The real Mike Koval

Get to know Madison's police chief, Mike Koval
The real Mike Koval
Paulius Musteikis

If anyone could have anticipated just how demanding the job of police chief would be in the country today–Madison in particular–it might have been Mike Koval. By the time he took over as Madison chief in 2014, Koval had put in three decades as a Madison cop and two years as an FBI agent. He had seen the Madison Police Department grow and the city change.

With the hands-on way he intended to pursue the chief’s job, Koval knew it was potentially all consuming, with 12-hour days and a phone he could never feel comfortable turning off. The time commitment also meant giving up something close to him. So close, it moved him to tears.

Koval told his wife, Jane, they needed to find a new home for Rudy, their Great Dane. The dog, who could take out two lamps just turning around in the living room, was named for a University of Notre Dame football hero.

Koval is passionate about Notre Dame. He’s passionate about a lot of things. But he gave up Rudy to be police chief. He and Jane found the dog a nice home in Verona. The family sends Koval updates. He thinks they’re spoiling her, but that’s OK. Giving up a beloved pet was a huge personal sacrifice. The challenges of the job? Nobody–not even Koval–had any idea.The real Mike Koval

The year 2016 was a tough one for those who fight crime in this country, especially for chiefs of police. Television screens and smartphones were filled with images of cops shooting civilians and civilians shooting cops. Last year, 963 people in the U.S. were shot and killed by police officers. Race loomed large in many of the shootings that made headlines.

Among police chiefs, there were high-profile resignations: Dallas police chief David Brown in September, and Pittsburgh’s Cameron McLay in November. McLay spent three decades with the Madison Police Department before taking the Pittsburgh job in September 2014.

“It’s a good thing,” McLay told Koval about his resignation. Without the daily pressures of the job, McLay says he can breathe easier.

Such was the stress of being a top cop in 2016, a year that also produced controversy for Koval, who found himself in front of the Madison Police and Fire Commission in November explaining his behavior in and around a Madison City Council meeting the previous June.

That meeting–the most tumultuous few hours in Koval’s nearly three years as chief–rallied police critics in the city against him. Yet it gave a voice, as well, to many who appreciate Koval’s passion, and who think a bad night shouldn’t overshadow the chief’s lifelong commitment to community policing.

Council Clash

On the night of June 7, 2016, the city council was debating whether to spend $400,000 to hire an outside firm to review the Madison Police Department’s practices and policies.

The dollar figure had been bumped up considerably from the initial appropriation of $50,000 in May 2015, in the wake of (among other considerations) the fatal police shooting of an unarmed African American man, Tony Robinson, two months earlier.

The increase to $400,000 last June upset Koval, but not, he insists, because he didn’t want his department studied. He thought it could wait until the next fiscal year, while more immediate needs, including those raised in a 15-point plan by leaders of the city’s African American community, would be addressed.
Koval blogs regularly on issues related to the department, and on the night of June 5, two days before the council meeting, he blogged about the review and the money. It devolved into an extraordinary attack on the city council.

“To the Common Council,” Koval wrote. “You are being watched. And be on notice: this is a pre-emptive strike from me to you. I am going to push back hard when MPD is constantly used as a political punching bag and you are nowhere to be found.”

“I was shocked,” District 6 Alderwoman Marsha Rummel says. “It felt like a threat.”

Koval’s many supporters believe that while his unwavering passion for the department might occasionally betray him, those moments are far outweighed by the good that comes from such dedication.

The meeting two nights later was tense from the start. While residents spoke both for and against the $400,000 appropriation, the verbal sparring between Koval and council members–with the chief rolling his eyes and pounding the table–got so bad that District 17 Alderman Samba Baldeh professed fear of having Koval seated behind him with a gun.

“I’ve been on the council almost 10 years,” District 19 Alderman Mark Clear says. “It was the most upsetting and difficult meeting I’ve ever attended.”

At one point that night, outside the council chambers, Koval called Sharon Irwin, Tony Robinson’s grandmother, “a raging lunatic,” sparking the complaint that landed Koval in front of the police and fire commission in November. (The commission is expected to rule on Irwin’s complaint and one other in early 2017. If it decides to discipline Koval, he could be suspended, demoted or fired.)

The aftermath of the council meeting also included a public rebuke of Koval by David Couper, the former Madison police chief who hired Koval and whom Koval admires, despite the recent falling-out.
“It is never appropriate for the chief to be angry, sarcastic or bullying,” Couper–who declined to be interviewed for this article–wrote on his blog.

“Not a great week,” Koval says, referencing those days last June.The real Mike Koval

But while he is genuinely apologetic and has worked to mend his relationship with the city council, Koval is steadfast in his belief that he is chief of an excellent police force, one that has not always been supported by city leaders in the face of withering criticism from what Koval feels is a vocal minority who frequents council meetings in Madison.

Koval’s many supporters believe that while his unwavering passion for the department might occasionally betray him, those moments are far outweighed by the good that comes from such dedication.

Reaching Out

Koval is a self-confessed workaholic, tireless when it comes to things like attending neighborhood meetings, in which he both listens and spreads his progressive policing gospel.

“The man is everywhere and works constantly,” says Sue Williams, an assistant chief and Koval’s longtime friend and colleague. “I don’t know how he does it.”

One answer might be that Koval has embraced being the face of the department.

“First and foremost, Mike Koval is a cheerleader,” says Joe Balles, who was in Koval’s 1983 recruiting class and is now retired from the MPD.The real Mike Koval

By all accounts, it is more than just show. One couple–this story was told at a police appreciation day at the West District headquarters last fall–sent Koval an email with a neighborhood concern, and the man and woman were stunned a few nights later when the chief showed up on their doorstep and spent most of an hour listening to their story.

Beth Neary is a Madison pediatrician–she spoke at the June 7 council meeting–who came to know Koval when she sent the department an email on behalf of a friend whose son had begun to associate with gang members. Was there someone the mother could talk to?

Koval phoned Neary, said he would talk to the mom and suggest an officer with gang experience who might help.

“That he would personally call me shows a degree of caring beyond the job description on paper,” Neary says. “We’re lucky to have him.”

Inside the department, Koval is a beloved father figure who calls each officer on his or her birthday. “The highlight of my day,” he says.

“What I’ve learned from every officer I’ve talked to,” Clear says, “is that they love this guy.”

Assistant chief Williams concurs: “He has always been somebody the rank and file applauds and admires.”

Dealing with Diversity

One of the ironies of Koval’s time as chief is that some of the strongest criticism he’s received–that his department is too aggressive, particularly in dealing with communities of color–flies in the face of the neighborhood and community policing to which Koval has dedicated his professional life.

As a recruiter and instructor at the police academy–his job before becoming chief–Koval strove for diversity. He told Isthmus in 2009 that he feared his teaching might be viewed by some as too “Kumbaya-singing, hand-holding social work that isn’t ‘real’ police work.”

As chief, Koval–who still teaches a law class at the academy–had the aspiring officers read Bryan Stevenson’s acclaimed book, “Just Mercy,” a searing indictment of the justice system’s treatment of the poor and people of color.

Koval also invited Stevenson to speak at the Madison academy. Asked about Koval’s invitation, Stevenson replied by email: “I enjoyed speaking with the cadets in Madison and was very pleased that the chief is exposing these young officers to perspectives and information that they may not otherwise learn but can hopefully improve their work as public safety officials.”The real Mike Koval

Still, the criticism persists. Matthew Braunginn, co-founder of Young, Gifted and Black in Madison, says, “When you look at what has actually transpired, it has moved away from community policing.”

Clear says, “There’s a significant disconnect between Koval’s words and actions on that topic.”

Of course, police departments are going to get criticized, and part of being chief is recognizing that and not letting it get under your skin.

“I think Mike might be personalizing this too much,” Balles says.

Maybe, but for Koval, his department is a reflection of himself. He hired and trained most of the officers. To hear the Madison force mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson, Missouri–which happened after the Robinson shooting–was devastating. Talking about it can still bring Koval to tears. He’s emotional, he’s passionate, and that’s the way it is.

“A lot of people,” Koval says, talking about June 7, “said, ‘Oh, my gosh, it was so disruptive, and it was so wholly unprofessional.’ I said, ‘You know what? If you want that well-coiffed, perfect smile, consummate administrator type, you’ve got the wrong guy.'”

Path to Policing

He didn’t start out intending to be a cop. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he first studied journalism.

That was after West High School, where Koval–who grew up in Madison–put on a mascot costume and played the part of Reggie Regent. Balles, Koval’s recruiting classmate, is right: Koval’s a cheerleader.

It continued at UW-Madison, where Koval spent three years as Bucky Badger.

“It’s sad looking back,” he says, smiling, “that my most joyous times were spent under papier mâche.”

Koval comes from a strong Irish Catholic family, and religion remains important to him. He carries a pocket rosary. His parents were educators. After high school, he applied to Notre Dame–“mecca,” in his family’s estimation–but didn’t get in. UW-Madison took him, but never took hold of him. Koval’s office today is a shrine to Madison West and Notre Dame (where one of Koval’s two sons recently earned a law degree).

Koval’s UW-Madison degree was in journalism, but as graduation approached, he began to doubt his choice. Did he really want his future determined by editors and the whims of advertising sales?

“And there was something happening at the same time for me in a kind of parallel universe,” Koval says.

He was thinking about police work.

Koval had a beloved and admired uncle, Shawn Riley, who was a Madison cop and later was an agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Koval sought his advice. Should he try to be a cop?The real Mike Koval

“He did everything in his power to discourage me,” Koval says. The hours were uncertain, he’d often be dealing with people at the lowest point in their lives.

Koval didn’t care.

“I’m not winning this battle, am I, Mike?” Riley said, according to Koval.

His uncle then encouraged him to consider the FBI, but when Koval applied, the bureau was trying to diversify its ranks and Koval says the agency was not interested in him. Instead, he enrolled in law school in St. Paul, thinking the degree would help him with the FBI. Two years in, he heard the MPD was hiring, applied and was hired.

His mom–whom Koval reveres–was crushed. She thought he’d never finish law school. “Yes, I will,” he said. His mother replied–fateful words–“Why do you want a law degree to be just a cop?”

Koval did get that law degree and he also spent two years with the FBI in New Mexico. But “just a cop” became a calling, a passion, a life. By the late 1980s he was with MPD to stay, first as a patrol officer on the night shift, then afternoons. Eventually, he was promoted to sergeant. Koval started doing some teaching–his law degree helped the department save a consulting fee for the academy law classes–and in 1995 he was put in charge of recruiting and training.

It proved a perfect fit.

“I loved it,” Koval says. “I thought: What better way to be impactful? If you could have a sentinel role identifying the legacy of tomorrow today, and then mold them as if they were unshapen clay–here’s some ethics, here’s constitutional law, here’s some reasonableness, here’s community policing, here’s problem solving. If you could be part of framing that mindset– what an opportunity.”

Shaping Recruits

Early one day last fall, before 8 a.m., Koval stood at the front of a room inside the MPD Training Center on Femrite Drive. He was doing one of the things he likes best: talking fast and smart to a group of about two dozen bright, newly recruited police officers. How much does he like it? When Koval became chief, he seriously considered not moving downtown, and instead keeping his office at the training facility.

He’s good at it, too–not just speaking to recruits, but speaking from a podium, period. “There is no one,” Sue Williams says, “who is a better orator, off the cuff, never using notes, than Chief Koval.”

Teaching the law class gets him to the training center at least once a week. On that morning last fall, he didn’t orate so much as engage the recruits in a peppery back-and-forth, asking one and then another to stand, asking them questions about case law and proper police procedure.

Nearly 700 people had applied for the 23 recruit positions. Those chosen included more than 40 percent women and 30 percent people of color. As a recruiter, Koval also sought–and it continues today–diversity in educational backgrounds. He looks beyond criminal justice majors.

“Think you’ll have informants when you grow up?” he asks a recruit he has directed to stand up.

“Yeah, I think I’ll have a lot,” the young man says.

“Back when I was with the bureau,” Koval says, “you had to have three informants on every corner.”

With the recruits, Koval is intense, passionate–no surprise–and funny. A cell phone rings–it’s unclear if it’s Koval’s–and he immediately quips, “This nun I see at Mass every week is giving me the point spread for the Notre Dame game. That’s a call I have to take.”The real Mike Koval

He talks about a neighborhood meeting he’s just attended in Arbor Hills, where there had been a recent shootout. “One hundred twenty people,” he recalls of the meeting, “scared to death.” Koval uses the anecdote to talk to the recruits about neighborhood policing–his requirement that officers commit to a neighborhood for four years. He wants them to visit on front steps and shoot hoops at neighborhood playgrounds–to be present not only when something goes sideways.

Koval asks a recruit to stand up and read from a handout about stopping and questioning people on the street. The recruit reads a passage that says an officer can “search for concealed weapons if the officer reasonably suspects the person is armed.”

Koval interrupts. “IF!” he shouts. “This is not stop and frisk. This is stop and MAYBE frisk.”

He looks around the class. “This is not New York or Chicago,” he says. “This is Camelot.”

Koval makes the Madison/Camelot reference with some frequency, and it is sometimes hard to know if he’s being sarcastic or affectionate. It may depend on his mood.

Career Arc

Certainly, he has strong feelings for the city, given the almost missionary fervor he brings to his job.

Koval applied for the chief position one other time, in 2004, and says he did so because he felt that while the MPD had grown in terms of numbers of officers, squad cars and new technology, it had grown complacent in other important areas.

“I think in some respects,” Koval says, “we had remained in neutral in terms of pushing the envelope of what made us great: our community policing and outreach efforts. I thought we were, to some extent, resting on our laurels.”

When Noble Wray got the job, Koval wasn’t too disappointed–he felt Wray shared his vision–but Koval went to his captain, Sue Williams, and offered to step away from his recruiting position if Wray didn’t want a former competitor in that role.

Williams took it to Wray. She says Wray told her: “Absolutely I want him to stay. He’s doing a fabulous job.”

Today, knowing what he knows about the chief’s job, Koval says he’s glad he didn’t get it in 2004–he would have missed seeing his sons grow up.

Some observers have suggested the arc of Koval’s career–his decision to remain a personnel and training sergeant rather than going up the lieutenant-captain-assistant chief ladder–deprived him of the experience of working with elected officials, learning how to compromise, when to stand tall and when to stand down.

Koval admits that he lacks certain political gifts, but says he’s working on it.

He touches on the subject unasked while addressing a UW-Madison Law School class–introduction to criminal procedure–last fall. Koval tells the students that his job, reduced to its simplest common denominators, involves four elements: personnel, policies, procurement and politics. Of the last, he says, “Not my favorite part of the job, but I’m learning.”

He talks to the class about community policing, stressing that the police can’t ticket and arrest their way out of problems, can’t go it alone and need to forge partnerships, particularly in challenged neighborhoods.

Koval tells them he’s the last officer from his 1983 Madison recruiting class still active. “Last man standing,” he says, and laughs. “The degree of difficulty in the job is infinitely higher today, and I thought it was difficult then.”

A Critical Time

Koval had been chief for nearly a year when 19-year-old Tony Robinson was shot and killed on Williamson Street by Madison police officer Matt Kenny. It was March 6, 2015.

Late that night–and continuing to early morning–Koval took a call on his cell phone from Boys and Girls Club president Michael Johnson. Would the chief like to accompany Johnson to the scene and perhaps talk to the family?

The fatal shooting of unarmed African American men by law enforcement officers was becoming an epidemic in the United States, and now, unthinkably, it had happened in Madison.

Koval went with Johnson to the scene on Williamson Street. Later, he went with Johnson to the family’s home on the far east side to make contact with the family and offer condolences. While Robinson’s mother did not want to speak with him, the young man’s grandmother, Sharon Irwin, did. They stood in the street for 45 minutes while Koval expressed his sympathy and willingness to work together to find the truth of what had happened.

“I think it helped,” Johnson says. (The bond between Irwin and Koval, of course, did not last, culminating in his “raging lunatic” remark and Irwin’s subsequent complaint to the PFC. At the hearing in November, Koval offered Irwin an apology.)

Two months after the Robinson shooting, when District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced there would be no charges brought against Officer Kenny–citing numerous factors, including Kenny’s contention that Robinson attacked him–the Madison City Council approved spending $50,000 to hire experts to review Madison police procedures.

The following month–June 2015–brought another racially charged incident when the arrest of an 18-year-old African American woman, Genele Laird, was captured on video by a bystander. The video went viral. Critics called the police actions excessive force; officers said she had a knife and spit on them. Laird was referred to a restorative justice program and will not face charges if she completes it successfully.

It would seem the splintering of Koval’s relationship with the council might stem from the May 2015 decision to seek an outside review of Madison police procedures. But, in fact, on the morning of March 18, 2015, a little less than two weeks after the Robinson shooting, Koval sent a strongly worded email to City Council members, castigating them for their lack of support for the MPD.

The night before, Koval had attended a council meeting, during which some members of the public made derogatory comments about the police.

“Last night,” Koval wrote, “I sat patiently listening to people accusing MPD of everything from being sanctioned murderers to racists … I was left with no recourse to respond to any of these diatribes.” He scolded the alders for not defending the department. “Your collective silence is deafening.”

While agreeing that people at the meeting said some “horrible things” about the police, Clear says that listening to public comment, sometimes harsh, “is what we do. The chief took that as an endorsement of what was said, which it wasn’t.”

Koval says: “They could have created an opportunity under the rules to at least let me make a statement or rebut some of the most specious stuff that I heard.”

While Koval has always insisted he does not have a problem with a fair outside review of his department, he says he feels the ad hoc committee stacked the deck by talking mostly to police critics. He has a captain who serves on the committee, and word came back that MPD was being compared to departments in Baltimore, Seattle and the University of Cincinnati, all rocked by police scandals.

Last spring–just a week before the fateful June 7 council meeting–Koval says his captain on the committee called to say they were going to ask for $400,000 for the study, a figure eight times the original amount.

“How did they pull that number?” Koval asked.

“Well,” the captain said, according to Koval, “they looked at the University of Cincinnati and they thought that was most akin to what we could use, and that price tag came in at $393,000.”

Koval asked his captain if there were any alders there, and if they reacted.

“One of the alders asked the committee, ‘Is that enough?'” Koval recalls.

A night or two later, on June 1, 2016, Koval spoke at a neighborhood meeting at High Point Church, in the district of alderman Paul Skidmore. Clear was there, too, and eventually walked out in the middle of Koval’s remarks, which Clear perceived as an attack on the council for not supporting the MPD.

Recalling that meeting, Koval says he did express “some strong reservations about what we were about to embark on.”

He continues, “Now they are asking for $400,000, and the reason the price tag has grown so robust is we’re being compared to departments that are literally being monitored by federal consent decrees [used to reform rogue police departments]. I’m saying, ‘Are you telling me we’re those guys?’ Because I’m not sitting by for that.”

Koval’s controversial blog post and the contentious June 7 council meeting followed soon after.

Months later, tempers have cooled. In the new budget, the council approved the new Midtown Police Station that Koval wanted. The chief, meanwhile, says he’s “learned a great deal from the episode in terms of diplomacy and what’s appropriate decorum.”

He meets monthly with council leaders Marsha Rummel and Mike Verveer.

“It’s a start,” Rummel says.

Striving for Balance

Last fall, residents of some west side neighborhoods put together a police appreciation day at the headquarters on McKenna Boulevard. Close to 100 people showed up to tell the officers how grateful they are for their service. Koval in particular is on the receiving end of a continuous chorus of good wishes.

Someone says, “You strike the perfect balance between protecting our civil liberties and protecting our safety.”

And: “You’ve dedicated your life to this city.”

When Wray announced he was retiring as chief in 2013, Koval says he had to wrestle with the decision to apply a second time for the position. He had a job he loved. The recruits were his extended family. He was comfortable.

And yet.

“The time I applied earlier,” Koval says, “and when I applied the second time, I felt there was one thing unresolved.”

What if he could take what he was teaching the recruits about community policing and spread it across the entire force–somehow recapture the department’s progressive DNA in a post-9/11 world?

At the west side appreciation day, it certainly looks like mission accomplished. These people love Koval, and the accolades keep coming. “He takes the heat for his officers,” someone says. “This city doesn’t deserve him.”

Yet going on three years as chief, Koval is uncertain of exactly what he has accomplished. Those who see him only as a cheerleader, or angry and full of bluster, are missing that he is much more complicated than that.

“There are moments of introspection,” Koval says, “where I say, ‘You idiot. You could have remained a sergeant and a beloved father figure, friend to all, and still be training the next legacy of police officers. But you thought you could take your skill set and create an opportunity for even greater change in Madison. You were very naïve at how much you thought you could do.'”

He remains hopeful.

“To be the chief now at a time of great challenge to policing,” Koval says, “I hope that I can look back and derive some satisfaction that I was able to answer the call. But right now, that is an unresolved question in my mind.”