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Former Chief: Protests come as MPD is at a turning point

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MADISON (WKOW) -- American police officers are at the center of a heated debate that aims to bring change to the way they work in the community. And it's coming at a turning point for Madison Police Department.

Demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd across the nation have become a movement to improve police-community relationships.

"It's not just a single incident, or it's not just a particular thing that's going to change. It is where people start to think about something in a different way," said Noble Wray, a former Madison police chief.

Wray served as chief from 2004 to 2013 and was with the department nearly 30 years. He believes we're in a unique time in history, as the crisis of the pandemic converges on the anger and frustrations over police brutality.

"Local leaders are trying to talk, they're trying to figure this out," he said. "We've had a history in this country of policing that foundationally was built on racism. All of these issues are coming to the fore. And so people are just trying to figure this whole thing out."

Protesters in Madison are calling for community control over the police department. For years, groups have been rallying for a community board to oversee police incidents.

This week, Madison's Common Council proposed new measures for more oversight, including a community board and police auditor.

Wray says, in principle, he agrees citizen input is a good idea, depending on how it's implemented. He points out Wisconsin communities already have oversight through police and fire commissions, safety review committees, city councils and mayors.

"I've always been an advocate of the more input that citizens have is good," he said.

He also is glad the governor is renewing the conversation over use of force policies at departments across the state.

These proposals all come as Madison Police Department finds itself at a turning point. The city is still searching for a new police chief, months after former Chief Mike Koval abruptly retired last fall.

"The department is at a point of tremendous change. But they are meeting this tremendous change when there is tremendous change in this community, raising questions about some of the fundamental principles of fairness, justice, fundamental fairness, and service," Wray said. "So I look at as a great opportunity for whoever is going to take over the Madison Police Department and lead it into the 21st century."

Wray believes diversity in the department's leadership team is key.

"Diversity in the leadership team is always critical. It is critical because it improves your decision making at the top. It improves access to information within the department, as well as outside the department," he said.

Wray says officers of color are coping with the same hurt and anger over George Floyd's death as we've seen in the community. It's the same concern he's seen for years during protests across the country over deaths of black men involving police.

"We heard the same challenges during Ferguson. Officers of color became the target in many instances during Garner protests, Baltimore protests, it is very difficult, but you know, that is the job," he said. "We get paid to go out there and support and to help people express their First Amendment rights, but it is emotional and you do have to balance that and try to compartmentalize it for public safety sake."

Despite escalating tensions, Wray stands by the sentiment he shared as he announced his retirement seven years ago, that the department can get past the divide among the community.

"I think the light always is at the end of the tunnel. But it's difficult to see it at times," he said. "Reform and improvement is constant. If you're engaged in reform and improvement constantly, you will always see a light at the end of the tunnel, even through the crisis."

Long after his retirement from MPD, Wray is continuing his work to bring police closer to their community. He works with Fair and Impartial Policing to train officers across the US in how to avoid implicit bias.

Last month, the organization released a video to encourage officers to recognize the impact of biases, especially during the pandemic. In that video, Wray explains the issues to look out for and how officers can prevent problems on the job.

Madison's Police and Fire Commission is still searching for a new chief. The board had to cancel public hearings on the hiring, but is accepting written comments from the public right now.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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