The City of Monona has hired its first Black Chief of Police.
Brian Chaney Austin has been a police officer in Madison for 19 years and currently serves as captain over the traffic and special services, which includes the forensic crime scene units as well as coordination of police at large events like Freak Fest and Art Fair on the Square.
Chaney Austin, who also identifies himself as openly gay, will likely begin his new role in early June, replacing retiring Police Chief Walter Ostrenga.
In nearly 20 years as an officer in Madison, “as an openly gay black man, I came with a different perspective and I found myself to be sometimes the only one in the room with that perspective,” he said in an exclusive interview with Madison365. “It provided an opportunity for me to try to implement change and try to have influence on policy and procedure.”
He said the City of Monona provided an opportunity to implement that kind of change.
“There were a couple of high profile incidents that occurred in the city of Monona,” he said. “There were protests after that. And I saw sort of how that community responded, how that police department and the community responded. And I thought, that looks like there’d be an opportunity there.”
Last summer, two Monona police officers entered a home without knocking and drew their firearms on a Black man who was living there. Also in the past year, two high-speed chases have ended in the deaths of Black men. The City of Monona has engaged Nehemiah Center for Urban Development to cosult on anti-racist and inclusionary practices and is working to establish a commmittee to deal with such issues.
“I know people are tired of talking. I know people are tired of listening. I get that,” Chaney Austin said. “I understand that change, for a community that’s sort of just started this process, is not going to happen overnight. And don’t expect that the appointment of an openly gay black chief necessarily mean that tomorrow, all the policies you disagree with are going to go away. Um, there’s going to be, there’s going to be a concerted effort and review into evaluating what needs to change. And the department’s going to be a part of that. I need buy-in from my membership. I need buy-in from those who are going to have to be the ones that respond out to these calls and work with the community.”
He said he doesn’t want to engage in “Monday morning quarterbacking” and doesn’t know enough about those specific incidents to comment, but said “continuous improvement” is something every police department should strive for.
Chaney Austin also said he thinks of the community his new department serves as broader than the borders of the City of Monona.
“I’m not specifically only mentioning the people who own businesses or literally live in the community. As a black man driving through that community, I’m impacted by what that police department does,” he said. “I think that we can all think of certain communities where those of us of color get a lot more anxious when we’re driving through. And I don’t want Monona to be that way. I don’t think the residents want it to be that way.”
He said his goal as police chief will be to help people feel safe — and right now, the police force doesn’t always do that for everyone.
He said diversifying the police force might help achieve that goal, but that officers have to be “qualified first, and diverse simultaneous to that.” He noted that smaller cities like Monona lack the budget to operate a police academy or send recruits through officer training programs, and thus can only hire officers who are already certifiable.
“That shrinks your candidate pool, and shrinks the diversity of your candidate pool,” he said.
He said there are ways around that limitation, adding that he won’t be shy about recruiting experienced Black and brown officers from other departments, and pushing the City to allocate money for training new recruits.
“How serious is the city about diversity in their police department?” he said. “That’s going to require an investment.”
Noting that he’s still “an outsider,” he stressed that he will listen to the community as well as current officers as he begins to implement his own vision for the department. He specifically said he intends to meet people where they are, and not just host events where people come to him.
“Only a certain segment of people in the community consistently show up” to events like those, he said.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I think there’s some opportunity for leadership, there’s opportunity for some change that can help folks do their job well, so that we can finally get to that mission of making sure everyone feels safe.”
[In an earlier publication of this article, Madison365 reported that Brian Chaney Austin would become the first Black police officer in Monona. However, Dr. Theodore Darden was the first African-American police officer and was hired in January 2000-2003 as a sergeant for the City of Monona Police Department. –Ed.]