To serve and protect: A Q&A with Mike Koval

Madison's police chief talks about gun violence
To serve and protect: A Q&A with Mike Koval
Madison police chief Mike Koval in his office. 

In a community and country facing increasing gun violence, police distrust and racial disparities, Madison police chief Mike Koval may have the toughest job in the city.

Freelance contributor Robert L. Kehoe III sat down with Madison police chief Mike Koval for an in-depth interview exploring his path to leadership and the city’s most pressing problems and challenges.

A few years ago you considered retirement, and now you’re in the midst of your first year as chief. What brought about the change of plans, and what is your vision for the Madison Police Department in the next decade?
I want this department to help cultivate a police force full of cops who buy into the model of community policing, being agents of positive change in people’s lives, creating greater access to institutions, promoting quality of life, living up to our responsibilities as constitutional officers of the court and scrupulously defending citizens’ rights and individual liberties. That’s my vision.

You had a lot of career options, but I’ve read that you always wanted “more.” What was the more that led you here?
One reason was the sense of immediacy, where my tangible decision making with an individual or family that’s dealing with drugs, weapons or domestic violence has immediate implications. As chief that can be a challenge because of the deferred gratification that comes with the territory. Sometimes I’m like Don Quixote, with all these great ideals, but at the end of the day it can feel like I’m chasing windmills.

Misguided as they may be, Don Quixote still has his ideals, values and motivations. What are yours?
Well, I would not be a police officer but for the unique opportunity I saw as a young man to help change the perception of what police work could be. All that I’ve done in terms of recruitment, education and selection has been with the view of identifying people with the high ideals that reflect the community we serve. So that means less emphasis on firearms, defense and arrest tactics, and more emphasis on courage and fortitude. It also means educating on matters of ethics, constitutional law limitations, problem solving and cultural competency. It’s about teaching our recruits the phenomena of “implicit” or “unconscious bias” and overcoming those biases so that we aren’t acting in ways that are literally devastating to whole populations.

How do you do that?
One thing is changing the perception that police are principally “law enforcement” officers. In fact, statistics show seventy-five to eighty percent of our time is dedicated to basic quality-of-life issues such as noise abatement, homelessness and panhandling, crisis intervention and diagnostics with people who are mentally ill and are having episodic breakdowns, or we’re first responders. All of which places a premium on our officers’ capacity for empathy, their ability to be active listeners, find the common denominators and then work like hell to find the best possible resolutions. None of which necessarily defaults to ticketing or arresting.

That’s certainly not the perception of police officers, especially considering the recent news cycle.
Well, that’s a result of our failure to do the actual work of policing, and allowing ourselves to get sucked into media caricatures of the stereotypes that we too often have unwittingly contributed to and fulfilled. Without a doubt the enemy is ourselves, and we have been complicit in the stereotypical narratives. But the more we focus on the work of community policing, I think that sense of responsibility and nobility to a higher calling will resonate much more in terms of career fulfillment and community engagement for our police officers and the people we serve.

What are your biggest challenges in communicating that message to the community?
I know people may be pressed for time or overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing our city, but they also have to understand, if they say to me, “Don’t bother us with the details. Just handle it, cops,” that goes against a set of fundamental communal precepts that are necessary for good police work to happen. There’s no way cops can go it alone anymore. The problems are too complex, and we can’t solve them by applying Band-Aids where major surgery is required.

What’s the biggest problem right now?
Well, if we’re really drilling it down, the core issue is the increasing gulf between the haves and the have-nots in our society. That gulf in Madison has become so pronounced, and it’s getting more comprehensive. In many ways, some of our neighborhoods are being stretched to the max with respect to crime and poverty, to the point that we’re becoming a de facto segregated community based on where you can afford to live. Poverty begets the proliferation of gangs, guns and drugs, which all begets crime. Also, heroin addiction has become truly pervasive, cutting across all swatches of society, which also begets more thefts, burglaries, armed robberies and strong-arm robberies, because people who have addictions are doing anything they can to fuel their next opportunity to appease the addiction.
Do you think most Madisonians appreciate the presence and complexity of these issues?

Of course we’re a community of high ideals and, again, we strive to be a police department that reflects those values. But that sense of idealism can come in conflict with the increasing amount of dangerousness and insidiousness that has crept into our community with respect to poverty, violence and drugs. We have profound issues to deal with in our next decade.

Such as?
Heroin is Madison’s number-one problem with respect to drugs. To give an example, our officers log updates of what goes on every eight hours. Right now you can’t go two consecutive eight hours without reading about a heroin overdose somewhere in the city. Here’s the insidious part: In the last three years, we’ve responded to hundreds of overdose cases, and let’s say in a quarter of those responses cops arrive at the scene where the overdose has resulted in a non-responsive human being without a pulse. Now, because our response time in Madison is so good, and because our paramedics are equipped to administer a phenomenal drug called Narcan, we literally have Lazarus cases, where people are dead on arrival and twenty minutes later they’re walkin’ and talkin’, chewing gum. The good news is that we’re saving lives, but if Narcan enables us to overlook the fact that the overdoses have happened in the first place, then we aren’t doing our jobs as officers or civilians.

So why don’t people know about it? Is it a lack of communication from leaders in politics and media, or is it ignorance by choice?
I think we’re getting up to speed, but unfortunately it’s taken a heroin epidemic afflicting upper-middle-class whites to get a conversation going in our legislature. I sure didn’t see this cattle call for action when we had a cocaine issue that was predominantly afflicting people of color.

On that note, and in light of what’s happened in Ferguson and on Staten Island, what is your overall response to racial disparities locally and nationally?
For me the question is, is this a moment or a movement? I think the racial disparities issue, of which cops have placed themselves front and center, should force us to recognize that this is a movement. But if all we do is treat this as a moment, tidy up situations, address the problem with consumer focus groups, or do damage control and spin doctoring, then we’ll have taken a very shortsighted view of things. If we view this as a movement, then community engagement has to be job one for police. In that sense, I want our officers engaging in our neighborhoods–and I’m talking about playing a game of horse or sharing a Coke at the mall with everyday citizens. With that approach, cops can provide mentoring and create healthy dialogue, or help people gain access to resources that can be transformative.

Additionally, I want cops who can draw on different internal resources so that we can minimize ticketing and arresting, which in the long run will reduce our reliance on the brick-and-mortar albatrosses that are so costly in so many ways.

Where are you finding signs of hope?
I was at a meeting recently, facilitated by our officers in Meadowood–a neighborhood where we see a lot of crime, so it’s in one of our percolator regions, so to speak. I couldn’t have been more proud of what I witnessed: There were blacks, whites, men, women, young families and old folks who’ve lived in the area for forty years, all of whom are refusing to give up their neighborhood to a group of outliers. If our department can step up in that sort of way, and help gather such an eclectic turnout like that, we’re bringing that vision of community policing to life. But there’s no doubt, the agenda is daunting, so we just take it one day at a time.

You were recently in the news responding to the notion that the MPD are an “occupying force.” What was behind your comments?
With respect to the “demands” that the “occupying forces” otherwise known as MPD leave the neighborhoods altogether and allow for self-determination to rule? As an officer of the court, I pledged to uphold constitutional rights. One of those liberties is equal protection. As someone who views the police as “guardians,” I cannot abide by the thought that some of our most needy, most vulnerable and least heard would be left to people who would prey upon those in our midst who need the watchful protection of a shepherd who stands vigilant in watching over the entire flock.

While I am certainly sensitive to discussing “how” we police, “leaving” our neighborhoods is non-negotiable. I believe that there is much more good that takes place with our neighborhood officers being relational with constituents than the supposition raised by the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition.

On Point

Chief Koval dives deeper into neighborhood crime, race and poverty, cameras on cops and kids

On community policing:
Madison is renowned as a community of little neighborhoods–over 120 are formally recognized–and in my experience, the best form of policing in terms of community engagement is neighborhood policing, where cops are literally out walking or driving around, building relationships and being agents of change in handling quality-of-life issues, not just focusing on “crime enforcement/reduction.” I think we’re at our best when we’re relational. So I have five districts and in our heyday we had eighteen neighborhood offices; today we have eleven. Going into 2015 I asked my five district captains, “If I could get you one extra neighborhood officer, what would be the neighborhoods we would target to justify the addition from a budgeting standpoint?” In answering that one question I don’t think any of my captains came in with fewer than six neighborhoods, and some had up to ten, which communicates to me that one quarter of Madison’s neighborhoods are on the cusp of trending in a negative direction, or are already in a really bad place. In any form of government work it’s hard to play catch-up, so we stand to lose a lot of ground if we aren’t approaching these problems with vigilance.

On citizen responsibility:
A lot of times if you look at a neighborhood that sees an uptick in crime, when you examine the incident report you come to find out doors aren’t locked, garage doors are left open all day and all night, windows are left open on ground levels. Get this, cars unlocked with keys in the ignition. Sometimes helping ourselves can solve these problems. But sometimes we need to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. We need to keep an eye out when our neighbors are away on vacation. We need to speak up when we see a house that suddenly becomes a hub for a bunch of random people. We have to be willing to have honest, frank conversations with one another. Privacy is one thing, and that’s important to preserve. But we have to be a little more nosy and adoptive of one another if we want to be a community. We can’t be silos.

On pervasive poverty:
When you have a school district of over 27,000 enrolled, and forty-eight percent qualify for subsidy breakfast, lunch or both, that’s a major demographic shift from the school district that I grew up in, and our citizens need to understand what’s associated with that. When people came to me after we received our report on racial disparity in October 2013, they said, “Oh, you must loathe these kinds of reports.” I just said not at all. If a report like that is the proverbial canary in the coal mine that takes us to task and forces all of us to come to terms with the truth, then we can own up to that which we are responsible for and to that which we can change.

On juvenile justice:
The city of Madison is actually moving in directions, through our judiciary, municipal court judge, police working with the municipal court judge and partnerships with schools, where we have established some positive trends. La Follette High School is an excellent example, where the officer assigned there has a citation available to him that can avoid the punitive system if the juvenile in question is willing to go to a court of his or her peers to establish a restorative solution to the community or individuals involved. We have remarkable successes with that process, and I’d love to see the uses expanded for more impactful restorative justice.

On the negative trickle-down of bad cops:
Just the other day we had officers sent to quell a disturbance on a city bus due to an individual who was very demonstrative, profane and threatening. So the driver stopped the bus and called the cops. The two officers arrive and immediately cell phones are pulled out and they’re being filmed. Everybody asks me about body cameras, but in this situation everybody else has one and we’re the last to the party. But besides the cameras, the people on the bus start chanting the mantra, “Hands up! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” after [the officers have] been called in to extract someone who was disruptive and intimidating. So in just doing our jobs we end up being the story no matter what we do in the aftermath of what’s taken place elsewhere. For the officers involved, they’re stuck because they’re doing their job, but now they’re being taunted in a way that can very easily create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On cameras on cops:
My first concern is that the public could view body-worn cameras as an end-all-be-all cure to the challenge of building the trust, accountability and transparency that we all desire. Now if this technology can be a means to an end, then I’m all for it. But I also know that a lot of the departments that are gobbling up these cameras (just like Tasers a few years ago) aren’t doing it because they see a chance to do better community development or implement better methods of community policing. They’re gobbling them up because of the public pressure, which assumes that somehow everybody’s life will be better if we have cameras on cops. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that technology gets to the core of cultivating relationships and building trust. In this case, all the technology will do is chronicle what’s happening, positively or negatively, in the trust gap. Maybe this technology will become a part of our new normal and we’ll master it. I’m not a Luddite, but we will pay a price for whatever technology we use and I want us to go into the discussion with eyes wide open. We need to move with caution on this issue because make no mistake: When you capture that much material on film, there will be compromises to individual privacy.

Robert L. Kehoe III is a Madison-based writer.