Madison Police Chief Barnes talks budget plans, protest, crime reduction in first one-on-one interview

Dr. Shon Barnes was sworn in as Madison’s police chief on February 1 in a short ceremony at the police department. He was hired on a split vote of the Police and Fire Commission, following a sixteen-month gap after former police chief Mike Koval announced an immediate retirement in September 2019.

Dr. Shon Barnes most recently served as the Director of Training and Professional Development for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago, where he started in August of 2020. One of his first jobs was as a public school teacher; he began his law enforcement career as a patrol officer in 2000 at a department in Greensboro, North Carolina and moved up through the ranks to captain; he then served as deputy chief from 2017 to 2020 with the Salisbury Police Department.

News 3 Now was given fifteen minutes with Chief Barnes following his swearing-in ceremony, in which he laid out his priorities for policing in Madison and described his positions on several key issues important to the Madison community.

1) You’ve expressed your intent to reduce crime through innovative initiatives. As you have in your past roles*, do you plan to expand the use of predictive policing in Madison, and how would you respond to criticisms that this model could reinforce existing racial biases while attempting to remove them?

I did not expand predictive policing; I actually evaluated predictive policing software. At the end of that evaluation in Greensboro, I did not recommend purchasing the software. The evaluation that I did looked at residential burglaries only, there are many many different crimes you can look at through predictive policing. I only looked at residential burglaries; specifically, front and rear kick in doors. So there was no element of race to the research that I did. So I will not be bringing predictive policing here. Just wanted to clear that up; I’m glad you asked that question.

*Shon Barnes in a 2018 clip describes an quasi-experiment he helped conduct as deputy police chief at the Salisbury Police Department with predictive policing algorithms. During Barne’s tenure at the Greensboro Police Department, the department’s chief described goals of enhancing technology-based systems to help expand predictive policing.

2) Overall, the Madison community is expressing their desire for less policing and more public funding for alternative approaches. Will you be looking to increase MPD’s funding in future budget cycles?

It depends on what we need. There is a study to look at body worn cameras; certainly if we implement body worn cameras, that will be an increase in our budget. But the community is right. We need to figure out a better way to deal or prevent crime. One way you can do that is through partnerships in the community; looking at hotspots, areas where crime are, and making sure we’re there before the bad guys are.

3) Except for SWAT, Madison police don’t use body cameras, which has been a longtime topic for debate at city council. Police critics in Madison believe the funding is better invested elsewhere, and that they don’t necessarily help reduce use of force. Would you support the use of body cameras here?

Body worn cameras were never designed to reduce use of force. Body worn cameras were designed to capture and give us a better view of what happens when an officer interacts with a citizen. That’s what body cameras are for and that’s what they will do. They are expensive; there is a cost to it. But it is best practices. You have to consider, many of our different police departments around the country didn’t have body worn cameras, and an incident happened–one of the reforms that always comes immediately after that is the use of body worn cameras. Specifically, when there is a consent decree or some type of government mandate or city council is unhappy with how it’s handled throughout the country–the next thing that follows is body worn cameras. It would be better to be more proactive. However, I stand to do whatever is in the best interests of the police department and the given direction of our leaders.

4) Over the summer, Madison police used riot gear, pepper spray and tear gas against protestors.* Does this align with how you would handle protests going forward?

My stance on tear gas has never changed; tear gas should be used as a last resort and to protect our human life and not property.

5) We also heard a lot from Madison protestors this summer that they want officer Matt Kenny fired, who was cleared of wrongdoing in the deadly shooting of Tony Robinson in 2015. Obviously, the police chief can’t fire Kenny–but do you agree with how this decision was handled by the city and police leadership at the time?

I have to respect the process. If the process cleared the officer, then that’s what I have to respect. If there’s new information that comes out, we’ll deal with it when that time comes; but Matt Kenny continues to be employed. He’s in a position where he’s not interacting with the public at this particular time, so that’s the path that we’ll continue to be on.

6) You were selected by the city despite a lot of public support for a different candidate from institutions like the community oversight board, Urban Triage, and the community response team. What’s your first steps to bridging that gap with these groups?

Well I’ve already taken that first step. I’ve had many many meetings with community groups; I won’t name them all. But I’ve had nothing but support and respect from these groups, and they know that I’m a person who’s willing to listen to different views, even those that are different from mine. I am encouraged by the fact we have so many different groups that want a say in how public safety goes. And when I am able to communicate that with them, we seem to get along just fine.

7) Looking back at Madison’s police chiefs, who would you identify as the one closest to your policing approach?

I will tell you that there will be no one. As we look forward to 2021 and 2022, there is no model or cookie cutter for the perfect police chief. Every police chief that MPD has had has been successful in their own right. It’s now important for me to look forward and chart my own path towards success. I think that hopefully my administration will be marked by community collaboration, listening, and trust building.

8) The UW Madison campus police recently banned the use of “thin blue line” symbolism. Some departments have opposed their announcement. What is your position on that “thin blue line” symbolism for officers?

In the MPD, we only allow black masks like the one I’m wearing. Quite frankly, I’ve been here for almost three and a half weeks, and I haven’t seen that symbol. But I will tell you, as I stated in my interview, I don’t believe that the police are a thin blue line. I believe we’re a thin blue piece of thread, woven into the tapestry of our community. I think that’s very important to remember. However, I’m very concerned–more concerned about the behavior and the actions of our officers that do a great job coming to work every day and wanting to serve our community. I really have to be focused on that more so than anything else.

9) What’s a summary of your priorities and message for the people of Madison going forward?

My priorities are really simple. Crime prevention through community partnerships and collaboration building; both with the public sector and the private sector as well as our criminal justice partners throughout the area and in the region. #2 is certainly community engagement and trust building. We want to be partners with people and listen to what they have to say. We want to be able to demonstrate that we are listening. I think we’ve come to a point in policing where we’ve had a lot of forums, a lot of meetings, and that’s great–I want to do that. But I also want to report back to the community, through the media, people like yourself–what we’re actually doing, steps that we’re taking, policies that we’re changing, the training that we’re overcoming, to demonstrate to our community that we want you to trust us because we want to do a great job. And then thirdly is employee safety and wellness. Policing is made up of people. And when people feel good about their job, they feel good about what they do, they’re supported– they go out and do a better job. Those are my three main priorities. Crime prevention, community engagement, and lastly employee safety and wellness. And that’s all employees, both commission and non-commission.

*Part of this response was clipped due to a inadvertent reference in the initial question referring to “rubber bullets” rather than projectiles. The MPD has said they do not use rubber bullets, but did utilize ‘less lethal’ sponge rounds during the protests.