Madison police chief hiring process nears completion as community expresses distrust about one of four finalists

MADISON, Wis. — Recordings of the final interviews with Madison’s police chief finalists are expected to be released to the public Wednesday, but some in the community are already concerned about at least one of the finalists chosen in the interview process. The Madison Police and Fire Commission is set to meet Wednesday evening and again on December 14th, at both of which meetings the public is invited to provide their input on the process. It’s possible another meeting could be scheduled, the PFC attorney said, based on whether more of the public wishes to contribute comment.

“The PFC has spent a considerable amount of time developing questions for the candidates based directly on the community input that it has received to date (both for the initial interviews and for the final interviews) to ensure that it selects the best candidate for the City of Madison,” PFC attorney Jenna Rousseau said in an email. “The community input has contributed to all stages of this process. The PFC is also committed to ensuring a fair hiring process for all candidates.” The hiring process has included months of community feedback to the PFC, including multiple meetings and working with the Local Voices Network (LVN) for surveys, small group outreach, and more.

The process of hiring Madison’s next police chief after former chief Mike Koval’s abrupt resignation more than a year ago in September, 2019 has been an intensive process throughout a year that’s put law enforcement under fresh scrutiny in the wake of high profile police shootings and resulting civil protests. Former Madison police chief Noble Wray, who has also worked for the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services program, helped early on in the hiring process when the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum reached out to him for input. The next chief, he says, will face both challenge and opportunity in one of the nation’s most progressive police departments.

“In this community, there is a strong ethic and desire not only for building trust and community policing but having a national presence,” Wray explained. (Madison’s longest-serving police chief David Couper helped found the Madison Model during his tenure, with problem-solving and community policing elements now used nationwide.) “The next chief will have a lot of challenges, but will have a lot of opportunities. There is a report that needs to be implemented that community members were involved in…Take that, grab it, and run with it. That is an excellent opportunity.”

That report, a years-long process headed by Madison’s Policy & Procedure Ad Hoc Review Committee, resulted in 177 recommendations for the department that included the installment of an independent monitor who would report to a police civilian oversight board, which just had its second meeting Monday night.

The MPD force is about 28% female currently and historically has had unusually high rates of female officers in its rank when compared to national averages. No female applicants, however, made it to the final selection. Rousseau said the application does not request or require an applicant to identify their gender, but said it appeared that three non-male applicants, including one identifying as non-binary, applied for the position. Two did not meet the basic requirements and the third withdrew their application before interviews had started.

“It is disappointing that there were no non-male candidates for the PFC to consider who met the minimum qualifications,” Rousseau noted in an email.

“I was a bit surprised that there was not a candidate, but on the other hand, I understand just in general the challenges that chiefs are having right now,” Wray said, citing the intense scrutiny law enforcement has come under in 2020, including the resignations of high profile female police chiefs.

Candidate Finalists: Their Backgrounds

Of four police chief finalists chosen out of an initial slate of 43 candidates, at least one has prompted the concern of the community.

Christopher Davis, also a finalist police chief candidate in Milwaukee, was one of three officers cleared by a grand jury in the deadly shooting of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot at a Portland hospital back in 2001 in an incident that prompted closer looks at hospitals’ dependency on police for restraining patients during mental health episodes. At the Portland Police Bureau since 1998 and assuming various leadership roles through the years, he was sworn in as Deputy Chief less than a year ago at the end of 2019 after serving as Assistant Chief of the Operations Branch. He was responsible for helping oversee the force through a tumultuous summer this year as the PPB came under fire for their actions during Portland protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He defended the department’s use of tear gas to Oregon lawmakers in a hearing this summer; a federal judge ruled just days ago that the department had violated a court order barring Portland police from using munitions against non violent protesters.

Multiple community advocates have voiced concern about the inclusion of Davis in the city’s finalists, citing his department leadership during the protests and his involvement in the shooting.

“I am concerned with this choice of candidate as the community has clearly conveyed that we want to be heard in the matter of who gets to be our next police chief.” Ankita Bharadwaj said, a member of the newly-appointed police civilian oversight board. “I have read and heard so many things about this candidate and most of what I have read is a deep seated fear that what happened in Portland could repeat itself here in Madison.”

“If they think Madison has seen some pretty intense protests this year, let’s see what happens if they hire Davis,” the Urban Triage Facebook page noted in a post that described some of his history.

Three other candidates are also up for consideration, including Ramon Batista, who spent much of his career at the Tuscon Police Department, and recently resigned as the police chief from the Mesa Police Department in Arizona. The city paid him about $89,000 not to talk about his reason for resigning, but coverage from the Arizona Republic indicates deep rifts between him and the police union when they resisted his attempts at reform. Brought into the department after a series of police shootings and violence, Batista sought to implement de-escalation techniques, more non-lethal force options, more implicit bias training, and other reforms. He brought in outside investigators to investigate the department’s use of force incidents, prompting swift backlash from the police union and a formal vote of no confidence.

“The chief is a liberal snowflake,” one employee wrote in a survey, as reported by the Arizona Republic. They resented the internal affairs investigations and attempts to bring reform to the department–calling the investigations a “witch hunt”.

Larry Scirotto served with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for 23 years, and has been a finalist in police chief hiring processes in Grand Rapids, Nashville and Portland. He was the youngest assistant chief in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in the department’s history, where he oversaw the Office of Professional Standards and was responsible for analyzing and auditing the department’s standards of conduct.

Dr. Shon Barnes is currently the Director of Training and Professional Development for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago. He began his 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 Greensboro Police Department. Barnes is a nationally recognized leader in crime reduction and community-police relations, according to the release.