Dr. Shon Barnes, of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago, will be Madison’s next top cop.
On Friday, Madison’s Police and Fire Commission voted 3-2 to extend a conditional offer to Barnes, after he beat out a crowded field of more than 40 potential candidates and four finalists to secure the position.
In a brief Q&A video posted by the Police and Fire Commission earlier this month, then-candidate Barnes outlined his work history and approach to policing.
He formerly served as Deputy Chief of Police in Salisbury, North Carolina and as a Captain with the Greensboro Police Department — where he began his career as a patrol officer in 2000.
Prior to his work in law enforcement, he was a public school teacher.
“So I come to you as someone who has always been involved in the community in one way or another,” Barnes says in the video. “As a public school teacher, I developed a great relationship with my School Resource Officer and I entered the Police Academy.”
Barnes is an advocate of neighborhood-oriented policing, which places an emphasis on building relationships between officers and the communities they patrol. He takes a data-oriented approach to law enforcement, opting to rely on modeling and statistical analysis to address crime in individual neighborhoods.
During his brief, three-year tenure with the Salisbury Police Department, Barnes and his officers managed to simultaneously reduce both crime rates and arrests.
During that period, Salisbury, a town of just under 34,000, saw its lowest crime rates in two decades. Barnes says that the drop in arrests also allowed officers to focus on other priorities, eventually leading to a reported 100% homicide case clearance rate.
“And you can’t do that unless the community supports you, trusts you and are willing to work with you. Because crime prevention, in my opinion, is everyone’s responsibility,” he says.
Despite Barnes’ laurels and achievements, he may be entering his new position under a fog of controversy.
Over the past few weeks, community members have raised concerns over the PFC’s selection process. At the Commission’s recent public input meetings, organizers with the city’s social justice groups have argued that the selection process lacked transparency.
Two members of Madison’s Police Civilian Oversight Board even recommended a resolution formally asking the PFC to put its final selection on hold until the board could put forward its own recommendation.
Gregory Gelembiuk is a member of the Community Response Team, a local social reform group. He also served on the city’s police policy and procedure review ad hoc committee. Last fall, that committee recommended 177 reforms to the Madison Police Department, including guidance on how to select new police chiefs.
Gelembiuk says that the PFC blatantly disregarded those recommendations.
“You needed engagement with the finalists,” he says. “Having the capacity to provide some input earlier is not the same thing as actually being able to interview the finalists. It’s just completely inadequate.”
In response to the critique put forward by Gelembiuk and other community members, the PFC published a seven-page report detailing its selection process for Barnes. But, Gelembiuk asserts that his argument still stands, and that the PFC rushed to appoint a new Chief after announcing the four finalists.
“It seems pretty clear that they did not want community input regarding the finalists,” Gelembiuk argues. “They announced the finalists and did a dump on a Friday — what you want to do when you want to minimize media coverage.”
According to the PFC’s timeline, Commissioners began the process in November 2019, shortly after former Police Chief Mike Koval abruptly resigned. They spent an entire year planning and gathering public input before conducting first-round screening interviews last month.
Then they held just three public input sessions over a less than two-week period before making a final hiring decision on Friday.
But it isn’t just the selection process Gelembiuk and his peers take issue with. He says that Barnes’ reliance on data-oriented predictive policing will increase racial disparities between Madisonians.
The practice has been critiqued by, among others, the American Civil Liberties Union — who have called it “profoundly limiting and biased.”
“Predictive policing is known to generate racial disparities,” Gelembiuk adds. “Madison already has some of the worst racial disparities in arrest rates in the country. The last thing you want to do is exacerbate that.”
Barnes will be replacing interim Chief of Police Vic Wahl. Despite the ‘interim’ in his job title, Wahl has served as the MPD’s leader for more than a year now, after he was thrust into the position with the sudden departure of former Police Chief Mike Koval last fall.
(Photo c/o Madison PFC)