Courageous Leaders are like unicorns. They are very rare but when you see one, it is amazing. While Madison Police Chief (ret.) Mike Koval is no unicorn, his leadership principles are a Master Class on what Courageous Police Leadership is.
This is an episode that you must listen, embrace, and enact on a daily basis for the law enforcement profession to not only survive but thrive.
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It is a pleasure to have Chief Mike Koval on the show today. Chief, I guess you're retired chief now. That's got to feel weird, right? It does because it sort of feels like I only have vicarious empathy though and I'm a lot of consternation, grimacing here as I watch the various iterations of what is falling out in our profession from the sidelines.
And so, I feel like they have vicarious trauma living in me through the legacy of officers that I've hired and trained and come to love and appreciate. Well, I got to tell you, chief. There's not many chiefs that I think could retire in the sunset and later held on a pillow. The right way and feel good about themselves. You are one of those chiefs. That's why you're here. You did such incredible work. As a chief and even before that, with your agency.
But as you've taken a few years away from the profession and you're, of course, you left in 2020 and it probably couldn't be more different today than it was prior to 2020. Just give us your general thoughts about what you're seeing from a leadership perspective and what needs to be done. I know this could take hours, but just kind of summarize that for us.
Well, frankly, in a nutshell, I find that today's sort of mantle of leadership to be sorely lacking in what leadership we see conspicuously out there seem to be very self-serving in terms of me myself and I, and it's more of, I'm sure they would think it'd be collaborative, but I see that when you take the go along and get along approach to the n-th degree, as I've seen so many of these scenarios that you've seen across the country as well, Travis, that it's very disturbing because at the end of the day, the true selfless guardians, the ones who are putting it all on the line, the rank and file on a daily basis from call to call from moment to moment.
I don't feel they feel that there is unconditional support from their leadership, nor do I feel like their leaders will respect the rule of law and due process and fundamental fairness for officers who are asked to make ginormous decisions and fractions of seconds. And I think they feel that they're left twisting out in the wind and they're going to be tried in absentia by the media with very little support from their chief.
And I think that's the thing that concerns me the most. And because of that lack of courageousness, if I can be so bold because I'm lifting it right from your beautiful book. Trust me, the book was for you, chief. So, you can be as bold as you want. It is fabulous. Well, the fact of the matter is, is that so many of these chiefs are so worried about their own career development paths that they have sort of lost and not all, of course, not all.
But a lot of them have sort of lost their focus in terms of if order in order for us to be true guardians to the community, to be true partners to the community. We have to start with getting the best, getting the brightest, giving them the resources, they need, the state of the art training they have, and moreover, understanding that the walk that they walk requires that we have to walk with them, support them, ask them, how is it that I, as a leader, can be doing more for you.
And not necessarily accepting the false narratives that are being trumpeted each and every time there's some sort of a contentious event you know. We're just literally, as a chief, they seem like they're just one viral episode away from showing their true colors. And some have stood up to that and have pushed back and have silenced a lot of those critics because they have the chiefs that do that have to fax behind them.
And others just literally, they're quiet. They're silence is deafening, and the troops are left to look at that and say, oh my goodness. But for the grace of God, I hope I don't find myself in the same physician as my colleague. Yeah, I think you made so many great points to achieve and there's this all this talk about recruiting issues and retention issues. And I think you could boil it down in what you just said. You cannot make a job impossible with no support and expect anybody to do that job.
So you can spend all the money you want as achieve. If you're not supporting your folks, you're not going to ever staff your agency. And you said something that was important. You said so many leaders are going along to get along. And what I find ironic about that is they think that's helping them. But I think you'd agree with me. That actually hurts them worse, does it not? Absolutely, because it's almost like the chiefs who do that are playing checkers. And they have to be playing chess.
They have to be looking at 6 moves ahead because if you capitulate a piece, go along without objection, you think, okay, on this one small thing, if I can see this item, then we're going to get back in the fold and I'll have some traction and I can work with these folks. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you yield, if you yield, then you'll find that that just opens the door to yet more and at some point, your critics are going to be breaking down that door.
And then where do you go when you have nothing left? Yeah, you could never say no. I mean, just like this silly, thin blue line flag that I cannot believe we can't even get that one right. So that is a perfect example. I mean, I say this all the time and the seminars especially. I said, if we can't even get that right, what happens when a real issue comes up? Because that's not a real issue. And when you say yes to that, you have to say yes to everything after that, it doesn't help them. That's absolutely correct.
And you couldn't have brought a better example to the fore. In today's current climate because that is a perfect example of where something that's been a symbolic event, if you will, something that is rooted in integrity and fundamental core values of everything that goes along with service has literally been hijacked and people don't push back on that hijacking. And you're so right. So, we can't let those sort of false narratives become the new gospel because they're not true.
Yeah. And what so many people don't recognize with this issue that I'll quit talking about in a minute with the flag is, it's a attack on our culture. It'd be like someone saying, the Apple logo can no longer exist. And the CEO goes, oh, you're right. I mean, it's insanity that because we're the only profession chief that I believe would ever do such a thing you know. I see, I see this pattern of a lot of pastors around the country that demand the thin blue line flag come down because it means something to some people.
And that's not all pastures, but I've seen this sort of this sort of play out in a lot of articles. And I think to myself, well, there are people that have taken the cross and used it for their own good. And white supremacist groups, horrendous groups. We would never dare ask you to take the cross down nor would you, so why would we do this? So, it's really insane. And you have always been on the leading edge of sort of pushing back on false narratives.
Personally, chief, I don't think this is difficult because you just tell the truth and you use data and facts and if people don't like it, it's hard to, it's hard to really, you know, explain that away because if you don't like the truth, I can't really help you, but so you have but you are one of a few that have done that. So why do you think so many chiefs share leaders out there that listen to a false narrative just set there like you say and be silent?
Why will they not stand up because I'm telling you this information war, so to speak, is destroying not only our profession, but the entire country. I think a part of it is because they are looking, well, first of all, a lot of these theaters are self-survivalists and they want to advance their own career development paths. And they want to remain gainfully employed. And they're enjoying the paychecks that they covet and that doesn't take into effect that what is it doing for your overall core values in the department that you're supposed to lead?
It's very self-serving on one level. The other thing is, is that these false narratives I mean, I hope I don't sound like I'm somebody that can like a conspiratorial theorist, or anybody means, but around me and Madison, Wisconsin you know, one of the most liberal bastions that you'll find in the continental USA, if not the world. I mean, we're the first place that the president showed up after the State of the Union address because if you want to captivating crowd that's going to applaud, this is the place you want to come.
But when you have the media also working with these false prophets of gloom and doom of what the police are doing to our society, it's a tougher battle. You have to start looking at what are the means that you can use to push back. And so for me, my means was to be very active with my day to today blog activity. I would use it to use not only as a snapshot of sort of what's happened in the last 24 to 36 hours in terms of major incidents throughout our city as a point of reference.
To show people yes, there is crime, and this is not some sort of a false hatched up kind of theory on my part to make people scared. No, there's real crime up there, but also to use it as a political commentary. Because when you do that and it's highly rad, highly circulated, most downloaded blog on the cities website, then the media has to at least pay some lip service to that. So you have forums that you're generating and creating to try to get out that information.
Yeah, chief, and you're referring to what we talk about in our seminars in our book, and you were doing it long before those came out as being your own media. Tell your own story. Be transparent. In fact, what leaders need to understand is very few people even believe the media anymore. Their trust rating is in the tank. And so they don't really want to listen to the media, but if that's their only news source, they're going to. So, if you as a leader or as an agency, start being your own media, producing your own information. People want that, they crave that.
And that's why live PD back before they canceled it was the most popular show out there, right? Because people crave that information straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, and you were doing it, and you saw a lot of effectiveness, no doubt. I did. And the other thing is, is that now it's still interesting because in the last, probably three or four weeks. When I first took on the job as chief, we were just coming out of the recency bias of Ferguson.
And of course, one of the false narrow kids that I dealt with here in Madison over and over and over again is that you're over policing marginalized community people of color and more specifically black people. And I said when I did the blog, I said, okay, here's what we're going to do is that I'm going to call every 8 hours all the most significant events. We're going to distill it, put it on the website, and I'm identifying everybody by gender by age and by race.
Because as you know you know, in Madison, probably every quarter we have 45 to 50,000 calls every quarter. Well, 98 and a half to 99% of those are 9-1-1 dispatch calls. They're called driven, meaning some victim witness passerby, a complainant is calling something in to the 9-1-1 center, and then it's dispatched out to the rank-and-file police officer and patrol services.
So, from that standpoint, we don't get to pick and choose who our victims are a suspects are. And so, using legal standards then when someone is arrested or ticketed or charged, I would publish not the names, but I would put the ages and races. And the reason I did it is that as a white guy in Madison, I have to kind of come in through a side portal to make the point.
And my point was, is anybody because the first thing they did is they accused me of this was a dog whistle for a racist chief. Oh, yeah. That certainly certainly that's going to upset the people that were given the false narrative because you just drew kryptonite on it. Absolutely. So, okay, listen, at this point, so Madison had during census. I think we're about 8 or 9% African American.
And I said, okay, so people are jumping on me because they're seeing that 40 to 45% of my arrested people here in these blogs reflects people of African American background, but actually I found it interesting. That's what people are feasting upon because my point of emphasis is that if you're looking at the victims of these crimes, they're disproportionately people of color as well. And I said, why aren't we giving the victims their just desserts and just rewards and justice as well?
I'm putting your name on the book as a co-author because that's exactly what we talk about. Like we're not focusing on victims. And I think it's disingenuous. I think some of the people that accuse people leaders of this stuff, they know what they're doing. They know if they say over policing, they know that if African Americans in that community is committing disproportionately more crime, they know our contacts are going to be African Americans. So, they know we can never actually fix it. So, they keep saying it. And so, we can't fix it even though we have chiefs that say we will.
It's impossible because calls and crime drives law enforcement activity. And now, I believe there are ways we need to work towards fixing it, which is foundational issues of crime, socioeconomic issues of crime. And you really, you really focused on the community chief when it came to that. Kind of talk to us about why that's so important. Well, the fact of the matter is, is that if all you are is our hammers and everybody's a nail, you know that that's going to create sort of like sort of this sense of an occupying army of sorts.
So, our officers from the jump street are always taught, you know, the Koval mantra was engage, relate, listen, explain, repeat, engage, relate, listen, explain, repeat. In the heart of the deep policing that was happening in some quarters as a result, the Ferguson were officers are just keeping their heads down and just going on calls that were called driven and not doing proactive.
I went before our entire department throughout for two-weeks and said, in person, at briefings and in services that, no, now more than ever, we have to be proactive. We have to show the public that this is who we really are, that we are partners in addressing all these various issues that are confronting our community.
And if all we do is react if the only lens that they see is when there's chaos and dysfunction and we're always coming just to be a control factor, then they're not seeing the other half the two thirds of the work that we do that is proactive, constructive, and has nothing to do with arresting people that has everything to do with maintaining and improving everyone's quality of life and their perceptions of how everybody can do better.
So, I think those are the kinds of things that I tried to instill in terms of our officers. And then with support those efforts, there was an instance when I got a text late at night because the mayor, a different mayor, I worked for a couple of them. Texted me and said how very disappointed they were at what they had just witnessed on our website, and I'm like, I called the OIC before I called the mayor back.
And I said, no, what's going on? I told you; you call me whenever anything of earth-shattering stature might be coming down. And I said, no, it's been relatively cheap, quiet chief. I don't know what you're talking about. So, I have bad eyes, I blow it up on my computer to see what it is, the mayor's so upset about it. And I see it's an officer putting a police badge, one of those stickers on a kid, and I'm looking over the kids’ shoulder, and I see, now, I get it.
Well, they officer was getting out of their squad car, being engaging, conversing with a family. And it was putting a sticker on, well, the problem is he was caught doing that at a Chick-fil-A. And our mayor doesn't think Chick-fil-A is a user friendly to the LBGTQ movement and was very upset with me. And I'm like, I called him back. I said, listen. I don't know where the political ideologies line up, nor do I care.
But I will tell you this is that this is an employer that's in our community. They pay taxes. They employ individuals. And oh, by the way, they're doing good thing in terms of welcoming families and cops and things. And so, I'm sorry you don't like it, but that's who we are. That's who we're going to be and nothing's going to change. And I've got this officer's back. So, if you have any other problems, don't hesitate to call me, but nothing's going to happen. Nothing differently.
Well, I can't tell you how many chiefs would have just started spitting and moaning about you know agreeing with your mayor. And I'm sure that no way. I mean, first off, let's just be honest, that guy's eating a Chick-fil-A. I don't care what he's saying. Right. 100%. The dude is in with maybe a hoodie on, but nobody sees who he is, with glasses. He's going in and getting him some chicken nuggets. We all know that. So he's very dishonest about his critique on Chick-fil-A.
And Mike, chief, you were known from the authors, and I've spoken to a few officers. I mean, you called, you had over, I think close to 500 officers. You called them on their birthday every year. Yep. I had one officer. One officer describes you as like a father. That's how much he cared. Now, I cannot tell you how rare this is. I won't say leadership because that is leadership. In law enforcement leadership, because it just is and just kind of explain to me what that did for not only you, but for those that work for you.
Well, I think what it does is that it helps them acknowledge the fact that there is someone in management that is at least trying to provide some measure of connectivity, understanding, appreciating and acknowledging who they are, what's going on in their lives. And that I'm appreciative that someone is going out there every day, strapping on a bullet resistant vest, not knowing what they're coming into at the next call or the next traffic staff.
And it's putting it all on the line for very, very little recognition for this hazard and the elements of doing shift work and dealing with all the most difficult things that any eyeballs should ever have to withstand and see or smell or taste. And all of that has to be acknowledged in some way. So that was an opportunity for me carved out of every day to at least connect albeit for 5 minutes or so just to see how things in the family, how is the job going?
I noticed that you'd had a good rest, or I noticed that there was a complaint in and that's just part of the process. Don't worry. We just have to let the process resolve itself. But know that no one's going to be preemptive and presumptive about outcomes and those kinds of things I think just make you feel like you're at least making a valiant effort at trying to let people know that you matter. You're not just a number, you're not just to all commissioned personnel on another email or another memo.
And I think people can appreciate it. I went to, oh my goodness. I probably went to more wakes, more funerals, more birthdays. I mean, whenever I could, that was, I think, part of the part about being the leadership being a leader I like the best is that you could show people that there's a human element that bridges those fans those gaps or perceived gaps that there may be between managers and rank and file.
But at the end of the day, I will always tell my captains at management team. I say, if we ever lose sight of the worker bee, shame on us, because that's where the impressions are going to be won or lost. That's where our reputation is going to be advanced. That's where the true collaboration and authentic relationships are going to be harbored. It's in the rank-and-file context of every contact. And so, then we'd always go back.
Engage, relate, listen, explain, and repeat again. And I said, I give that mantra to patrol officers, but that should be all of our mantras. That's how we should be as leaders to our platoons and to our subgroups. And I said, if we're not doing that, and to our civilian people as well. I did the same thing for all of our civilians, and we had 175 civilians too.
So, I don't want them to feel like they're any less important because you're the infrastructure for every cop that goes out on a call. Someone has got the uniform. Someone's taken care of their insurance. Someone is gassed the car or something you know. It is a team effort. And that's all you have to make your wingspan very, very broad because I'd much rather spend time with the officers and the noncommissioned personnel and do the management by walking around things, go to briefings, show up on calls.
I mean, every weekend, I would randomly ride a beat somewhere in the city, and just to see to make sure I didn't lose touch of what it is those working conditions were like or what the radio calls were doing and how were we relating with a county dispatch who was basically giving the calls, were they mindful of our protocols? Those things you have to kind of look at it holistically. If all you do is sit behind a desk and delegate everything, you really lose touch and most of all, you lose that connectivity that is so critical.
Now more than ever, that the officers need to know that they have a leader who has walked a mile in their shoe, or is that willing at least willing to listen and to try to provide a bridge to whatever gaps that they're perceiving? You know, I get asked all the time what this courageous leadership is, and we've put out, of course, principles and our core values and we teach classes and we try to write books on it, but I'm going to tell you right now, chief. They can skip all that and listen to what you just said period.
End of story. This is what it's about. And it's very it should be encouraging for our audience that know this isn't just in a textbook or a book or in some articles or the thoughts of a crazy person. This is real. And when you put this to action, you see real, real, genuine, you know, just that's what leadership is. And the benefits are tremendous.
Now, it may not benefit you with a politically charged mayor or political charge city council or if people that are spreading false narratives, but that's not who we're leading chief. We're leading the men and women behind the badge to be the best they can be. And that's what it does, correct? Absolutely. And since I know you're a master trainer or whatever, a lot of another thing I would suggest with a lot of these cops that come from bigger departments that have their own academies and everything is that I don't know how your experiences around the country, but it used to be in Madison.
When would you see the chief of police the day you were sworn in, there'd be one token Brown bag lunch and where the chief did all the talking, we did all the listening, and then they would be whisked away. And then you'd see the chief again at the graduation. Well, so in Madison, I went out every day for briefing for the recruits. And then I would teach criminal law and procedure in their class, even though I'd been promoted and then I also teach ethics.
And I'm trying to say, you know, if you I'm trying to provide a tone and example, that if you understand that this is coming from me and you're getting to learn me and we're engaging and we're dealing in a sort of Socratic method where I'm asking questions and they're asking questions and it's you have that opportunity for engagement without fear of repercussion or puzzle.
| If they're seeing you from the get-go from their training and every in service, you have to reserve you know everybody wants time and in service. Now I say, I need 30 minutes. So, you're going to come 34 sessions to get our 500 cops through for 30 minutes. Don't you want to just do a video? A video. I want to be there. And if they want to throw stuff, that's the time they're going to throw it. They're not going to throw it at the screen. I'd rather they throw it at me.
So, you have to be, is it hard to be sort of that hands on us? Yes, it is. But that's what leadership is meant to be. It's not meant to be easy. Yeah. And I think you just kind of nailed while we this is very rare in our profession. It is hard. And we work in a profession unlike the private industry where they pay you exactly the same, whether you film the video, whether you get up and go to 34 sessions in service. You're going to get paid the same. In fact, it's a lot easier and probably a lot less hectic because people you don't have to actually face people face to face.
So that is incredible. And what I need people to understand here is, and of course, especially those that like the pedal false narratives, this does not, everything you're talking about is not replaced accountability. They're not one and the same. You can be a courageous leader as your detailing, but you can also hold people accountable, kind of talk about that, chief. That's the thing is that you know as perhaps any good parent would be, they could expect that I was going to be the first in line to defend them through a process and not allow there to be potshots taken at them.
And that whatever lusty throat you might hear in the media for the chiefs should do this, the chief should do that. This person should be off. No, that's not happening. Fundamental fairness, due process, and the rule of law dictates something else. And I'm not going to hasten this process until we have all the facts. But those are the kinds of things that you have to be ever so mindful of is that you're going to be that tough parent.
But then similarly, when there's discipline to be had, they know that if they've made the wrong mistake, they're going to hear from me about that mistake, and they're going to be sanctioned. And there have been more than a handful of cases where we have very, very strong union protections in the state of Wisconsin, and in some instances, you have to go to a lot of various stages in order to actually determinate someone.
And it is the process, so that's the process we've been given, but there's been instances when there have been times when I have told the officer across the table. I said, here's the deal. You're going to have 15 minutes to decide about your career because in 16 minutes, I'm going to be filing charges with the police and fire commission. And yes, I know that can take months before there's a conclusion.
And yes, I know you're going to be paid throughout that entire time. But you also understand that your name is going to be tarnished and in the public eye, and it's going to be very difficult moving forward when you're constantly going to be drudging what these narratives are. So, in instances like that, more often than not, after we've had that heart to heart and you've talked about, you want to play checkers or chess, win the battle or lose the war.
More often than not, the officer would come to my side of understanding that it would be best in my best interest and in the interest of the department that, in fact, I leave. So, a good leader has to be willing to also show that when the processes have been honored and that process has been respected, if it's time for you to be disciplined, I'm going to discipline you.
29:55 | And that is the part of the job that also goes with being a leadership. It's not just winning the popularity polls and boy, the guy most likely like to spend and have a beer at a desert island. It's also that if I secure up, and I know I've screwed up, this guy's going to hold me responsible for those actions. And I think that's an understanding that I cultivated not only from offshoot officer, but working with the union, too.
Because before I was a chief, I was a union steward. So, I respect what the needs are of collective bargaining, iris, and I always told the managers that they would come in and bargainers would come in and they'd say, hey, listen, you know, I said, don't triangulate me between my officers and the city budget process because you're going to lose. I'm always going to advocate for my officers. So, I don't want to ever be thrust in the position that I'm aligned with or siding with the budgetary process and what the city wants because you can't give these folks enough, in my opinion.
So incredible stuff, chief. And I can't thank you enough. I want to give you the last word. People in our audience are in maybe a position as you were. They're achieved for their sheriff. They're lieutenant captain sergeant. They're just a line officer. What words of wisdom can you part them with? I think that each and every one of us has the opportunity, no matter what our role is, no matter what our station is to use the words of the former president John F.
Kennedy is that one person can make a difference in everyone should try. So, it doesn't matter what kind of lofty rank you hold or what your span of control or leadership is. There are things that you can do. Subtle things day to day that can be impactful. And that will resonate. And that will also be like that flat stone that skinned across the pond. It will have a ripple effect. It will have a domino effect.
And don't short sell yourself on the abilities of what your efforts can make in the lives of others in the lives of people who have taken an oath, much like we have to protect and to serve and to uphold the constitution. I think so often we feel like it's an overwhelming, almost impossible proposition we're up against, but if we all take that attitude and no one's willing to lift the finger to try to change and alter that trajectory, then shame on us because we all have a capacity within our little universe to make a difference.
Chief Mike Koval, your oath always came before your career and desire to be popular. You left a legacy that I certainly hope. Many, many people will follow a true servant leader. Ultimately, a true courageous leader, sir, I cannot thank you enough for being with us. And Travis, I appreciate that. I'm humbled by your remarks, but moreover, I'm really appreciative that your kind of the Johnny Appleseed of today's modern era casting your seeds everywhere, hoping they will germinate.
And I do believe that unless we have people who are vigilant like yourself that are willing to take on what is no less than a moral crusade of epic nature, then we are definitely going to be doomed. So, God bless you, your efforts stay safe because I need you to live for the better part of another 50 years to get this thing turned around. Well, chief, you're an incredible inspiration. You certainly give me, and others hope. Thank you so much.
And for those of you listening, please share this, spread this. This is powerful. It can be impactful. It can change communities. It can change law enforcement agencies and just remember lead on and stay courageous.