Is Madison Police Chief Noble Wray the man for the 21st-century job of urban policing?
On a cool April morning, a young, unknown woman walked through the quiet streets of Madison. She was just one of thousands of other students hurrying back and forth between the University of Wisconsin and their run-down rentals scattered throughout the downtown.
As she walked along, her mind may have been on the test she’d just taken. It could have been on her wedding plans still in the making. Or it may have been on what the people who wanted to sublet her apartment might be like, since she was heading home to meet them.
But maybe her mind was on the increasing sketchiness of her Doty Street neighborhood and the characters who were frequenting it, a symptom of how Madison was growing and changing, moving from college town to urban city, with all the problems that brings. There’s no way she could know what this change would mean for her. In the next hours, a stranger would kick down her bedroom door, then beat and stab her to death.
Within hours, we would all learn the name of Brittany Zimmermann, local law enforcement would launch a massive search for her killer—who is still at large—and an enormous weight would fall on the shoulders of Madison’s bright young chief of police, Noble Wray.
Over the next few months, solving this crime, and a string of other murders, would come to seem like almost a mission to save the city from itself.
Rewind the tape a couple decades, and move the camera eighty miles to the east, and you’ll see a young boy walking home from school on the north side of Milwaukee. That’s where Noble Wray lived with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. Wray was the seventh in line, and as he hiked through the streets, his mind surely wasn’t on his hometown and how it was changing. Once a place with working class jobs that paid enough to raise a family, Milwaukee was on its way to being dubbed one of America’s most dangerous cities.
But young Noble’s mind was probably on more practical matters, like how to pick the best route home to avoid the new gang in town—the Black P. Stone Rangers—who controlled certain areas of the city. Yet when he did finally get to his family’s house across from St. Boniface Church, where they were part of Father James Groppi’s congregation, it was a warm place full of life, even if it wasn’t full of money.
“Let me put it this way,” says Wray’s older brother Jessie. “We had ten kids and one chicken in the house.”
Raising such a big family during Milwaukee’s downhill slide was no doubt why Wray’s parents—his mom was a local school cook, his dad a community activist—sent Noble and his siblings first to summer camp in Waukesha County, then to a tiny high school, JFK Prep, in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, where they had scholarships.
“It was promoted as a leadership school,” remembers Doug Lefeber, who went to school there with Wray. “And you grew up early. You lived in dorms and you got over your homesickness at an early age. You had responsibilities.”
“Noble was very focused,” says former classmate and family friend Edward Sherard. “He was younger than us, but he acted older and more mature than we were.”
Up north, the city with its drugs and gangs and unrest seemed far away, says Jessie. “When we went to JFK, we didn’t have those problems. Our biggest problems were, ‘Does that girl like me?’ ‘Are my grades good? and ‘What am I going to eat?’ because we didn’t have any money and we hated the cafeteria food. Typical high school stuff.”
Some of that typical high school stuff included basketball and high jump, where Wray excelled with a four-and-a-half foot vertical jump. Then, when the games were over and the homework was done, the students would gather in the common room, turn on some music, and dance. This is where Noble Wray shone.
“I remember a dance called ‘The Bump,’ where you bumped your partner,” says Lefeber. “And yeah, I remember he was a good dancer.”
“Noble won all kinds of dance contests all over the state of Wisconsin,” says Jessie. “He won all the robot contests. Freestyle dancing. All that pop-lock stuff they were doing in the seventies. Noble could do it. He can probably still do it. The man can dance.”
Wray is reserved when he talks about his past, and humble when he talks about his accomplishments. So he doesn’t really mention the dancing, and when it is brought up, he seems mortified. He’d rather talk, in his somewhat wonkish way, about how his time up north helped him grow.
“Anytime you get out of your comfort zone,” Wray says, “where you were born and raised, you expand your worldview. And as a young man, I had traveled most parts of northern Wisconsin. I don’t think many people and men my age growing up in Milwaukee had experienced what it was like for the dairy farms, which was all that was around there.”
But even if he doesn’t like to talk about it, or if he even realizes it, the leadership school seemed to have exactly the desired effect on the thoughtful kid from Milwaukee.
“Even back then, Noble was the leader.” says Jessie. “People in his class would come to him with problems. In the black community or the white community. He had a way of being able to negotiate and help people get along, because he got along with everybody. He can get along with the freaks, the jocks, the blacks, whites, Hispanics.
“He can get along with anybody.”
Noble Wray almost went into the priesthood. But instead after some consideration, he decided he wanted to study law. And when law school turned out to be too expensive, Wray opted for law enforcement. It was a powerful choice for a young man who’d been chased across Milwaukee by gang members armed with chains and Doberman Pinschers, and who still remembers his dad sleeping by the door with a gun because they’d been robbed so many times.
“One time they took a TV that was broken,” Wray says. “Another time they took my mother’s purse, which really didn’t have much in it. I guess they finally realized we were so poor it wasn’t worth it.”
In 1984, after he finished his college classes at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (as well as a semester at UW–Madison), Wray soon found himself dressed in blue and on foot patrol along State Street and Capitol Square, where the hookers worked King and Main. But he was so new to the city that a drunk driver he’d arrested had to give him directions to the City-County Building for booking.
Soon enough, though, Wray had found his way around and was on his way up, as Chief David Couper’s executive officer and department spokesperson. But first he worked as a neighborhood officer in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood.
“That was probably the one thing that really changed my mind about this profession. That was where I realized you really could have a positive impact on people’s lives, and that it wasn’t about policing a community. It was about policing with a community.”
Such were was the ideas inspired by Chief Couper, who was a creative, innovative force in the department, and who loved concepts like the “problem-oriented policing” approach championed by UW–Madison law professor Herman Goldstein in the 1970s. POP, as it’s known, essentially involves reverse-engineering crime trends to see what the forces driving those crimes are, then tinkering with law enforcement to make those crimes stop.
When Couper retired in 1993, the department went through a decidedly less creative phase under Richard Williams. But by the time Wray took over in 2004, he could see Madison had become more urban, its problems larger and more complex. So he ramped up POP in the fall of 2006 to stop the Halloween riots on State Street. That year, he also used the same approach in launching the Downtown Safety Initiative, which put more officers on night and weekend patrol to stop burglaries and violent crime in central Madison.
Another shift was toward what he called “intelligence-based policing,” or using actual data to recognize crime trends. To this end, he hired the department’s first full-time data analyst, who quickly showed the correlation between alcohol-related violence and liquor license density. Now he’s switching to more data-rich police reports, and the department just hired two more analysts, who are combing through the numbers looking for patterns in the chaos, by which Wray hopes to do what we have come to demand him to do.
“Twenty years ago,” he says, “if you solved a crime, you were being a quality officer. Now there’s a growing expectation that you not only solve the crime, but that you are working toward preventing the crime from even occurring.”
Noble Wray was walking down a hall in the City-County Building on April 2 this year when Assistant Chief Randy Gaber came up and told him a young woman had been killed in her downtown Madison apartment. Wray went straight down to the scene, and his thoughts went to his own family.
“That was really a low point for me in my career,” he says of that day. “I’ve got two sons, ages 21 and 24, and to have parents that lose a child like that … It’s still difficult for me.”
The public reaction was equally profound. Just a couple months earlier, a clean-cut young man named Joel Marino had been stabbed to death in his home with a paring knife in the middle of the day. Before him, a student named Kelly Nolan had been killed after a night out and her body dumped in the woods outside of town. The police had released little information about either murder, heightening anxiety over the safety of the city. Fox News even parachuted in to raise speculation about a serial killer, an idea that rose up in the silence emanating from the chief’s office.
Wray was not prepared for how radically these and two other unsolved murders would change the community’s perceptions of safety, particularly when the big picture told a different story: Shortly after Brittany Zimmermann died, the police department released numbers showing that crime in Madison was down 29.6 percent in 2007, and that violent crimes in the central district dropped from 253 to 178, most likely as a result of the Downtown Safety Initiative.
None of that mattered to Lou Marino, the father of Joel Marino, when he announced publicly that he’d lost all confidence in the department. The police then took the unusual step of issuing a press release offering to sit down with Marino. Wray, it seemed, was facing a crisis of confidence, if not in his leadership or his style, in the direction the city was going.
Media watchdogs like Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders were frustrated by how little information was released in some of the more high-profile cases like Nolan, Marino and Zimmermann.
“To the extent that I would have a concern about the Police Department under Chief Wray,” says Lueders, “I think it’s too secretive, particularly regarding the murders that have occurred in Madison. And I think that breeds a sense of helplessness in the public. Because we don’t know what the police know, or what we can do to protect ourselves and find the killers.”
It’s a dilemma Wray acknowledges: “I think my role is to provide as much information to people so that they actually understand what they’re dealing with,” he says. “The difficulty with the stranger-related homicides is that you have such a large suspect pool, and what you try to do in these cases is you try to reduce the amount of information so a suspect can’t craft their alibi around that.”
Still, Wray does sometimes chafe at this kind of criticism. “Where it gets somewhat frustrating,” he says, “is where the data or the statistics don’t bear out what people think is happening. If you were to listen to the media accounts in the spring of this year, you would think we weren’t solving any murders. But we still have one of the highest clearance rates for homicide in the United States, 87.5 percent in the last five years.”
And still the sense that something was deeply wrong was palpable over the summer, and the city’s livability seemed to be gasping for air in some downtown back alley. Few people seemed to have much doubt about where we were headed.
“Crime has undoubtedly not only increased in proportion to population,” says Mike Scott, director of the UW Law School’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, “but it’s a higher level of violent crime.”
Ex-mayor Paul Soglin sees another trend contributing to the rising violence, especially around State Street. “What has happened is that Madison,” he says, “like a lot of other mid- to small-sized cities, has seen in-migration of families trying to escape the poverty and crime of the larger cities. It started in the early 1980s. And those families were followed by the various people they tried to escape. They’re followed by the drug dealers, the extortionists, the pimps. And that has had a profound impact on residential areas and State Street.”
Wray acknowledges that Madison is changing, but he sees that change through a different lens. “What I think is happening in Madison is this,” he says. “I think people are seeing more crime. It’s more visible. It’s more dispersed. It’s more out there. But in the 1980s and the early 1990s, most of that was taking place in just a few neighborhoods. Allied Drive. Broadway-Simpson. Vera Court. I can name them all. What has changed is that the pockets of poverty are more dispersed through the city, and crimes are taking place where they didn’t before. So I won’t say to people that it’s not getting worse, because that’s what people are seeing. But the data doesn’t necessarily say it’s getting worse.”
Such, at any rate, is the macro, data-driven analysis of the state of crime in Madison, as seen by Noble Wray. It may be the reality, but it also may be that Wray is so focused on the wide angle that he forgets what it looks like through the small one, where we can’t see the details of the Kelly Nolan investigation, where we don’t know all the circumstances around the murder of Brittany Zimmermann, and where State Street has started to seem like some distopian Clockwork Orange nightmare.
“There are definitely places people are starting to think aren’t as safe,” says Lueders. “Like downtown at bar time. You wouldn’t catch me down on State Street at bar time if you paid me.”
Despite what you read in the papers, Noble Wray has had some major successes. But they are not sexy ones. They are huge, complicated, multifaceted successes that deal with identifiable problems like the rising tide of crime in downtown and Allied Drive and the perennial Halloween rampage.
“A big part of this [problem-oriented] approach,” says Scott, “is putting a lot more effort than police have traditionally done into trying to understand why crimes occur in the first place, then taking very specific steps to prevent that. It’s a perpetually more complex undertaking than it has been in the past.”
It is, in other words, policing for nerds. But in an era where everything from agriculture to astrophysics has become increasingly data-driven, why should police work be an exception? One of Madison’s first major POP projects was to reduce drugs and crime in the troubled Broadway-Simpson neighborhood in the mid-1990s. Wray employed it again to combat aggressive panhandling on State Street in 2006. This year, the MPD was one of six international finalists for the Herman Goldstein Award for its POP approach to solving the Halloween problem.
“I think the department is trying to get better at not just sitting back and reacting to these things,” says Scott, “but at figuring out ways to prevent them. It takes a different approach than traditional policing can bring to bear. And to the extent that the department is getting good at that, you have to give credit to Chief Wray for helping that along.”
But what about the raft of murders in Madison? Is that a pattern that can be discerned? “The analysts are just critical to doing policing in a manner that is intelligent, says Wray. “For example, with a stranger homicide, there are literally thousands of contacts we have to make. And sometimes you need someone to do the analysis to see what the associations are between all these suspects and contacts. The other thing is to see if there were incidents that occurred that could have some connection. With both Marino and Zimmermann, there was an issue regarding breaking into homes. So you do some analysis on burglaries in the area.”
To solve crimes, in other words, whether it’s east side burglaries, or State Street violence, or stranger murders on Doty Street, you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. You have to take it all in. You have to find the pieces, see how they fit together. To prevent crime, according to Wray, you have to do the same: Deal with Madison’s growing poverty; keep schools safe places; bring in more low-skill, high-wage jobs.
It is an approach that can seem technocratic and distant. But on July 27, Noble Wray stood before the cameras and made an announcement that showed it’s an approach that works. It was, he said, with “a great sense of relief ” that they had arrested a suspect—a mentally ill, drug-using, UW dropout—in the killing of Joel Marino.
“I was more happy for the family,” Wray remembers now. “Not that they could ever get their son back. But sitting down, meeting with the family, looking into their eyes and realizing the sheer agony they were in, I was elated that this could bring some level of closure to their lives.”
There are four more families waiting for such a moment. And until then, Noble Wray will be back at his desk poring over his data, looking at his graphs, watching the bigger picture come into focus, using every tool, every style, every idea he can to find whoever it was that broke down Brittany Zimmermann’s door just a few blocks away from his office. “We’re still progressing on the remaining unsolved homicide cases,” Wray says.
“We’re still getting updates. And I am confident that we’re going to solve more of these before the year is out.
“Confident,” he adds, “and hopeful.”
Frank Bures is an award-winning contributing writer for Madison Magazine.