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