Chief Kristen Roman, University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department


Kristen Roman thought she was headed toward a career in broadcast journalism when she studied at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-1980s.

But after graduation, a lifelong interest in law led the Badger volleyball standout to return to Madison from her Chicago area roots with an eye to attending law school. In the meantime, she applied to the Madison Police Department, where she ended up working for 26 years, including helping train officers in contacts with mentally ill suspects.

In January, Roman took the top job at the UW-Madison Police Department, where she hopes to formalize community outreach. An advocate for police wellness programming, Roman, 50, helped develop a study with UW-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds on the impact of mindfulness practices on officers’ physical and mental health. She is looking forward to the meditation room in a $4.8 million addition now under construction at the UWPD headquarters on Monroe Street.

Police accountability is important, Roman says, but don’t try to fault office training alone for confrontations that go tragic. The Capital Times sat down the Chief to talk about why.

What in your life experience brought you to this job?

The first word that comes to mind is “team” — wanting to be part of a team and committing to that team approach to accomplishing some goal. When I think back to the earliest germinations of that, that would have been volleyball and that started in high school.

What attracted you to the police?

My mother used to tease me about how profound my sense of justice and fairness was, and how I would rail against it anytime there wasn’t a sense of justice.

I was 23, I had graduated from UW-Madison and was living in Chicago, working and trying to think what was next in my life and thinking about law school. A friend of mine who was a Madison police officer said "You should look into the MPD, they might pay for your school."

I was fortunate enough to be chosen on my first attempt. My academy experience was probably one of the better learning experiences I’ve ever had. It really opened my eyes to all the potential there is within this profession. What we are presented with in the media is really a very narrow view.

What are some of the challenges of stepping into shoes of a chief like Sue Riseling, who served 25 years?

I will bring a different approach only because I’m a different human being. The challenge is for people to be open and receptive to a different way of doing business. So far I have felt no rub or conflict or anything but a welcoming environment. Change is something that a lot of people resist initially, but once you know that that train is going, you start to see what some of the opportunities might be. And that generates energy and excitement.

Tell me a significant change you are planning to implement in the way things are done.

The biggest one is establishing some sort of advisory group, an external community-based group to meet with the department. I don’t know what it will look like exactly. But I’ve begun a conversation with the campus community about providing an ongoing and consistent way for people that we are serving to have input about what they’re looking for from their police department.

Is there a particular issue around which you’re seeking more consistent input from the community?

Something that I think has been a present and ongoing issue for the last few years is the strain on the police-community relationship.

Are you referring to race relations?

Race, use of force — it’s not just one issue. I think it started with use of deadly force and you can take it back to Ferguson, where there was an igniting of a necessary conversation. That was a turning point. And there is no way to separate what’s happening locally from what that national narrative looks like. It’s a narrative around police use of force, about police relationships with people of color. It’s about accountability; it’s about transparency.

How is UWPD doing with race relations?

The good news is, stepping in, there was nothing I felt was broken that I need to fix. There has been a very solid foundation with this department and relationship with community and communities of color. I’ve been making the rounds with various individuals and groups to meet people and understand where they’re at. I have not received any negative feedback.

There was a very contentious and highly publicized arrest last spring of an African-American student — from a classroom — in connection with anti-racist graffiti on campus buildings.

I’m not saying there is zero criticism. Certainly there have been a couple of incidents. The difference is they were treated more as isolated anomalies, rather than a more global criticism of a racist police department. That’s an important distinction. We’re still in a relationship where we can take those incidents one by one, talk about them, make whatever adjustments and improvements we need to make and move on.

What is the biggest challenge UWPD faces?

I think there is a question around "What is the role of police on campus?" I think there is a shift nationally in what our communities are looking for from their police. When I was at MPD, there was a question: Should officers be dedicated to dealing with and responding to people with mental health issues? Is that really the role of a police officer?

Because of what is happening in the larger social fabric when it comes to services available, we’re seeing police take on more of those social worker kinds of responsibilities and approaches. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The question is how do we dedicate our resources.

Is attention to “social worker” kinds of responsibilities an important function for UWPD?

It is. Everybody agrees “safety” is a responsibility of police, but how do we define safety? Does safety always come in the form of responding to an issue, or is there a lot of work we can do that is more about prevention? What’s the balance of those two things? Some of these issues are tied to the conversation about race that’s being sparked by communities of color. Are we policing in ways that have some sort of unfair impact?

At MPD you helped develop training for officers to deal with emergencies involving mental health issues or intoxication. But that department is under scrutiny, and more than $5.5 million in legal settlements have been paid in two fatal officer shootings of men who were intoxicated.

I certainly take issue with scrutiny of the incidents as failures in police training. By the time police get involved there are so many things that happened leading up to that moment; but for those things, we might not be injected into a crisis situation.

When we have an incident that requires police intervention, it’s fair to question how we train and prepare for those moments; it’s fair to take a look at those incidents and say “How did we do, are there things we need to improve to potentially have a different outcome?”

But to point to an outcome as strictly attributable to police success or failure in training is missing so much of what can potentially be done to prevent that situation from occurring. Choices are made; opportunities are missed around mental services, around access to treatment, around alcohol and other drugs, around family support networks to help our young people understand consequences and support them in making good decisions.

But is it important that police actions are examined when they are inserted into a crisis?

Absolutely when we have a tragedy, we are right to examine the police. But I have not seen us do much more than that in this community, except maybe mention maybe we should improve mental health services. But people are not coming out in droves to protest the lack of attention of lack of preparedness or lack of money dedicated to particular areas that could help us from having to always be so reactive.

Does UWPD need to do more in those prevention areas?

At UWPD, we’re not at that same level of crisis response (as some city police departments). Certainly that’s a potential — anywhere. A majority of our officers have had crisis intervention training, and we’re working to get everybody trained. We have an entire section dedicated to emergency management for the potential active shooter that we’ve seen on other campuses around the country.

What’s an area where UWPD does a lot of prevention work?

Alcohol and sexual assault are areas where we have partnered significantly with the campus community, ranging from students to the dean of student life and other administrators all the way up to the chancellor on awareness, prevention, education, deterrents. There are a number of programs: Don’t Be That Guy; The First 45 Days.

Most police departments don’t have the opportunity to have a captive audience to talk about issues that can help keep them safe. As a campus police department, we can get kids here as freshman and we can put this information in front of them. It’s hard to prove you are being effective — to say we know this working because this didn’t happen.

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Students are here to learn; so our mission is to play our part in supporting that larger mission. Punitive responses have their place; but there is a real opportunity with a population of young adults to respond to poor decisions and activity that otherwise could be categorized as criminal activity and intervene in ways that don’t derail them for the rest of their lives.

That’s an important distinction between UWPD and MPD?

In the city environment, what police are dealing with are older adults. Problems that have gone unattended can build and by the time they’re in contact with police, it’s a lot harder to problem-solve. We are able to get in at an earlier point. Students are here to get an education and if that is threatened in some way, it’s a different level of deterrence that municipal officers don’t have.

So the threat of suspension or expulsion is an important tool?

We’re working with administrators who are on the same page and in a parental role we present a united front to help this child with his development and growth. Dad might have some skills Mom doesn’t and they complement one another to get a better outcome.

There was a clarification of UWPD policy on officers entering the classroom, just a week or so before you started work, which says officers shouldn’t enter classrooms unless it’s an emergency situation. Are you on board with that?

I am. If something needs immediate attention, then we go in there. To the extent that we can, the preference and practice is that to wait. To sit outside, wait, watch, come back another time. Those decisions are made all the time around all sorts of situations where we want to have contact with someone to interview them or arrest them. To the extent we can pick and choose the time, we do.

It treats the classroom as a private or protected space.

It comes back to what does this campus community want from police. And they’ve told us — and we would agree — that they don’t want us to enforce certain kinds of issues in the classroom. It’s disruptive to the entire class; it’s disruptive to the process. Certainly, it can put a spotlight on the individual that we’re having contact with in front of their peers.

There was a recent notification from UWPD to the campus community that was criticized as racist for including photos of an African-American burglary suspect. Any second thoughts about whether it was fair to include the photographs?

When the question came in whether there was overt or implicit bias in releasing the photographs, I wanted to look at it to see what the decision-making process was. I’ve come to the conclusion that I agree with the decision to include the photos. This was a crime warning; it is required and regulated under Clery (a federal law on campus crime disclosure).

Typically those warnings come out when an incident happens; so we likely don’t have photos. We were investigating burglaries we believed to be a pattern, and then we got the photos. Under Clery we are required to put out all the information that would prevent further victimization. To withhold photos would run contrary to the intent to alert.

I appreciate the concern about the unintended consequences that putting out photos can have, on African-American men in particular. So, we will not put out a vague description. If all we have is a race and a sex, we don’t think that gives you anything to help protect yourself.

Another area of your expertise is officer wellness. Tell me a bit about why officer wellness is important.

The word “guardian” is used a lot for what we aspire to as police officers. That’s a caretaker. I think in order to be an effective caretaker, one has to take care of themselves to be able to do that. With police, we’re talking about decisions and actions that can have significant impact — life and death sometimes. So it’s important that we are whole and well and have support systems in place to help us with that throughout our careers. Roles change, stressors shift, and they combine with other stressors in life — family, kids.

And those stressors are real and present for police officers on a campus like the flagship UW-Madison?

I have heard that question: Campus police, how hard can that be? I probably was guilty of wondering that myself as young Madison police officer. It’s a different community with different challenges. It’s not that we wake up every day and think this is the day that bullets could be whizzing by — but it could be. And that’s true any time an officer anywhere puts on the uniform and goes out to do their job. That in itself has a stress level, and it’s one that can sneak up on you.

Family and friends will tell you, you’re different; you’re changing. Watch officers when they go into a restaurant where they sit; back to the wall to see the door. There is a heightened vigilance that takes a toll. And there needs to be acknowledgement of that and opportunities to talk about it and be okay talking about it.

I’m interested in how we put in the way of officers options and opportunities to provide them with tools for that kind of wellness. We have a lieutenant who oversees peer support and puts in place a number of different kinds of initiatives throughout the year. In our new construction we have a room that will be designated as the meditation room. It starts with the individual and it’s a way of moving through the world. And that influences how we move out into the community.

I’m excited about the work I began at MPD with a pilot study with the Center for Healthy Minds. They are looking to extend into a longer study, and I am in conversation with the same folks to see if this department can be included in the expansion of this study.

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