Madison must rein in its volatile police chief

Does Mike Koval still deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval has evaded punishment, but not conviction, for another in a growing list of lapses in judgment. Earlier this month, the Madison Police and Fire Commission found him guilty of misconduct in response to a 2016 complaint from Sharon Irwin—grandmother of the late Tony Robinson—and Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores. The complaint alleged that Koval referred to Irwin as a "raging lunatic" when Irwin and Kilfoy-Flores attempted to speak with him outside of a City Council meeting.

Irwin and Kilfoy-Flores also alleged that Koval struck his desk during Irwin's testimony at a City Council meeting to signify her time ending, and that Koval gestured towards his firearm, in a threatening motion, during their encounter. The PFC dismissed these allegations. After reviewing footage of the latter incident, they found no violation. And as for the former, the PFC was unconvinced that it happened.

Though Koval admitted that his "lunatic" comments were atrocious, and the PFC found him guilty of misconduct for making them, Koval will not face any further punishment. That's because the PFC has only a stringent spectrum of disciplinary actions at its disposal for police and fire officials: suspension, demotion, or firing. The PFC found that Koval's actions, despite violating the city's code of conduct, weren't deserving of any of those options given the circumstances of the incident.

From Koval's statement on the ruling:

"I do regret my momentary lapse of self-discipline in not speaking to a citizen in a respectful way. I accepted responsibility for my actions then, and now, and an apology was already extended to the petitioner(s) last year. As your Chief, I remain completely committed to leading one of the best police departments in the country, to the best of my abilities."

In the interest of a police chief who prides himself and his department on upholding a dedicated record of community service, it's a simple precaution to own one's mistake as a mistake alone. It's the benefit-of-the-doubt angle that defends itself: a man in his position with no prior sustained complaints in his law enforcement career is bound to make that mistake, but his character shines through in his ability to own his wrongdoing and continue with his service. Especially when that same department continues to endure such heavy scrutiny—a $400,000 investigation into its practices, increased pressure from activists and community leaders, and a growing distrust in the force reflected by the national dialogue around policing.

Surely, Chief Koval's instance of insensitivity was a glitch in the system that deserves our immediate forgiveness, correct?

It would be much easier to give Koval the benefit of the doubt if not for the totality of his recent track record. The chief has a documented history of making disparaging remarks and showing insensitivity towards those in the greater Madison community who dare take a vested interest in addressing the city's disparities, and who point out MPD's role in reinforcing those disparities. What many are framing as a leftist "war on police"—again, a product of whitewashed imagination, while its actors come in all shades—is merely evidence of what a community-involved force can be with the proper cooperation. That doesn't involve a community swan dive of blind faith, but a vigilant skepticism that will stop at nothing to highlight when its police force contributes to harm instead of serving its people. Koval's comments to Irwin could've been the remnants of a bad day, but that doesn't mean we should ignore similar actions during his tenure.

We're dealing with the very Chief Koval who was openly criticized by his mentor and predecessor David Couper, who took to his blog last summer to voice solidarity with community members in the wake of the violent, viral circumstances surrounding teenager Genele Laird's arrest. Koval defended his officers' use of force—the violent beating of a black teenager—according to policy, causing a firestorm in the city-level (and briefly the national) discourse.

From Couper's "A Most Difficult Act," June 2016:

"Madison didn't need to have another police racial event. Each one is cumulative and disruptive. If this one is not thoroughly resolved, the probability of another occurring is quite high. What the chief needs to do is to actively reassure the entire community–and especially the black community– this will not happen again and why it will not.

"It will mean that in the future the chief must listen without getting angry or defensive. It may mean that the mayor and/or PFC have to take steps to coach the chief so that he can be more effective and less volatile—to help him balance the wearing of the two hats. No matter what, corrective action must be taken and what is being done shared with the community. This must happen quickly."

Couper also cited Chief Koval's conduct at a Common Council meeting on June 7, 2016, which found him behaving defensively and condescendingly, barely restraining his aggravation about the council's decision to approve an external investigation of MPD. Two nights prior, Koval took to his own blog, on the city's official website, to all but threaten the Common Council:

"My colleagues worry that my outspoken comments could lead to a lack of support for our budgetary needs. That sort of retaliation doesn't sit well with an informed constituency. If public safety is compromised because a Chief provides an opinion piece of his perspective, voters will see it for what it is . . . and I will remind them. At my age and at this stage of a sun setting career, I am not checking my polling numbers. I am doing my job and trying to live up to my credo to 'GSD!' (Get 'Stuff' Done)!"

That same week, Koval went on record critiquing his "perpetually offended" Madison constituents for mobilizing their critiques into action without showing the MPD any love. He then went on to apologize on his blog two weeks after the Common Council's decision on the external investigation.

As Koval told Joe Tarr of Isthmus in June 2016:

"This is still a profession that's predicated on selfless service and nobility. It's very hard to continue to push that imagery, especially here locally, when all you get is a demonstrable ambivalence about the police department, beyond the tacit, yes, I run for election, so I'm going to show I'm big on law and order, I'm going to vote for this budget."

After the city's insurance company reached a settlement with the Robinson family in February, Koval weighed in with another blog post, this one with awkward whistleblowing undertones. Combine that with the PFC's ruling/non-ruling on his conduct toward Irwin and Kilfoy-Flores, and the benefit of the doubt vanishes. Consider how Chief Koval—a servant of the Madison community—consistently uses his blog platform, intended as a direct line to the community, as an amplifier for his tantrums whenever his critics attain anywhere near the level of community involvement he claims to want for his department. His public behavior—in this case, toward grieving members of a community—and a simple conviction with no follow-up from the PFC render the idea of accountability nothing but a fallacious formality served cold.

For public officials, bad days are inevitable. But Koval has a legacy lacking in restraint, tact, and sensitivity, and he continues to cross the line between a servant with perspective and a tyrant under pressure. It's an embarrassment to the people he serves and the officers he represents.

Perhaps this misconduct ruling is an opportunity for us to reevaluate the PFC's function as a disciplinary board that only has three disciplinary actions for officers who violate the code of conduct, and can find a police chief in violation but be content with doing nothing about it. Considering how disciplinary bodies can reinforce, rather than check, the excesses of systemic mechanisms, the outlook remains dim. The phrase "community-involved policing" cannot be a safe word for reopening dialogue in the face of repeated offenses and damaged public trust. Skepticism shouldn't warrant outbursts, but pride in a chief and force who call time and again for our tireless involvement.

Our ideas, our criticisms, our praise should all embrace the skepticism that Koval's proven he's uncomfortable with, when he's not apologizing for a blowup and reassuring us he's welcoming of it. That very skepticism renders the death of Tony Robinson, the death of Paul Heenan, and the arrest of Genele Laird as microcosms of the policies and practices that enable police to escape accountability. And now, in another pivotal moment, our skepticism cannot let Chief Koval walk away from this last instance with a simple "no harm done, back to business." If it's love Koval craves, he must remember that it's a high honor to weigh public criticism as a servant of the people of Madison.

If Koval doesn't find his balance, he may soon find himself without his seat and without another failure to apologize for.