most proud of. We go beyond traditional law enforcement here.”
Koval says that he is very encouraged by the officers who embrace the social work component of their profession and don’t apologize for it. “They embrace it,” he says. “I do think that there is a certain idealism of the profile of the Madison police officer that differentiates us from the pack.”
In many aspects, the Madison Police Department has been ahead of the curve in embracing diversity. For police forces around the United States, the national average is 12 percent women. Madison is at 34 percent.
“A lot of communities that I am familiar with have the old ‘don’t ask; don’t tell’ about sexual orientation preference. That’s a part of our protected class credo here in the city of Madison and that gets networked,” Koval says. “I have a lot of gay and lesbian officers who know that this is an accepting workplace and an accepting community. That in and of itself enhances the workforce pool.”
At the end of the day, Koval states that one of his goals is for his police force to become more reinvigorated with community policing.
“We’ve always done it, but over the years I think we’ve been susceptible to falling prey to becoming more traditional,” he says. “In that sense, I want us to remember what it is about our DNA that separates us from the pack. I want us to be unapologetic about the fact that most of what we do is social work. You don’t have to apologize for that; you need to be excited about that.
“To me, ticketing and arresting away problems is fairly simplistic and fairly shortsighted. I don’t know if it really solves a problem; it just removes it temporarily from your radar screen,” he continues. “A felony arrest … that, to me, momentarily suspends someone engaging in something from continuing the process, but that doesn’t get to the root of the problem. I’d much rather see a kid who turned his life around thanks to help from us. For me, that’s a win
“We can’t be the one-stop shopping answer to deal with any and all problems that relate to crime and/or quality of life or service delivery issues,” Koval adds. “So as a result, we start with the realization that, one, we need to build community partnerships. And the only way that those partnerships become viable is if the community trusts you.”