Shon Barnes was sworn in as Madison’s newest Police Chief on Monday morning. The 46-year-old North Carolina native officially took on the role at a socially distanced, in-person ceremony held at Madison’s municipal building.
Barnes replaces interim Chief Vic Wahl, who acted in the role following the resignation of Police Chief Mike Koval in 2019. Wahl did not put his name up for consideration for the permanent position.
Barnes has over 20 years of experience in law enforcement, during which he has worked as a Police Captain in Greensboro North Carolina, deputy chief in Salisbury North Carolina and most recently as director of development for Chicago’s Police Oversight Committee.
Barnes’ swearing-in concludes a year-long search process, which has left several community members frustrated with the lack of civilian input during the hiring process. Madison’s Police and Fire Commission (PFC), tasked with the selection of a new chief, did seek out public input on candidates, but community members were never allowed to ask candidates direct questions, leaving many dissatisfied with the city’s receptiveness to community input.
According to Matthew Mitnick, a member of the city’s Public Safety Review Committee, the PFC took few steps to allow for public input on the hiring process.
“Public input was clearly not valued.” Mitnick said in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. “From the start of these meetings, the public comment process was so difficult where members of the public had to submit a Word document form, there was a limited time as to when the public comment would happen. There were many meetings that were in the middle of the day, it was just kind of a problematic process.”
When asked about community dissatisfaction with the hiring process, Barnes cited the PFC’s sole authority to select police chiefs in the state, as defined by Wisconsin law.
“It is totally their process … But I will say that I want to bridge the gap with anyone who doesn’t believe I’m the right person for the job,” he said.
Barnes inherits the position following a year of increased tension between MPD and the Madison community, where MPD riot police forcefully dispersed demonstrators protesting systemic racism tear gas.
Following these confrontations, the Madison City Council has considered banning the use of tear gas with the Madison Public Safety Committee recommending that the MPD use an alternative form of crowd control during a common council meeting on Feb 2. Chief Barnes voiced his disagreement with the committee’s decision.
“It’s [tear gas] a tool like any other, and if needed, it can be used,” Barnes said in an interview with The Cardinal.
During the past year, Madison Metropolitan School District has also voted to remove MPD officers from school buildings in the wake of protests against police violence, signaling a declining trust in the ability of officers.
Barnes, a former teacher and school resource officer, stated that he respects the school board’s decision but emphasized the availability of police to assist at MMSD schools: “We’ll always be responsive to anyone who calls 911, especially at our schools.”
Barnes has expressed support for the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which would send trained counselors to certain mental health calls, that Madison hopes to implement over the next year: “I think it's definitely a step in the right direction, and any police best practices that have been shown to work I always support 110%.”
When asked about police use of force, specifically in minority communities, Barnes indicated that he plans to make the MPD more transparent in their activities but that some aspects of policing will always be visually unappealing.
“You can’t repair a relationship from behind closed doors, and you have to be clear about what you’re doing,” Barnes said. “However, there’s no use of force, whether it's a shooting or a handcuffing, that physically looks good.”
Barnes went on to affirm his commitment towards re-evaluating and ensuring the enforcement of department procedures.
“My responsibility is to make sure that the process is correct and that we have exhausted all other avenues before we do anything. And that includes the de-escalation training. That includes procedural justice training.”
MPD has implemented crisis intervention training for its officers. However, several local organizers have continued to voice their view that officers are too quick to resort to force.
“When we’ve invited police into our communities and homes, the violence has only increased,” said Bianca Gomez, a member of the local activist group Freedom, INC.
Gomez cited several incidents, including the killing of Tony Robinson by officer Matt Kenny, as examples where the MPD was too quick to resort to force. “We never got justice for Tony Robinson, we never got justice for Ganele Laird, we never got justice for the 17 year old from west highschool, who the police gagged and punched in his own home.”
In an interview with The Daily Cardinal, Barnes acknowledged the criticisms of the MPD and voiced his hopes to help rebuild relationships with the community and reimagine what policing means in a post 2020 world.
“I kind of felt like I was getting married today, to be honest,” Barnes said. “I know that there might be some hard and tough times behind us and ahead, but I also know that we have a great future together.”