Balles, Burke examples of the good in policing

Stories of good cops, lawyers and judges often...
Balles, Burke examples of the good in policing
Madison South District captain of police Joe Balles (left) and assistant state public defender Dennis Burke (right) both retired from those posts at the end of last year.

There is a growing recognition of the need to change our unjust and inhumane corrections policies and eliminate the racial disparities that result from outdated or misguided and improper policing practices. But that movement, important as it is, can conflict with the also important need to highlight what works and the people who are good at what they do. Stories of good cops, and good lawyers and judges, ring hollow to those living in an environment of bad behavior, bad laws and bad policies. But it seems to me that only reinforces the value of providing, and celebrating, examples of doing it right.

Madison South District captain of police Joe Balles and assistant state public defender Dennis Burke did it right. Both retired at the end of last year, and both will be dearly missed–all the more so if we miss the opportunity to learn from their experiences, their wisdom, their characters and their approaches to their work and to the people they served.

Balles and Burke are principled, smart, compassionate and thoughtful men who never failed to see the humanity in the often messy, difficult and at times heartbreaking or infuriating circumstances of the lives that entered theirs.

I remember Balles going door to door in what was then considered the very troubled Broadway-Simpson neighborhood–could it be twenty, twenty-five years ago?–checking on the well-being of residents and especially the “shorties,” the kids who flocked to Officer Joe. He walked the talk and the folks on his beat trusted him and so did I.

Like a lot of cops, Balles had many duties over a thirty-two-year career that led, promotion by promotion, to captain and eventually a more-selfless-than-it-seems attempt at chief. That job went to Mike Koval, of course, who, like Balles, was hired by former chief David Couper, class of 1982. Couper was proud of Balles.

That says a lot. In turn, Balles embraced Couper’s community policing, thoughtful peacekeeper, public servant model of law enforcement. He understood and adapted new technology to policing. He was an effective and respected manager. He served on the boards of the Simpson Street Free Press and United Way of Dane County and both organizations loved him.

Within the last year, Balles and I spent an hour talking about the new South Madison Community Restorative Court, designed to keep young, low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system. Balles was passionate about the promise of this innovative approach to neighborhood policing. I wish I had recorded the whole conversation and made it available to every critic of Madison’s police force.

Of course, some folks end up in the criminal justice system regardless of every effort to the contrary. If they were lucky, they ended up with Dennis Burke as their attorney. I was always struck by the irony that Burke was the best attorney in the county and no amount of money could put him on your case. Burke only represented those with nothing. And he treated every one of them like they lived in Nakoma or Maple Bluff.

A voracious reader, Burke is at heart a writer who ended up in a lawyer’s world. He’s a storyteller, and in those stories, told to juries and judges and often respectfully sympathetic prosecutors, Burke made his clients human and real. He treated every client with respect, the same kind of respect he held for the law and the court itself. He was proud of what he did and there was something moving and loving and wise about seeing him with his two beautiful daughters sitting in a courtroom sharing a father’s work.

We desperately need law enforcement and criminal justice system reform despite the efforts of Balles and Burke. But because of those two guys, we need less than some people think. May they both find “retirement” deeply rewarding.

Balles, Burke examples of the good in policing

Read more of Neil Heinen’s Madison Magazine “For the Record” columns here. Follow Heinen on Facebook and Twitter.