Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes: Leadership in a New Era


Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes was drawn to law enforcement out of a desire to serve his community.

Part 1 of 2

By Jonathan Gramling

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes has witnessed and seen life from many sides. He grew up in the Murfreesboro Projects. When Barnes was young, his father couldn’t live with the family because they lived in a subsidized housing project.

“My father would come home after work every day and stay until 9 p.m.,” Barnes said. “And then he would go home to where he lived with my grandparents. My father eventually was working hard to build his own business. My father was a mechanic and had a tow truck. And so he did what we call Wreck by Rotation. He was on the state troopers’ rotation list. They would look down the list and call him. He would get up at 2-3 a.m. and go pull someone out of the ice or a car out of the side of the ditch. If the vehicle needed repairs, my father had partnered with a gentleman who could do the body work. My father did the mechanic work.”

Barnes mother also sought to better herself. She graduated from college and became a physical therapist assistant. And by the time Barnes was 13-14-years-old, the family had moved into their own home that his father built.

“My mother and my father who raised me were both great people, God-fearing people,” Barnes emphasized. “I grew up with parents who taught me that life is about what you do for other people. We weren’t rich, but we shared everything we had. And my parents had a tremendous charitable heart. I will tell anyone that my father gave away more business than he ever charged for in 30-40 plus years of business. That I do know. We argued several times about my father’s prices. But my father was a fair man.”

Barnes attended Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU, where he majored in history/pre-law. He graduated and became a school teacher and then met his future wife, which indirectly led to him taking up a career in law enforcement.

“She was a young graduate student at North Carolina A&T,” Barnes said. “She subsequently went over to Wake Forest to work on her dual Ph.Ds. When I left teaching, I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was not able to get the teaching job that I wanted. I was a history teacher. I have a degree in history and pre-law. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to try policing because I have never been in any trouble. I never did any type of drugs. I never smoked marijuana.’ Quite frankly, my parents told me they would kill me and I believed them. I had a clean background. I was a Marine reservist. It just seemed like a good fit. Honestly, I was going to be a cop to maybe go to law school or maybe get back into teaching to become a principal.”

But once he got a taste of the profession, Barnes was good for life.

“I loved it because it was something new every day,” Barnes said. “I got the opportunity to literally go into people’s homes and help them solve problems. I encountered people who had issues familiar with the issues that I saw growing up. And I was able to share experiences that said, ‘Hey trouble doesn’t last always’ to quote the old spiritual. Just being from such a diverse background growing up in the rural South, being pretty much born in my grandparents’ farm house that had no running water and no indoor plumbing. Just being able to use all of those experiences to talk to people was great.”

Barnes was content doing what he was doing, getting the shifts that he wanted and being able to serve people. But then he was reminded by a mentor that Barnes also had a higher responsibility.

“I never wanted to be promoted,” Barnes said. “I wanted to be a sergeant. I knew that. And I wanted to work nights. That much I did know. I had a good friend and mentor say, ‘Are you going to try to be a lieutenant?’ I was like, ‘Naw, I’m good.’ He began to tell me about the history of African Americans in the field of policing and how hard it was to not only get hired at one point, but also to be promoted and to be a supervisor. It is a white male dominated professions, as you know. And it hasn’t always been easy, especially in the South, to get promoted. When he told me that, I thought about my obligation to other people and I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Every time I applied, I put forth my best effort and was able to get promoted each time from lieutenant to captain and then I moved over to another agency for the deputy chief rank. I started in Greensboro, North Carolina and rose to the rank of captain. And I went over to Salisbury, North Carolina for the rank of deputy chief. And then I took a directorship with the civilian Office of Police Accountability for the Chicago Police Department.”

And along the way, Barnes also earned a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. in leadership studies from North Carolina A&T.

Barnes applied for the Madison Police Chief position when it came open. But then in the meantime, he was offered the position in Chicago and took it. Better a bird in hand than two in the bush.

“These processes are very intense,” Barnes observed. “They are sometimes long. And this was certainly no exception. I look back at some documents. I think I sent my cover letter back in March 2020 and I didn’t take the job in Chicago until September. I knew the process was moving forward. I just didn’t know where I was in the process. But in October, the process began to move along faster.”

Barnes was offered the position, quickly accepted and assumed his duties on February 1, 2021.

Over the past few years, fueled by several police-involved shootings as well as the historical tension between law enforcement and the African American community, the role of the police department has come under a lot of scrutiny and discussion with some calling for “Defunding the Police.” Barnes is up to the challenge to provide leadership in this time of change.

“It’s been a great decision for me,” Barnes said about taking the position. “I think it is a good fit for me. It feels familiar here. The way we police here reminds me of the way some of my friends and people whom I trust police. It’s certainly not perfect. But I do like that there is a lot of critical thinking going on here and it’s a very policy process-driven police department.”