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Saturday, June 15, 2024
Nobel Wray retires

An interview with retiring Police Chief Noble Wray

Read the full transcript of an interview with retiring Madison Police Department Chief Noble Wray. View the story here.

The Daily Cardinal: How did you first get into law enforcement?

Noble Wray: I was going to school for social welfare with an emphasis in criminal justice, so I had that orientation towards law enforcement, but from a very practical standpoint, I had an uncle that worked here, and he sent his son an application. His son did not fill out the application, and I did, so I ended up here. Years ago, I would not have ever dreamed of working in the law enforcement profession because of the background that I came up in, but there were people in my life that influenced me and said, you know, ‘If you don’t like something, don’t run away from it… protest it, get involved, you can reform and change things from within,’ and that has always stuck with me. So I think from that standpoint, it was not difficult for me to put the application in, but friends and family said ‘what are you doing?’

DC: What were your original aspirations when you were in college for social welfare, what was your dream of today?

NW: I was going to go, get out with a bachelor’s degree, go work somewhere and then possibly go back to law school.

DC: You mentioned the circumstance you grew up in, could you talk a little bit about what that was and how that influenced you?

NW: I grew up in Milwaukee, in the inner-city of Milwaukee, from a very, very poor family, economically poor. I have nine other brothers and sisters, and we’re all about a year apart. But… the family was really involved and engaged in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee, fighting for open housing, fighting for social justice. We were right across the street from St. Boniface, where Father [James] Groppi was the priest, and he and St. Boniface was ground zero for the civil rights movement in the state of Wisconsin, so it had a major influence not only on my family but on me as I’m growing up in my formative years.

DC: Growing up in that kind of politically charged, very public environment, you know, a few years back and even extended into today when Wisconsin, especially Madison, became kind of a focal point for social change and very politically charged public displays of dissatisfaction. How did you use your background to approach that in this position?

NW: I think that I was informed by the fact that it is important for people to be able to petition the government for their redress, to let the world know– in this particular case, because we got emails from all over the world, when that was taking place at the Capitol– but … First Amendment rights and defending the constitution and facilitating people’s ability to do that as long as no one is getting harmed or hurt is critical.

The only way that good government works is that it is informed by what people believe and think about how they are treated, so for me and for the Madison Police Department it was pretty straight forward in terms of ‘here’s the state Capitol, this is where people come to let government know what they think about certain things.’ And it was an unbelievable experience– those days in March with literally hundreds of thousands of people descending on the Capitol– it was not uncommon to see parents out there explaining to their kids the importance and value of government, the importance and value of how government works, and you really had a chance to see that this is government by the people. And I’m not taking on one side or the other because there were counter-protesters out there as well, and when you think of the number of people that were there, in and out of the capitol, and no one got hurt, that was very impressive.

DC: What were the highlights of your tenure here?

NW: Well, there’s a couple of them. One that really sticks out, I was maybe three months out of the academy working the street, and I was working East Washington, and we used to have a problem with ‘hot-rodders’ going up and down East Washington creating a disturbance … We would go out and we would try and address that. And they would park along, up East Washington and, you know, drink beer, throw cans out, the businesses all complained. But anyway, I was out doing some enforcement and I was going to pull one of them over, and I jumped out of the car, did not put it in park. The car continued and hit their cars in back, tore off the grille of the squad, I was literally in front of the squad, trying to push it back but it kept pushing me into the other vehicle until I moved out of the way.

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And at that time, you were told in the academy ‘You have an accident while you’re on probation (first year and a half on the force), you’re fired.’ I just knew I was fired… I had a really good sergeant that calmed me down and said ‘it’s not the end of the world, it was a mistake,’ Chuck Kohl, Sgt. Kohl. And he said, ‘it’s not the end of the world, calm down.’ And I did not have my probation extended, and it all turned out well, but I didn’t believe that was going to be the case, so that sticks out.

The other thing that really sticks out was the whole incident with Audrey Seiler. That was the incident where the student at UW faked her own abduction … I had never, it is hard to imagine one day just doing your job and the next two to three to four days, international media is all over you and you’re trying to work to resolve this particular case. On one hand, we’re fearful that someone abducted this person, so we’re trying to make sure that we’re finding her and make sure that she’s OK. On the other hand, it was receiving such national, and at that time, international attention, which really put a spotlight on Madison. While that was going on, that was my first week as acting Chief. But, you know, as I’m cleaning out my office, I found a letter that she sent once this was all resolved apologizing for her actions.

DC: So then again, on the flip side of that, what were some of the most difficult moments that you ran into?

NW: Early on in my career, there’s this, and it really does stick with me– I used to be a neighborhood officer in Simpson Broadway– and as a neighborhood officer you get to know everyone there; you get to know the kids, your job is to develop a relationship with them. And there was this one kid that committed suicide. And he committed suicide because he brought home some bad grades, and that really stuck with me, and it sticks with me to this day because I would see him on a daily basis and would talk to him. He was kind of a loner, but early on in my career that stuck with me because I knew him, and I was the first one on the scene, got the call, and that was a difficult one. Clearly this last year with the officer-involved shootings, having three of those … over our recent history, we average one every two years, but to have three of them within an eight-or-nine-month period of time… it’s very stressful on a community, and very stressful on a department. I would pluck those two out. I’m trying to kind of think of this from an officer standpoint and now as chief.

DC: What are the biggest differences, the transition from ground officer to chief?

NW: Well, you know, to be able to help people directly– and I think, as I reflect on my career, I obviously enjoy that more– to be able to help people directly, to help a victim. I had a case during that time where I had developed a close relationship with some kids out there and there was a pedophile that was operating out there, but because they trust me, we were able to get the information to bring that pedophile to justice. And so that was a horrible case on one hand, but on the other hand, it was rewarding that we got this person off the street. So you don’t get a chance to do that as chief.

What you are all about as chief is understanding things at a more global perspective, creating an environment for people to be able to do that, for our officers to be able to do that, putting officers in the best position to succeed, putting the community in the best position so that we reduce crime, fear and disorder for our community, and that’s what you’re constantly thinking about.

Someone once said that ‘A chief really deals with three things when it’s all said and done.’ That’s reducing crime or dealing with crime and disorder, so that’s crime. It’s costs– making sure that you are protecting the taxpayers resources, and you’re doing it in a manner which is cost effective– and then conduct, ensuring that you have the best officers out there for the community, and that they are well trained, so it’s crime, cost and conduct.

DC: Coming from that global perspective–you have traveled a fair amount consulting with other police agencies–what are the most defining, unique aspect the Madison community and the Madison Police Department that you’ve found?

NW: A lot of the consulting work that I did was in problem-solving and community policing. What is unique about Madison is that people really believe that they can solve a problem here. I don’t know if it’s because we have been so fortunate over the years to have low unemployment even though Madison is a tale two cities– there are very poor people here and very affluent people– but when it’s all said and done we have always had low unemployment. But the city feels that way, and I don’t know if it’s just because of those things I talked about but we have a world-class university nestled right here and this Wisconsin Idea, the fact that we have researchers here.

But when you go to other communities, at times, they write off certain places that ‘this will never change.’ Madison will tackle some of the big issues, we will talk it to death, we’ll get a whole lot of committees, which can be frustrating, but there’s a genuine optimism that we can do it here, and that is one of the differences.

In terms of the police department in different cities, what I think had made Madison unique is not only are we really trying to focus in on our core values, but a lot of departments don’t hire and train their own officers when they come in, and a lot of departments don’t train their officers throughout their career. Someone else does that. We’re one of three in the state of Wisconsin that train their own officers, we hire and train our own officers, so where that puts us at an advantage– and this is really consistent across the United States– where that puts us at an advantage is you can train to community values.

What does the community value here? You can be more quick to deal with emerging issues. I’ll give you two quick examples: Back a few years ago, early on in my tenure as chief, we had this high-profile incident with a taser at Memorial High School, and the upshot of that is that, that was a nation-wide issue, you know, that ‘what is a taser, what does it do, is it an excessive use of force?’ and everyone across the country was talking about this. Our response to that was to have a community forum, adjust our policy. Not only adjust our policy, but we could train our officers on our adjustment in policy immediately. Something that happened more recently: We were able to, when the concealed carry law was changed, we were able to– within a moment’s notice– set up our in-service and train our officers while other departments had to rely upon either the technical colleges or whenever the training came out, and then they did not have the ability to put in their unique message, and that’s what we’re able to do here.

DC: You brought up the concealed carry law, and I was wondering ... Do you think that going into effect has had an influence on the recent armed robberies that have been around the city of Madison?

NW: I don’t think so, I really don’t think so. First of all, I doubt if the people that were engaged in those were going to apply for a permit to carry concealed, that’s one. Number two, the flip-side, what makes this difficult to answer, is that a lot of the laws across the United States to carry concealed, including the state of Wisconsin– collecting and analyzing data on incidents is really difficult because they don’t allow for you to have that type of information on who’s carrying concealed, and so I think in the long run, we are never really going to be able to get at some empirical research or data to answer the questions that you’re asking. But in this particular case, I don’t think it has had an impact, the examples that you gave.

DC: What do you think will be the most pressing issues that Madison will face as a community after you leave, in the next few months or years?

NW: Well, [there are] some issues that are unresolved, and then [there are] some emerging issues. The unresolved issues are racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The unresolved issues would be how do we make our Isthmus or downtown Madison accommodating to all? It is a wonderful place, you know, you walk from Bascom to the Capitol, and it’s very engaging, and if I could just take one step back on this… When I first started I worked in downtown and at that time, the Capitol area was dead. It was on the heels of that major prostitution taking place up there but what has happened in the last, say seven years, is that the downtown area has really blossomed. You have more student housing, the high-rises, you have condos that have gone in in the last five or six years, you have an arts district with the Overture Center, you’re bringing in people with a new library, you still have an entertainment district at night. You’ve got a business district. And then you have the homeless, then you have students, then you have regular Madisonians and people from Dane County, so it’s very vibrant. But people are competing for the same turf, so how do we make that happen to where it remains vibrant? And that’s a challenge, it’s a major challenge.

DC: So what right now do you think are some of the things that have been the most effective ways or that you think could possibly be effective over time to make that accommodating to everyone?

NW: I think making sure that you have everyone at the table, building a consensus about what this area means, it can’t be just for business, it can’t be just for students, it can’t be just for the local, regular Madisonians. I think we’ve got to have a group of people that regularly meet and discuss this area because it is so critical to– and I even forgot, this is the state Capitol!– but it’s so critical, and I just think groups like Downtown Madison, Inc. are very important. The student involvement is just critical. During my career, whenever we have had an initiative that involved the Isthmus or the downtown where we have had student involvement, it has always ended up being dramatically better, the outcome.

DC: Are there any other– I mean, you’ve touched on a few– but the particular advantages and disadvantages of working in a [college town]?

NW: Some of the challenges that we have– and this is something that I think we have seen demonstrated in the last couple of weeks– and that is how do we communicate to the university? Now, I think the university has developed ways of communicating to the students and getting back to some of the students’ parents. But I think from a city standpoint, what we need to start working on and realizing is that the University of Wisconsin is nestled in an urban setting, so the city of Madison, we must find ways and strategies to be able to also communicate directly with the students and indirectly with the parents. Because there are things that are happening with the students within the confines of the city that the university may not be aware of and what we want to improve is what the parents and the students understand and know about the city of Madison and what are the realities. We have to come up with some more effective strategies to do that.

DC: You said you’ve seen this in the past few weeks, what is that in reference to?

NW: In reference to the robbery incident that took place..it’s in reference to whenever we have– and we’re going to have these from time to time, crime goes up, goes down, this is still the fourth safest city in the United States, we’ve been on a downward trend but you’re going to get those peaks and valleys. How do I get that information directly to the students in a manner in which they want to receive it, using the social media in an effective way that they want to receive it? How do we get that in a more real-time manner, because that’s what students– my sense– at the university are doing… We were slow to picking up on this, I remember back years ago when we had the Halloween thing going on, we didn’t realize, we said ‘well, how all the sudden students knew how all to come down to Halloween at one time, and… duh, they’re communicating through social media! I think we have to become more effective at that, and when I say we I’m not necessarily talking about the university, I think they know and they have ways, I’m talking about the city. I don’t want to separate the two, but there are things that happen in the city that we need to get that information to the university and to the students.

DC: How do you think the university did, I’m sure you guys had communications with university officials and UWPD officials, just taking that particular shooting a week and a half ago, looking back on that, how do you think the flow of information was during the [search] for the suspects?

NW: From my perspective it was fast because I was in a meeting with the chancellor at the time. So someone comes over to me and they say, ‘Chief what’s going on on Langdon?’ and I call my officer-in-charge, I get a briefing, and I brief the chancellor… From an information flow at that level, it was pretty fast. But when you have a rapidly evolving dynamic situation like that and you’re trying to make sure that people have accurate information, there are always going to be information challenges. That was rapidly evolving, that was dynamic, you have a number of different locations where things were happening so, and that’s not uncommon.

DC: Alright, you mentioned this earlier and I just wanted to bring it up again– the officer shootings– and that has been a big, unfortunately, national kind of concern and very state concern to the point where legislators are getting involved. From a public safety and trust perspective, what is the best outcome of what’s happening now in the state in lawmaking offices and how that translates to the enforcement?

DC: I’m not against at all, I support the legislature looking at this issue. And you’re correct, it is not just a Madison or state of Wisconsin issue, it is a nationwide issue. I think we’ve got to get everyone to the table and make sure that we’re just not putting out any kind of legislation, that it’s effective and that it works, and that it does not have unintended consequences of making this any worse. I won’t be around to engage in it, and that is one thing I miss because we have had the experience of looking at these recently. But some people may assume that police don’t want people looking at this, but they do. What police want is to make sure that their voice is being heard. What police want is to make sure that whatever comes out of the legislation, that they are involved, that there is still local involvement, that their expertise is still valued in this. And that you don’t create a system that seems to go on forever, keeping the harm and the hurt going in the community, but that you have a system where there’s transparency as well as the perception and the reality of a fair and impartial investigation.

DC: Do you think that the Madison Police Department, specifically, could improve on those key points you touched on, you know, the transparency, the disinterested investigation from your opinion?

NW: We have a core value here at the Madison Police Department and one of the core values is constant improvement. Everything that we do we look at and we review, we will, and I’ve talked about this already, we will be coming out– and we’ve just approved these– a series of policy adjustments, procedural adjustments, adjustments in terms of how we support and care for our officers during these situations. If you are not about constant improvement, you shouldn’t be in this business, if you are so heavily invested in your ego you really shouldn’t be in policing. That’s why people will always hear me say ‘I don’t just want to be right, I want to get it right.’

DC: You’ve kind of mentioned it, I don’t know if you want to add to it at all– the kind of legacy you hope to leave?

NW: The legacy is, one that I hope it would be, is we started a dialogue on what is fundamental to community policing; and that is building trust both inside the department and out. We understand that, people understand that that is critical, and what does it take to build and maintain and sustain trust? That is, it is something, you know, it’s a journey, it’s not a destination.

That’s one. Another legacy is improving the workplace for officers… and civilian staff, so that we maintain a vibrant, diverse workforce and we have the best and the brightest out there. I think citizens want us to make sure we’re doing that.

One of the things that people may not realize, but I hope it’s something that sustains itself, when you look at a police department, most people look at the most visible in uniform. But there are a lot of civilians here–close to a hundred–that are critical to the functioning of public safety, and what we’ve tried to do during my tenure is to hire more, look for ways that we can utilize civilian expertise that would make the department work better, but also raise their stature within the organization.

The most visible example is that I brought in a civilian public information officer. It was always police officers who did that, now you see that everywhere else– the university just brought in Marc Lovicott– and why was that important? I communicate at times as a police officer, I see things from a law enforcement standpoint, you know, I can be informed by you but what bringing Joel DeSpain on, what that did for us, is that when we’re in meetings, I have someone that has the understanding of what the media wants. I also have someone that did not grow up in the police culture and is so locked into providing information that won’t jeopardize the investigation but thinking about what the average citizen may be thinking, and that is so important. He will challenge us on it, ‘yeah, we know that we typically don’t say that but this is what the media is asking for and this is what citizens are thinking.’ It’s been absolutely vital.

DC: If there were one thing, knowing what you know now, that you could go back and tell your 43 year-old, just-starting-out chief what would that be and how would that have changed your tenure?

NW: Take a moment and recommit. There are key times in a police officer’s career where they understand the calling. It’s that special moment when your family is there, and you’re raising your hand and you’re taking the oath of office, and you are committing to an unconditional pledge to support and uphold the constitution, to protect those that are vulnerable, to support victims. It’s unconditional because you know that at some point in time you may be put in a situation life or death and you can’t run away from it, you’ve got to run to it. And we tend to lose that along the way, and when you’re in a process like I was in the chief’s process; there’s all of these things going on, you know, there’s ‘who’s going to be next?’ There’s budgets, there’s this, but take a step back and ask yourself why you joined this profession. And those things from there will flow naturally, you will know that in the middle of the night the reason why you’re picking up that phone, and you’ll always have the community in the room, you know to ask the question ‘How are the officers doing?’ You know to remind whoever’s calling you, well the citizens don’t know why we have a SWAT team out in their neighborhood in the middle of the night, you guys need to go door to door and explain that. Lastly, if you have a hundred thousand people descend on your city, you know that the most important thing is to ensure that their First Amendment rights are protected. That’s what I would tell him.

DC: What are your retirement plans?

NW: I like to think that I’m looking at the next phase, as opposed to retiring. But I’m excited about the fact that I will be doing consulting work… within the profession. It’s called Blue Courage, and it’s a firm, and we talk about some of the issues that I’m talking about now but we do it on a national scale. And so I will be traveling, you know, talking to different police departments across the United States about the profession, about what’s important, about what we value about the profession, and then how to remain resilient while you’re within the profession.

DC: That’s all I have, is there anything else you would like to say?

NW: On behalf of the Madison Police Department, I really would like to thank the university students, they have been a partner with us. From everything from– and we don’t always agree– and that’s a good thing. We don’t always agree but they have truly come to the table on a number of issues. I mean everything from let’s discuss Mifflin to ‘We fear for our safety, let’s talk about this,’ to those safety walks on Langdon Street, they have truly been a partner.

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