Noble's Truth

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

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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.”

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