Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes: Leadership in a New Era

The Capital City Hues

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

Part 2 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.

Barnes then rose through the ranks at several law enforcement agencies in part out of a sense of duty to increase the presence of African Americans in the higher ranks of law enforcement. After several positions elsewhere, Barnes assumed his duties as the chief of the Madison Police Department on February 1, 2021.

Barnes is up to the challenge of 21st century policing. He is a touch laid back, but amiable. He is an active listener and open to other’s ideas and input. But make no mistake, Barnes is a strong leader ready to take on the challenges.

“I would just say that there is no formula or resource guide for being a police chief in 2021,” Barnes said. “The International Association of Chiefs of Police publish a New Chief’s Desk Reference. Some of it may still be valid. But for the most part, in 2020, it needs to be rewritten. You’re faced with, at best, uncertain budgets, uncertainty on what are the opportunity costs for giving the level of public safety that our community wants and they deserve. What does that mean? I spoke about this in an interview with Channel 3000. I asked, ‘What does it mean to say that we want less police intrusion? Does that mean we’ll be safer in other areas?’ I understand that correlation and causation are two different things. But we don’t know that. Things could be fine. Or perhaps someone who is driving under the influence gets into an accident because we made the decision that we weren’t going to pull cars over. At the time we see them, that person is not operating safely. It’s a lot to think about, I think, certainly in 2021, as we begin to reform policing. People are saying, ‘Reimagining Policing.’ I don’t know if I agree with that term. I think it is more of a police reform and fixing some of the issues that we have going on.”

Barnes wants to reduce or eliminate a perceived or actual divide between the police and the rest of the community. He referred to Sir Robert Pell’s Nine Points of Policing where the police are the public and the public are the police.

“We have to start looking at policing from the standpoint of neighborhood-oriented policing,” Barnes said. “What that means is every neighborhood is different. What I am asked to do with the downtown business community is totally different than what I am asking on the east side. What I think is the same is that community members want to know their police officers. They want to know how they are helping them. And they want to know, quite frankly, are they going to do that in a way that is procedurally just. That’s a basic minimum. Later on, they will talk about what they want. Some communities might not have an issue with bail. Some communities might have an issue with speeding. And some might have an issue with parking. It just depends. The idea is that we have to understand that police officers are here for service. I do not want to be a part of a police department that is just being seen as the people who reduce violent crime. Yes we are going to do that. That is something that we will always do. But this is a service job. It’s a relationship job. The best police officers come from the service industry. I just believe that. As a training officer, I’ve hired people who were waiters and waitresses and working construction. They were great people because they understand work ethic. They understand customer service.”

Barnes welcomes the scrutiny of the Police Civilian Oversight Board. While some may look at it as a way for civilians to control what the police are doing, Barnes looks at it as a way to find truth and express that truth to the community. It will be a two-way street.

“I want to see them be successful because this is how I look at it,” Barnes said. “If I go out in this article, which I am not, but if I go out in this article and say, ‘Jon, we’re doing this. We’re doing this kind of training. We have this kind of culture. This is what we are doing with our money’ and you print that, someone will come back and say, ‘We don’t believe you.’ If I utilize our Civilian Oversight Board appropriately, when they come and say, ‘Tell me about your training.’ And I tell them about our training. And then when they present that training to the public, it adds a level of credibility that quite frankly, some people won’t give me because of what I wear to work every day. I need to see them be successful. I need their credibility to be high because as much as they challenge me — and I hope they will — I will challenge them to tell the true story of this police department.”

Barnes noted that an RFP is out to facilitate the consideration and adoption of the 177 recommendations of the ad hoc committee and the NAACP. Barnes plans to work hand-in-hand with all of the relevant actors, police monitors and committees, to develop a strategic plan that will be transparent and will increase community trust of the police department.

Nonetheless, Barnes has seven primary pillars that his vision for the department rests on.

“First is community policing, making sure that we are doing the type of community policing that our community wants,” Barnes said. “Second, fair and impartial policing, making sure that our policies and procedures demonstrate to our community that we are an anti-racist police department, that we are an anti-discrimination police department and that we are fair to everyone. Third, mental health crisis intervention is another pillar. We have to figure out who is best to respond to mental wellness challenges and how best to serve our community. Use of force is important, making sure that for this police department, use of deadly force is the last option and not the first. Fourth, in recruitment, hiring and promotion, we have to do a better job of recruiting more minorities, more women, LGBTQ community members, you name it. Diverse groups outperform non-diverse groups when they are managed well, which is what the research says about diversity. I think we have good management here. We just need to make sure that we have people who can think differently about it. Fifth, training is important. Obviously I don’t have the training budget that I would like to have. But I am working very hard to get that done because our community expects that we are going to be a well-trained police department. Sixth, leadership is important for me. I talk all the time about employee safety and wellness. We do have the mental wellness days and check-ups. We appreciate the mayor and the city council for giving us the funds to allow officers to speak with a clinician if they want to. I think that is important. And finally, data collection and analysis are important. I’m going to take on racial disparities in this police department. It’s going to be a long process. It’s going to start with understanding our data, being able to present our data, making sure we aren’t counting things twice, making sure we know the difference between outputs and outcomes and making sure that we don’t have any policies or procedures that create disparities and that we are being fair to everyone. I’m putting together a group — we have a meeting on Wednesday — to look at some data around traffic stops. We’ll start there. That’s probably the biggest bite. We’ll see what that looks like and what we are seeing out in the field. We’ll see if we can make any adjustments to that.”

Barnes enjoys his work, all aspects of it. It is the highest form of service in his world.

“I am optimistic,” Barnes emphasized. “You have to be. When you come from where I come from, you have to be optimistic about everything. I approach each day, first of all, with thanksgiving and then I approach each day as an opportunity to make life better for someone. And that’s got to motivate you and make you happy.”

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes is ready to provide leadership in a new era.