Police reform expert to review Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha

“This is Wisconsin’s moment of truth, and I want the best for this case and the people of this state,” former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said.

Prosecutors in Wisconsin have tapped a former Madison police chief to serve as an independent voice during the final stages of an investigation into the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in Kenosha.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced Monday that police reform expert Noble Wray will review the state Department of Justice’s findings before a report is sent to Graveley’s office.

The district attorney will ultimately decide whether charges should be filed against the police officers involved in Blake’s shooting.

Blake’s shooting last month left him paralyzed from the waist down and became another flashpoint in nationwide civil rights protests that began in May when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

“[We] believe that having an evaluation of the facts conducted by a consultant who can evaluate those facts in light of standard policing practices and explain where they’re consistent with those practices or where they differ from them will help reach the most just outcome in this case,” Kaul said Monday in a news conference.

Wray, who served as Madison police chief from 2004 to 2013 and is Black, was heralded as a fair yet tough arbitrator who would not allow prejudice to cloud his judgement.

“Noble Wray is a longtime Wisconsin resident and a widely respected retired Madison police chief who has extensive experience in law enforcement, including experience at the national level as a police reform specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice,” Kaul said.

Wray described Blake’s case as “Wisconsin’s moment of truth.”

“I want the best for this case and the people of this state,” he said on Monday.

Wray had planned to retire as police chief in 2013 but stayed on for several months after the November 2012 fatal police shooting of Paul Heenan sparked outrage in Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Heenan, who was white, was killed by a Madison police officer after drunkenly entering a neighbor’s home and failing to cooperate with the responding officer, Stephen Heimsness, according to a report by the Madison Police Department. Heimsness ordered both Heenan and his neighbor to the ground, but Heenan, who was unarmed, advanced toward the officer. After a struggle, Heimsness, who told investigators he feared for his life, opened fire.

Heimsness was cleared of any wrongdoing by the police department and the Dane County District Attorney’s Office. The city later settled with Heenan’s family for $2.3 million, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“Officer Heimsness’ use of deadly force has been determined to be objectively reasonable and in compliance with Madison Police Department Policy,” Wray wrote in the report. “It is important to note that from the officer’s perspective, this was a very tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation.”

Heimsness resigned from the police department after Wray indicated Heimsness would be fired for dozens of unrelated violations, including making disparaging remarks about his supervisors and colleagues, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

When asked Monday whether he had any regrets about his handling of the Heenan case or the internal investigation of Heimsness, Wray said “absolutely not.”

“You can’t be a chief of police for 10 years and not have questions come up about some of the things that you’ve done,” he said. “All throughout my career, I have taken things that either were controversial or not controversial and have looked back at it as lessons learned.”

During his time as police chief, Wray cultivated a reputation for being both reform-minded and measured in shaping the department, said former colleague Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University.

Scott, a former Madison police officer, worked closely with Wray on developing and executing community policing best practices during Wray’s tenure as chief. Both men were deeply inspired by former Madison Police Chief David Couper, who served from 1972 to 1993 before becoming an Episcopal priest. Couper famously displayed photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi in his office and listened to classical music at work, Scott said.

“Chief Couper was probably one of the most progressive, innovative police chiefs in American police history,” Scott said. “That he hired people like me and like Noble Wray, and the way in which he thought about policing, shaped our views for much of our careers.”

Under Couper’s reign, efforts were made to hire more women and more college-educated people to the police force. Officers were not trained to use riot gear when responding to political protests and instead told to “acknowledge their legitimacy,” Scott said.

“Couper did a lot of things to make police look and be more approachable to the community,” Scott said, adding that Wray continued to build on these lessons when he took command.

As chief, Wray advocated for embedding teams of police officers in communities facing particular challenges, such as high crime rates and poverty. Those officers would then work on finding long-term solutions beyond policing, Scott said. Wray also favored using deterrence to keep repeat offenders from returning to jail, including connecting people with social services, such as drug or alcohol addiction treatment.

“He is a man of integrity and honesty — a very thoughtful leader,” Scott said. “There are some chiefs who are understood by the rank and file to always defend the officer. Chief Wray was not of that sort.”

Wray’s reputation in Madison catapulted him into the U.S. Department of Justice under President Barack Obama. There, he led the department’s Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative aimed at improving relationships between communities and law enforcement officers.

He also served as a Justice Department consultant in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Michael Brown Jr. He helped local authorities confront problems associated with systemic racism and implicit bias.

The officer accused of shooting Brown was not charged.

That same year, he participated in an investigation into the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. The police officer in that case was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing and later fired.