Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes has placed himself into a position that no one can defend. Not conservatives, not liberals, not progressives. No one.
Usually, I find myself comfortably able to stand alongside our local police and give my support. Not this time.
Unlike past major episodes dealing with local police shootings, and actions taken (or perhaps more to the point not taken) by law enforcement to quell violent downtown rioting, there is no respectable ground for the police chief to stand on regarding Reginald Patterson. Or the way Matt Kenny was treated in 2021.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Barnes sent an internal message to officers that he would seek to fire anyone found to have leaked to the local media information about the resignation of a lieutenant who had been videotaped engaging in sexual activity with a woman in his squad car in a store parking lot.
But the desire by Barnes in promoting a self-serving message about another officer was even elevated to the office of the department’s spokesperson.
Matt Kenny, a police officer who shot and killed a 19-year-old who was highly combative and under the influence, was approached in 2021 by Barnes about voluntarily retiring.
Police Department spokesperson Stephanie Fryer said, “Since joining the Madison Police Department, the chief has heard from grieving family members and concerned citizens about the employment of Officer Kenny.”
There is a lot to unpack in those two stories.
First, there is a right of citizens to know what their public servants do while being paid for with tax dollars. That is not a new concept. When a 15-year employee of the department, no less, the West Police District’s head of the patrol, is caught in a sex act in a police car in broad daylight it does merit public scrutiny. Such lack of regard for sound judgment from someone who works for a department that does concern itself with public relations deserves public attention. But transparency was not the route our police chief chose to follow.
Police had refused to provide Patterson’s name until announcing his resignation, but the State Journal reported it on Oct. 14 after one current and one former department employee confirmed his identity. Six days later, in response to public records request by the State Journal, the department identified Patterson as the only department employee then on paid leave.
The fact is journalists, who report on the work of government and public officials, do rely on souces and tips so to fulfill their responsibility in a democracy. Such input from a wide array of sources, as proven in this case, ensures the public has a better understanding of what is happening with the departments and agencies they fund. As such, it was not proper to then have Barnes make the threat of firing anyone about a matter that did merit public notice.
From a public relations perspective, it appears that the desire to keep tight reins on information was more an issue for the police chief than the preposterous action taken by an officer on duty.
Regarding Officer Kenny, meanwhile, there was a true effort made to publicize an attempt to remove him from his job. For the record, I am glad that the story was reported. It, too, needs to be known by the public, as it shines a light on Chief Barnes. Sadly, his action in this matter demonstrates how he too plays to the anti-police sentiments held by some of the louder voices in this city.
Following the Tony Robinson shooting those who opposed the police attempted to frame our force as akin to other departments nationwide which have landed in the headlines. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We might recall that then Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, in a number of national interviews, proved his communications skills while outlining why Madison is a department that is head and shoulders above others. Statistics also make the case why Madison police can not be summed up in pointless rhetoric from the anti-police crowd.
Matt Kenney was not found to be in any way negligent in the performance of his duties as a law enforcement officer.
So to have Barnes then seek the retirement of Kenny, an officer who acted professionally in the line of duty, is more than mystifying. It is infuriating. For Barnes to take that action is a back-handed slap to the entire police force.
It is difficult to have professionals akin to former Police Chief Koval continually serve in our city. But it sure would be nice if that were possible. When they are absent it is most noticeable.
And so it goes.