Is Madison Police Chief Noble Wray the man for the 21st-century job of urban policing?
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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.”