Madison police chief reacts to Ferguson

Koval: Use of military equipment not first strategy for officers
Madison police chief reacts to Ferguson
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval

The police response to demonstrations in Ferguson has received nationwide attention, with critics saying the scene looks like something out of a war zone as officers use tanks and combat armor.

You can find some of that same military equipment at the Madison Police Department, but Chief Michael Koval said it’s not the first strategy his officers turn to in a heated situation.

“You go in working the crowd, not antagonizing the crowd. It (is part of) personalizing yourself and your approach,” Koval said. “You don’t show up in hard gear, with riot gear and a facial visor.”

Watching the events in Ferguson unfold hundreds of miles away, Koval said it can be easy to criticize the decisions being made there, but that’s not his goal. Instead, he said there are lessons to be learned for law enforcement.

“These are those teachable moments that we should all take some stock from,” he said.

Here in Madison, the steps to avoid similar situations are put in place years in advance. Koval said every day officers are trained to create relationships with residents on the city streets.

“We encourage them to get out of squad car, humanize themselves to others, walk through the food carts, shoot a few hoops at basketball court, let them see the individual person that emerge out of the badge,” he said.

It’s a more humane approach that could help in heated situations.

“That way, I think you take the animosity away from the crowd, develop yourself as a person to the crowd, and in that sense you’re less likely to see these things go more viral in terms of proclivity to violence,” Koval said.

For example, MPD has an armored military vehicle similar to those seen down in Ferguson. Koval said its primary purpose is to protect officers during stand-offs, and police take the possibility of its use very seriously.

“It’s a tool to be used very judiciously, and certainly not to assault the community you’re assigned to police,” Koval said.

As violence continues in Ferguson, Koval said in Madison there is a time and a place to use force, but before his officers break out the combat gear, a softer approach comes first.

“This is the time more than ever that you have to urge your officers to get out of their squad cars, do more foot patrol than ever, engage our constituents, and understand that this is very different picture than what we see occurring down south,” he said.