Home I Am Madison Madison’s First Black Woman Police Officer Overcame Fear, Prejudice

Madison’s First Black Woman Police Officer Overcame Fear, Prejudice


Growing up, Pia M. Kinney James witnessed the realities of her community’s relationship with the police. She observed strife and bias among those sworn to protect her neighborhood.

“As a child I saw interactions with police different than (those in) my book, ‘Police Officers Are Your Friends,’ and in my community, than it was in other communities, and it was not usually fair,” she says.

Despite mentioning her disapproval of those interactions she felt mobilized to make a change.

“I remember telling my parents I wish I could go to the police department and teach them how to be fair to people,” she said. “But I also was a young girl, (and) at that time, there were not uniformed female officers. Even though I’m spouting off at the mouth about what I would do if I had an opportunity, I never thought I would achieve it.”

But achieve it she did, becoming the first Black woman to join the Madison Police Department in 1975.

When the time came, her parents warned her of the obstacles that stood in front of her.

“They feared for my safety from the officers, not necessarily the street characters,” she says. “They knew about racism and sexism and tried to talk me out of it.”

Kinney James faced mixed reactions within and outside the police department as a Black woman officer.

However, since her youth, Kinney James’ dedication to fairness and community engagement has led her to become a mentor, protector and friend to many others who call Madison home.

Even in times of blatant discrimination, she persevered through a department and city often plagued with tension due to the evolving climate and resounding call for equal opportunity. The tension was so thick, she says, “you could cut it with a knife.” Her incoming class of 20 aspiring officers consisted of five men of color, five white women, nine white men, and Kinney James.

Once during her time in training she shadowed a Field Training Officer (FTO) who refused to speak to her. She recalls the first comments made were, “I don’t like women in the police department, I don’t like blacks, and I don’t like people on welfare.”

“The field training officer was timing me with how much time it took me to go to the bathroom,” she said. “When I finally told him that I couldn’t go to the bathroom any faster, I had to demonstrate. So I stood up and I basically said ‘when I go in the bathroom I have to take off my gun belt and my keepers; undo my other belt; unzip my pants; pull my pants down; pull my underwear down (if I had long john’s pull them down); use the bathroom and then repeat everything in reverse to get myself back together and I’m going as fast as I can. But for you all you have to do is zip and flip, so if I carried a urinal in the squad car, that might speed up the process.’”

She had to explain to her FTO how to walk in her shoes as a woman. She practiced this patience with all who she interacted with in the department despite signs of bias.

“I was fearful,” she says. “I was fearful of what I might say or how it might be taken.”

In an article posted on his blog, David Couper, the Madison Police Chief who hired Kinney James, explains the decisions that led to diversifying the force.

“Hiring women as police was simply the right thing to do. At the same time, I knew I had my work cut out for me bringing women or racial minorities into all-white organizations is no cakewalk,” Couper wrote.

Kinney James experienced the challenges Couper spoke of within the communities she served as well. Some complained about having a Black woman officer in their home, others called her names like ‘traitor’ or ‘Uncle Tom.’ However, Kinney James’ main focus as a neighborhood officer was establishing trust.

“My community slowly learned to accept me and accept the fact that I was gonna be fair to them, and I would say that. I would be up front: ‘This is what I have to do if I had to make an arrest;’ ‘This is what I can do if I’m gonna be giving you a break,’” she says.

For Kinney James, the “community” aspect of her position was a lifestyle. She has volunteered and mentored for a number of grassroots programs and organizations such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) with the Madison Metropolitan School District, Operation Fresh Start, Southside Raiders Football Team and many more. This dedication earned her awards like the Continuous Volunteer Service in Dane County Award and the Madison Police Department Community Service Award in 1984, awarded by former Madison chief of police David Couper.

Her established trust and transparency once granted her the protection of her community she served when a gang threatened her safety.

“Even people that I had arrested, they were standing up and saying ‘oh no no no, not Officer Pia, you’re not hurting her,’” she recalls.

In his article, Couper points to the importance of having woman in the police force.

“Women bring to policing many things that men cannot bring,” he writes. “Just about every woman has verbal skills that she has developed over her life to handle conflict, tension, even violence, that do not use the volatile mix we men carry with us. I could go on and on about the many ways working with women improved the ability of the Madison department to relate with those whom we served.”

Former Officer and Lieutenant Stephanie Bradley Wilson, who joined the police department in 1984 and believes she was just the fourth Black woman to enter the department, shares this sentiment.

“In policing, the best tool that you have is to be able to build relationships and to talk with people and to communicate with folks,” she says. “I think we bring a unique perspective, just like if we had Puerto Rican women or Native American women, you know they’re going to bring their experience that they had growing up or their educational experience to be able to help shape policies.”

According to the department’s 2015-2020 Affirmative Action Plan , in 2015, 35 percent of Madison Police Department officers were women. Today, there are eight Black woman officers at the Madison Police Department, according to city officials. Even though they don’t make up much of the department, many agree that they bring a perspective that can save lives.

“I know for sure women in general were able to calm people down. I think Black women have tendencies to have more gut feelings because we’re so use to what’s right and what’s wrong or what we feel,” Kinney James says.

Kinney James makes it clear that she had a good career that afforded her lifelong friendships and memories, but it wasn’t easy.

“My career as a police officer was rough. It was sad and heartbreaking at times, so the joy that I found was helping someone out,” she says. “So, if I helped a family, whether it was a referral or I took an abusive person out the house to make them more safe. For me it was empowerment for that family or that community person, that kept me going”

As the first Black woman to overcome the hardships and reap the rewards of being a sworn police officer in Madison, Kinney James has left a significant impact on many communities.

“Pia was very well respected within the department. She just did very good work and was always open to help other people,” Bradley Wilson says.

As a retiree, Kinney James continues to stay involved in community policing as a board member of Madison Community Policing Foundation, where she works with groups of officers to strengthen their ties with communities. The organization hosts events for civilians to intermingle with police officers positively.

For Kinney James, who is a volunteer, mother, born and raised South Madison-native and Central University High School alum and more, community policing is far more than police control. Although her time with the department ended in 2004, she still devotes her time to mentoring officers and community members alike, to build a lasting bridge between the two.