This morning, Shon Barnes was sworn in as Madison’s new Chief of Police. Barnes will be replacing outgoing Chief of Police Vic Wahl, who’s served as the interim head of the department for the past sixteen months since the abrupt departure of former chief Mike Koval in 2019.
Barnes most recently worked with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in Chicago, which is charged with investigating misconduct in the city’s Police Department. At this morning’s ceremony, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said Barnes is uniquely suited to work with the Police Civilian Oversight Board.
“In that role, he worked closely with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. So he’s well-equipped with the knowledge that our newly-created civilian oversight board will need to carry out its mission,” Rhodes-Conway said.
He’s taking the helm of the Madison Police Department as its relationship with the community has been repeatedly strained over the past few months — most notably during Black Live Matter protests this past summer.
But, Barnes expressed optimism about the future of the MPD at his swearing in this morning. He says one of his goals in office will be facilitating open dialogue with community members who share opposing views.
“We are never going to move the needle and earn community trust until we recognize how the community wants to be policed. That will require every single one of us coming together,” he said.
Barnes says one of his priorities will also be to target and reduce violent crime in Madison through alternatives to discretionary arrests of low-level crimes.
“Clearly we have to understand that we cannot always arrest our way out of problems,” he told attendees.
Madison’s Police and Fire Commission began the search process for a new chief in November 2019, shortly after former Police Chief Mike Koval resigned. They spent an entire year planning and gathering public input before conducting first-round screening interviews in November 2020.
Then they held just three public input sessions over a less than two-week period before making a final hiring decision in mid-December.
Some have cited concern with the selection process — mainly that it lacked transparency and that the newly-established civilian oversight board was not consulted.
Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, a member of the Community Response Team, a local police reform group, was one of the community members who raised concerns about the selection process in December — concerns which she says still linger.
“That was a big concern to me, making sure that the government is accessible to the people,” she told WORT.
But, despite those lingering concerns, Kilfoy-Flores — who is also the Vice Chair of Madison’s Civilian Oversight Board — says she’s excited to work with Barnes going forward. In addition to a one-on-one meeting with her, she says Barnes has already taken time to meet with both the Oversight Board and the Community Response Team.
“He really is wanting to make himself accessible to people in Madison,” she says. “I see that he’s really making an effort, and I appreciate that.”