Koval: 'Good community police officers are mindful they have to be tactically safe.'
In 1983, Mike Koval was an eager young police officer, fresh out of the academy and ready to save the world. But he quickly realized not everyone on the Madison Police Department shared his zeal.
Assigned to the night shift -- from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. -- Koval showed up for his first briefing 15 minutes early and grabbed a seat in the front of the room.
"I was ready with my pen and pencil poised to take notes over every stolen car, every wanted person I could find," remembers Koval, now the city's newly anointed police chief. "About 15 seconds to go before briefing, some surly guy who had been on nights his whole life comes in, cigarette dangling from his lower lip, looks at me with contempt, takes my entire squad box, shoves it off the table, and says: 'Rookie, you're sitting in my spot, goddammit.'"
Koval picked his stuff off of the floor and retreated to the back of the room.
He joined the force under Chief David Couper, a reformer who opened the department to women and minorities and promoted "community policing" methods. Appointed chief in 1972, Couper had changed the MPD's ways, Koval says, but the night shift remained a refuge for the old guard.
"We called them the 'night fighters.' That was the sanctuary for the last of the anti-Couper regime," he says. "You were working under cloak of darkness, when a lot of Couper's people were unlikely to be there."
Looking around the briefing room that night in 1983, Koval noticed that they were all heavy smokers and that there wasn't "a single officer still on his first marriage."
Working nights would take its toll on Koval himself. But more than 30 years later, the new chief retains that youthful enthusiasm for the job.
Koval was sworn in at the end of April, and his short tenure has been far from smooth. Officers have killed two people while responding to calls, and Koval got in a dust-up with the press over delaying the release of photos of officers involved in one of the shootings. He's also drawn criticism over accepting an armored vehicle from the Department of Defense.
Like his old boss, Chief Couper, Koval wants his officers to be much more than crime fighters.
"One of the things that attracted me to the Madison Police Department was the notion of police as community activists, as social workers with guns and badges who understand that arrest and law enforcement probably take less than 25% of an officer's typical day," he says. "The rest of the time, we should be looking at collaboration, problem solving, identifying quality-of-life issues."
Koval's uncle and role model, Shawn Riley, was a Madison police officer who later worked for the Division of Criminal Investigation at the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Riley, however, did "everything in his power" to discourage Koval from a career in law enforcement. Riley, Koval says, saw the profession being taken over by "testosterone-dumping" guys like the grizzled veteran Koval encountered during his first night briefing.
But Koval's parents were also an inspiration. Both were educators, his father at University of Wisconsin-Madison, his mom at Shorewood Hills Elementary.
"I am the living product of someone who led a very cloistered, white-privileged lifestyle," he says. "But my parents constantly reminded me as much and told me the expectation was: 'You do good for others.'"
Koval's brother, Daniel, is a Madison municipal judge, and his sister is a nurse and a former special education teacher.
Policing attracted Koval because he saw how officers could make "tangible intervention, right there, right then," he says. "Nowhere was that more compelling than the thought of domestic violence. If not for the police intervention, a very unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship is allowed to continue."
But after working on the force, Koval also saw how it could take its toll on officers. He came to the Madison Police Department with "a halfway decent vocabulary," but found that after working nights his speech was "reduced to monosyllabic grunts."
"Many of the people I encountered, whether suspects, contacts, witnesses, complainants -- the majority seemed to be high," Koval says. Early on he might have told someone: "Sir, based on the totality of your behavior tonight, I think it's prudent that I place you into protective custody due to the fact that you're incapacitated by alcohol." After a while, those interactions were reduced to: "You, come, sit, we're going."
"All that patience gets lost," he says.
To stay grounded, officers need to be connected to people outside the force, Koval says. In his case, it was his wife, Jane. "You need to have someone who is honest with you to say, 'Dude, this job is changing you in ways I don't like.'"
Aside from a short stint with the FBI, Koval has been with the Madison Police Department for most of the past three decades. Since 1995, he headed up training and recruitment. In 2004, he was a finalist for the chief's post, when it was given to Noble Wray, who retired last year.
The use of deadly force, not progressive police tactics, has made headlines for the department lately. Two days after Koval was sworn in, two officers shot and killed 33-year-old Londrell Johnson in an East Washington Avenue apartment, after Johnson had stabbed two women to death and injured a man.
On May 18, the police shot and killed 26-year-old Ashley DiPiazza, who was armed with a handgun, in an apartment on the far east side after talking to her for 30 minutes.
The shootings are becoming alarmingly frequent. The most controversial occurred in November 2012, when officer Stephen Heimsness shot and killed unarmed musician Paul Heenan. The department later sought to fire Heimsness for unrelated offenses; he retired last October.
Investigations of the two recent killings are under way. Koval says there's no single reason for the spike in shootings. He points to a deterioration of the mental health system and notes that police officers are often forced to perform mental health "triage" in volatile situations.
"A herculean effort is required, and it's disturbing on many levels to me because I don't see an infrastructure that's going to be fixed in the near future."
In the first of the two situations, Koval initially balked at releasing photographs of the officers involved -- a practice that has long been standard. He saw the distress it was causing the two officers involved, both of whom he had trained.
"I understand the public has a right to know who is policing them," Koval says. But, he adds, "Nobody had alleged there was any criminal misconduct.... I didn't think the very fact of doing one's job should elevate one instantaneously to a public-figure status."
Koval says he was "taken to task" by the city attorney's office and his own command staff for his delay. Still, he hopes it forced media to contemplate the value of publishing the photos.
"When you have significant episodes like this, they get such a disproportionate amount of attention that all of the good works you do day in and day out do not reach the same crescendo of attention," he says. "It's presumed or assumed there's an environment in the department that cultivates a tactical response as its first option, and that is not the case."
The MPD's acquisition of an armored vehicle from the Department of Defense also raised concerns that Koval is shifting the department toward hard-nosed tactics.
The chief insists he's not. Koval acknowledges it might seem like he is talking out of both sides of his mouth, given his endorsement of community policing initiatives and his acceptance of the armored vehicle. But, he says, "I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive."
He sees tension around the country between policing that emphasizes tactical maneuvers and policing that focuses on communities.
"We're both," he says. "Good community police officers are mindful they have to be tactically safe. Those tactically sound officers know they have to involve the community."
Koval adds: "The best officers are ones who embrace both domains."