How Can Police “Connect?”

Commander of South Police District, Madison, Wisc.
Joe Balles, Commander of South Police District, Madison, Wisc.


June 10, 2013 7:15 am  •  PAUL FANLUND | The Capital Times | 

Madison South District Police Capt. Joe Balles is spearheading a new community relations effort against a backdrop of recent problems.

[Paul Fanlund is the fifth editor in the history of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before occupying a business job with Madison Newspapers for six years. He joined the Cap Times in 2006. In his weekly column, which typically appears online on Mondays, and in shorter forms, he writes about a broad range of Madison topics.]

In his crisp blue uniform with the twin-bar captain’s insignia, Joe Balles certainly looks the part of important cop, but when he speaks, he sounds more like a banker.

He refers to deposits and withdrawals and bank accounts as metaphors for the overall level of confidence — or lack thereof — that city residents have these days in the Madison Police Department.

Balles, who commands the department’s South District, is part of Chief Noble Wray’s senior team. Wray asked him to draw up a plan to better engage the community, and Balles produced an eight-point chart that includes such elements as more effectively using social media, conducting more topical forums and better leveraging the deployment of volunteers.

Worth noting up front is that the issue of community trust seems top of mind in police ranks these days.

“What I hear from officers today is that they are feeling stressed and anxious, challenged, because they feel like they are rolling up on calls and dealing with critical situations and that trust isn’t there,” Balles says. “They’re not getting cooperation, and why is that?”

Balles adds: “Trust is something that has to be earned. It’s not like your bank account, where you have so much money and it’s there one day and you look and keep looking back and it’s the same amount.”

Extending the metaphor, Balles says: “Imagine if you had a bank account and if you just let it sit there and you go back and check it in a year and it was valued at 50 percent less and you didn’t do anything. But that’s the problem. You didn’t do anything.”

On Balles’ police engagement chart, one key strategy refers to building what he calls the “trust bank.”

The challenge, he says, is “how to build everyday engagement so that in the mindset of the officers, that even on the littlest calls, they do something a little extra that actually contributes to something we may have to withdraw from.”

Balles adds, “For some officers, they get it, they know it and they understand it. (But) that kind of mindset isn’t, I would say, rampant across our patrol operations today.”

Such candid self-reflection is what I’ve heard before from Madison police, but it can still be surprising if one expects a more defensive culture typical of paramilitary organizations. Balles and I talked at length last week at Cargo Coffee on South Park Street about challenges facing the department.

As he delves more deeply into what the police face, he sticks with the banking reference: “Every time you have an opportunity to make a deposit in that trust bank we have to, because quite frankly we’ve had some deposits taken away this year, and we need to work on that.”

Probably the biggest “withdrawal” has been the fallout from the shooting of a 30-year-old musician named Paul Heenan last November by a police officer.

Police responded to a 911 call on South Baldwin Street about a man attempting to break into a home. Heenan was shot dead after a confrontation with a responding officer. Heenan was unarmed but the officer said Heenan tried to grab the officer’s gun. Heenan was intoxicated at the time.

Police eventually concluded the officer followed correct procedures and the district attorney declined to press changes, but many neighbors remain outraged at what they regard as excessive use of force. As a result, the department is still studying its procedures for shootings involving officers.

The shooting has remained on the public radar. In May, three Madison cops were involved in another fatal shooting, this time involving a man with a history of mental illness who came at them with a sword. Last week it was reported that those officers also will not face charges, but news reports reminded readers of the Heenan shooting.

Some, I suggested to Balles, might see this police engagement plan as mostly connected to Heenan.

No, it is broader than that, Balles says. “In that pocket over there, yes, do we have some significant work to do in rebuilding trust in that neighborhood? Absolutely, no question about it. And there’s probably other larger groups, another group of people outside that neighborhood, that probably also has some questions.”

But, he says, the police challenge is longer term. “You can kind of see the evolution of how Madison police have been committed to engaging and partnering with this community. It’s in our mission statement, it’s in our core values, it’s everything we do, even going back to these officers asking those questions last year.”

Balles was referring to a story I wrote last November when five officers of varying ranks sat with me for a roundtable interview. The print headline pretty much got the gist: “From Madison Police, a warning … Madison’s rank-and-file police say cooperation at violent crime scenes is on the downswing and they want everyone to know it.”

So we have a renewed focus on community policing, the notion of using relationships and problem-solving to combat crime. The concept was hot here more than two decades ago, Balles says, when he and Wray were working in the then-troubled Broadway-Simpson area in south Madison.

“It was very violent back in those days,” he says. “As we started to figure out what community policing was, detectives really started to realize the value to (having) neighborhood officers in terms of building relationships. Because, when things did happen, there was a much greater likelihood we were going to get cooperation because we already had a relationship.”

He says he thinks there was some drift away from community policing because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, acknowledging other police officials might disagree with his analysis.

“I’m going to say something that might not be totally consensus, but there has been a kind of a militarization of the police in this country and you see it all over the place; it’s in our equipment, it’s in our tactics.”

He pointed to murders last August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin near Milwaukee. On a sunny Sunday morning, a neo-Nazi fatally shot six worshippers and injured four others before being wounded by officers and then killing himself. “Training is now focused a lot on that,” situations involving what police refer to as “active shooters.”

“For us to be building the trust bank, we have to place just as much emphasis … in preparing for a, God forbid, an active shooter situation someplace here in Madison.”

The concept of police engaging more effectively in Madison seems as noble today as it did in the 1970s, when it was ardently pushed by David Couper, former police chief and now an Episcopal priest.

At that time, Madison moved away from what Balles recalls as an “Adam-12” approach, referring to a 1970s television police drama that followed two fictional, no-nonsense, by-the-books Los Angeles cops.

Today, the need for police to connect with the city remains as great as it did then, but fears of “active shooter” violence, as well as heightened concerns about gangs, drugs and crime, appear to make the challenge even greater.

That Madison police, in this era of blame-placing and finger-pointing, are still willing to be so self-reflective seems almost quaint.

I’ll take quaint.


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