Strengthening Ties Between Police and the Community: A Conversation about Restorative Justice in Madison, Wisconsin


Strengthening Ties Between Police and the Community: A Conversation about Restorative Justice in Madison, Wisconsin

Strengthening Ties Between Police and the Community: A Conversation about Restorative Justice in Madison, Wisconsin

Joe Balles, who recently retired as a captain after a 30-year career with the Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department, discusses restorative justice and police legitimacy with Robert V. Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. A mentee of Herman Goldstein, considered the father of problem-oriented policing, Balles was instrumental in the creation of the Dane County Community Restorative Court, a diversion program based on the Native American principles of peacemaking. The interview took place during Community Justice 2016.

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A panel on Restorative Justice at Community Justice 2016 features, from left, moderator Erika Sasson of the Center for Court Innovation, Jose Egurbide of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, Captain Joe Balles (retired) of the Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department, and Judge Herman Sloan of the Atlanta (Georgia) Community Court.A panel on Restorative Justice at Community Justice 2016 features, from left, moderator Erika Sasson of the Center for Court Innovation, Jose Egurbide of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, Captain Joe Balles (retired) of the Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department, and Judge Herman Sloan of the Atlanta (Georgia) Community Court.

CAPTAIN JOE BALLES: One of the reasons I got trained as a peacemaker is because I'm trying to add even more legitimacy to this work, so that it actually becomes formalized and more ingrained and peer accepted.

ROB WOLF: Hi I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I am at Community Justice 2016, in Chicago, where hundreds of justice practitioners from various jurisdictions around the country and around the world, are gathering to talk about justice reform. With me right now is Captain Joe Balles, retired from the Madison Wisconsin Police Department. We've sat down to talk for a little bit about restorative justice. He participated in a panel here at Community Justice 2016, on restorative justice and he was very involved with that concept in his work in the Madison Police Department.

You were involved in starting something called The Dane County Community Restorative Court. So why don't you explain what that is, and why you wanted to start something called a restorative court that has this word 'restorative' in it?

BALLES: Sure Rob it would be a pleasure. In 2013 the NEKC foundation funded a study in Dane County, it was conducted by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. And that report, published in October 2013 really statistically laid out what was the state and the human condition of the African American population in Dane County. And their report in its breadth covered so many different measures across the spectrum that were just all jumped out and many in Dane County community, and Madison's the capital, Wisconsin, 500,000 is the county population, almost 250 is the city of Madison, and when you look at that it was really pretty telling, and everybody just accepted it as the base-line. There was really little argument about the data or anything, it was so overwhelming. One number in particular with regards to racial injustice was that Dane County African Americans represent about 4.8 % of the population, but when you look at the number of people that we send to prison every year, African American's in Dane County represent 44% of the people we send to prison.

Based on that report a Dane County Board African American supervisor, Sheila Stubbs, who ironically I have known for many years, she brought forward a proposal in November 2013 to the County Board, and got it stuck in the 2014 budget to create a pilot Community Restorative Court in South Madison that would look a 17 and 25-year-olds and try to divert them. Those who have been arrested for misdemeanors, divert them from the formal traditional criminal justice system, to a Community Restorative Court predicated on the ideas of peacemaking in justice circles. And ...

WOLF: And maybe we will just pause for a second. When we talk about restorative, we're talking about ... I know it's about restoring both the community, but also ...

BALLES: Repairing harm to the victim, and the community.

WOLF: And the offender to an extent---

BALLES: And really doing an assessment of the offender because, you know Rob, when law enforcement issues citations, or we arrest young people, 17 to 25 year-olds. For a lot of times it's these kind of nuisance level types of crimes, if they be theft, criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct, obstructing an officer, there are other things that are going on there with that person at that point in time, that they happen to come on an officer’s radar screen. Because oftentimes when we make an arrest we are not out driving around looking for them, we get called by the 911 system because we are responding to something that we ultimately end up investigating, whether it be a fight in progress in a public place, or inside a private residence, we have to deal with what it is that we walk into. And this was a way to take. And instead of sticking that 17 -25 year-old in the formal system, where in Wisconsin, something that unlike a lot of states in the country, we have an online court system called CCAP, and once you get arrested and you then appear and make an initial appearance in Wisconsin Circuit Court, a record of you starts online on the internet in Wisconsin's Circuit Court database. It's totally publicly accessible, there's all sorts of warnings about how it's not supposed to be used for discriminatory purposes, or employment purposes etc. but everybody in Wisconsin knows about it and once you get something onto CCAP it's impossible to get it off, damn near impossible, I won't say it's impossible but it's damn near.

We find these 17 to 25 year-olds, it hurts them for employment, it hurts them for schooling, hurts them for housing, many different things.

WOLF: So the Community Restorative Court, they would be ... that's a total diversion, they wouldn't have a record in the system?

BALLES: It's a total diversion. Right. And the way we have created the diversion is, in the spring of 2015 we worked, together with our Dane County District Attorney, Ishmael Ozanne, the head of our Dane County Department of Human Services, Lynn Green, Madison Police Chief, Mike Koval and our city Attorney Mike May, and myself I was involved in this. We created an MOU, and in the Memorandum of Understanding I outlined the parameters of what we were going to try to do in the pilot, and it was a 12 month MOU, it actually expires next month in May. Wel certainly expand it, continue on, but we definitely need to tweak, kind of what we are doing right now, to build some more caseload.

But the important thing is that over the past year and a half now we have created another option for dealing with this behavior out in the neighborhoods, that both is victim rights focused, but at the same time focused on the needs of the offender, where we hired a Community Restorative Court coordinator. That's a funded position, not through a grant or something that we could possibly loose, but we actually created a new position within the human services budget for Dane County where this position lives. And that's really huge, because now we've got that position we don't have to fight for it every single year. And what we're trying to do is, our District Attorney's office has been very creative already, they've got 700 cases currently in different states of deferred prosecution. And what we are really hoping to do long term is to take a piece of that deferred prosecution case load that they have right now, and those cases that go to deferred prosecution are ready and ideal, many of them primed, for a peacemaking process.

WOLF: And so peacemaking, as I understand, we have a program in Brooklyn, The Center for Court Innovation runs through the Red Hook Community Justice Center is based on traditional Native American practice, bringing people together in a circle, and people solving the problem and the issue collectively. So is that the model that you are using?

BALLES: Yeah it is the model. And what happened was, is that after we were looking around in the spring, or in 2014, once we had that money funded to create the coordinator court, CRC coordinator position, we got a hold of the Center for Court Innovation.

And they, and with the help of some BGA Technical Assistance money, they brought our team, seven of us, out to New York where we were up in Harlem at the Community Court up there, we went down met with Judge Calabrese in Red Hook and got to see the phenomenal work he's done. He is nothing short of an American Hero in terms of what he's done out there. And then lastly we went over Brownsville, where at the time we were there it hadn't started yet, but we talked with the folks and we looked at the building. I think it was an old catholic church if I'm not mistaken, or something to that effect, or maybe an old school that they were looking at setting up, but we were out there in Brownsville and talking to them too. So we left New York with a lot of great ideas that we brought back to Madison to figure out how we wanted to set this up.

 And we went to work, doing community meetings where we brought the community in and told them we were looking for volunteers. We worked with Johnathan Scharrer, a person I haven't mentioned enough. Johnathan Scharrer is a professor at DW Madison Law School that teaches the restorative justice training at the law school. And Johnathan was solicited by us to help us teach and train our peacemaker program, which is now a 16-hour class. We've got over 40 trained, and myself, just a few weeks ago I went through the two-day training myself.

WOLF: And has it started, the restorative—

BALLES: Yes. Last July we started actually making referrals from the south police district. Again we are just focused on my old district where a new captain is at right now, because I left in January. But we are going through every arrest that we make, and we make probably 60 some arrests every month, and we are looking for those cases that we can divert. But right now our MOU is focused on, really kind of looking at first offenders 17 to 25 of age, but what we are realizing and our challenge is, we need to get into more complex cases, because some of the things that we heard at this conference for instance, is that you don't want to be doing interventions on low risk populations, okay. And generally in our model that we have right now, those are our first offenders, they don't have a lot you know; the 21 year-old that gets drunk and stole a coffee cup at the convenience store at 2 o'clock in the morning, who is on his way to a graduate degree in engineering at Wisconsin, probably isn't the guy that really needs to go through the Restorative Court.

And so we are now trying to look at really the more complicated cases and get some of those individuals offenders, respondents, as we call them, diverted to peacemaking.

WOLF: So get me a little bit into your head as a police officer. Although there are police officers who've been involved in all kinds of innovative strategies, community policing and engaging the community. I think it's probably less common, this notion of restorative justice engaging the police. So what attracted you to this? Why were you drawn to this idea of restorative justice?

BALLES: Great question Rob. For me it just was a logical extension of my journey and my career and 30 years in policing. I did my graduate work at Wisconsin in the early 80s, where I was able to have met great mentors like Professor Herman Goldstein, who is the godfather of problem oriented policing. And in the late 80s early 90s I happened to be part of some of the early efforts at defining what community policing is in this country. I was a neighborhood officer myself in the city of Madison, where we identified 13 kind of high crime little pockets in the city of Madison. And I was one of 13 neighborhood officers in the late 80s that went out into those neighborhoods and built relationships with people, and really tried to find alternatives to arrests, and other ways of dealing with crime and the crack dealing, and the gang behavior and things like that, that we had out in those neighborhoods.

That to me was a very unbelievable moment in my career as a law enforcement officer, because it really defined me, and really set in place my core values in terms of the need for police in the community. It really had this very, very close partnership and understanding with the community that you were trying to police. Because policing isn't something that police do, but policing is something that we do collaboratively with the community, and the community shares a big part of that.

So for me, when I look at restorative justice, quite honestly it's like a graduate school version of community policing as we knew it, but it brings more formality to it. And the peacemaking process, and just the respect and dignity of how everybody participates equally in the process, it's so different, it's so radically different than the traditional adversarial justice system as we know it today. It's really, what we are talking about here, is changing the culture of the justice system, and I think that restorative justice really hit. I am excited about it. I think we are just literally just scratching the surface and we get many, many, kind of, laboratories going on. Much like we experimented 20 plus years ago with community policing in Madison, now I see a lot of communities around the country experimenting with different models of community justice.

One of the reasons that I got trained as a peacemaker, because I'm trying to add even more legitimacy to this word, so it actually becomes formalized and more ingrained and peer accepted. I don't want it just to be the tree-hugging people who are out there being trained as peacemakers that ....

WOLF: The hippies.

BALLES: The hippies, you know .... But here's a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, recently retired captain, very involved in this community through rotary, The United Way, coaching basketball, whatever it might be, but I also see that people like me also need to become peacemakers because we're part of the community, and we need to be part of that restorative justice process.

WOLF: Well let me ask you just one final question. Which is, with all the concerns that everyone is aware of, their assisted police, a report about Chicago police released this week, there is a lot of concern that there's a culture among some police officers where there is antagonism between the community they serve. There is institutional racism, I mean there's all kinds of things, and you just spoke about a very personal journey that you took and, you know, 30 years down this road, although it didn't take you 30 years, but you evolved to a position where your eyes have been open and you've embraced new ways of doing things, and you’re talking about restorative justice. And I also know, you had mentioned before we started, that you have been advising someone who is working with the task force, the President’s task force, on 21st century policing. You are very involved nationally, now that you've retired, in helping police jurisdictions think differently. What advice or insight do you have into how maybe restorative justice or other tools can be used and how can you get police officers interested in them, who haven't walked in your shoes specifically?

BALLES: Right, great question Rob. I mean I think we are at a ...with regards to policing I think we are at a kind of crossroads in this country very similar to where we were when UCR part one crime was at its highest in the early 1990s. I mean a lot of the initiatives that led to President Clinton's 100,000 officer initiative when he was first elected and the 1994 crime bill. I think today we are similarly situated. But interestingly we don't have the same amount of crime that we had back then, but how our police interact with our communities. And I think we're really struggling with this whole nature of the increasing diversity of our country, particularly in our larger urban areas. Any community 50,000 and over, okay you are really starting to see some very changing demographics.

One of the areas that I am working in right now is out in King County, Seattle, and I happened over the past year meet Sue Rahr, who was a former King County Sheriff, that is now the executive director for the Criminal Justice Training Commission for the state of Washington, and she was on President Obama's 21st century policing task force. And Sue penned the piece that Harvard published a few years ago, questioning are we training our police officers to be guardians or warriors. And when you look at the President's task force report and what Sue and the colleagues that were on the task force, they identified six pillars that put forth a road map for police chiefs and communities all over the country, to really internally look at themselves to see and measure themselves to see how they are doing and where they could improve. And that first pillar is all about trust in legitimacy, and in that part of the report, and it's not a very long report, it's only 30 pages long, there's a lot of reference to procedural justice both internally and externally. Because one of the things we know, and we've found many years ago in Madison, is that you can't put police officers into an organization where good work is not recognized, where they have abusive supervisors, where there's no systems of accountability. When you have internal cultures like that you're going to get bad policing on the backside of it. There's just no way. You might get some good policing by accident, but if you've got inside those police organizations that are so dysfunctional, you can't expect any better result.

Many years ago a guy name of David Couper, the police Chief of Madison at the time. He led Madison on a 20-year kind of culture revolution that transformed our department where he hired the first women. Today over 30% of officers in the Madison Police Department are women. 90% of us have, at least, a four-year degree, 20% of the department are people of color, for a 455 officer department in a community of 250,000 we are doing pretty dam good in terms of trying to at least recruit, retain individuals that we can take and put out there on the streets every day as police officers, and with the proper training and guidance. There is a lot of police departments in this country that, quite frankly, are really struggling to do that.

I'll end Rob with something in terms of the need for police departments in communities to think futuristic about how they build police departments. Chief Cooper once said many years ago, "If you want to see what your community is going to look like 15 years from now, walk into a kindergarten classroom."

WOLF: Makes sense.

BALLES: Absolutely. And if you’re not trying to build and recruit and prepare your police department in terms of this diversity, to what that kindergarten classroom looks like today, your losing ground already. So I think we're at a unique opportunity here, I think restorative justice is quite frankly really the next evolution here of the conversation. We've got some tough problems that we are dealing with in this country, but I really feel optimistic. I think about the tools that we have, the evidence based practices, and a lot of great organizations like the Center for Court Innovation, that are helping agencies and police departments all around the country and justice systems, help is good there.

WOLF: Well that's a very nice and positive note to end on. So thank you. I've been speaking to Captain Joe Balles who retired just this past January from the Madison Police Department, and is now very involved in a number of things both in Madison and nationally regarding innovations in policing. And we've been speaking this afternoon at Community Justice 2016, the international conference that's being held here in Chicago. I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To find out more about restorative justice and about the conference and about the work the center does, visit our website at,, and thank you for listening.

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