Getting a line on safety

Can a data-driven, community-centric approach to public safety work in the long run?
0423 Editorialcontent Feat Safety

There is a classic debate that still exists about whether poverty causes crime or crime causes poverty. It’s an argument that’s likely to go on forever, but there is little doubt about one aspect of this perpetual fracas — crime and poverty feed off one another.

There also is little doubt that crime chases away commercial activity. The most recent example in Madison is business owners at Madison East Shopping Center working with the Madison Police Department (MPD) to clean up drug activity that has driven away some customer traffic.

Nothing illustrates crime’s threat to small business activity quite like unchecked crime. Businesses in high-crime areas often chain items to shelves or place them behind the counter to prevent shoplifting, or they take costly security measures and pass those costs to customers. Lenders become more reluctant to extend lines of credit, and insurance costs inevitably rise. Mom-and-pop shops, which typically have small profit margins to start with, are hit the hardest. Not only are existing businesses more likely to depart or fail in such areas, but new business development becomes a nonstarter.

The reality is that women — specifically moms — control or influence 85% of consumer spending, according to a 2019 Forbes survey, and as we emerge from the pandemic, they still make the vast majority of purchasing decisions for families. If they don’t feel safe shopping in a given commercial area, retail and other businesses in that area are at a greater risk of failure.

In this look at safety and security in Madison, we examine what city government and the MPD — with the help of local residents — are doing to prevent crime while maintaining the features that make Madison a vibrant place to live.

Crunching crime numbers

While Madison has less crime than most cities its size, overall crime in the city increased from 25,188 incidents in 2021 to 26,703 incidents last year, according to MPD. This one-year snapshot is misleading to some because as a city grows in population, individual reports of crime grow as well. Criminal justice reform advocates such as Madison attorney Stephen Hurley, a criminal defense lawyer for 30 years, note that crime, when measured on a per capita basis, has declined in Madison for 40 consecutive years based on crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other sources.

Last year, the MPD reported that violent crime in the city — homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults — declined by 22% between January 2018 and June 2022. In his first “State of Public Safety” address,” Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes accentuated the positives about crime activity in calendar year 2022. He cited year-over-year decreases in aggravated assaults involving a firearm (down 14%), homicides (down from 10 to 6), robberies (down 14%), forcible rape (down 40%), home break-ins (down 33%, representing 183 fewer reports), stolen vehicles (down 12%), vehicle break-ins (down 33%), and calls for shots fired (down 39%).

Still, there was a 43% increase in nonresidential burglaries, which will require some attention, and Madison police officers responded to more than 134,000 calls for service. Officers made nearly 5,000 custodial arrests, up 14% from the prior year. Of those arrests, 1,886 were for crimes committed against another person.

Barnes says that crime prevention successes were achieved with the help of the community partnerships, but challenges remain. He cites the public safety plan he outlined two years ago and notes it was focused on three core principles of 21st century policing — crime prevention, community engagement, and employee safety and wellness in police organizations.

Barnes is encouraged by trends that show a drop in violent crime, particularly a steady two-year decline in the number of victims impacted by gunfire. He emphasizes the 39% drop in shots-fired calls and notes that 100 more illegal guns were safely taken off Madison streets in 2022 than were recovered in 2021. “I believe that the sound of gunfire directly contributes to our fear of crime,” he states. “Every chief in every city in America will tell you that fear of crime is far more important than any actual number or statistic.”

Driven by data

Under Barnes, policing in Madison is more data driven than ever before. Community support of police still includes more traditional elements such as community policing teams that played a role in recovering illegal firearms, plus a newly created Gang and Neighborhood Crime Abatement team. However, the city also hired its first director of police data, reform, and innovation, Dr. Eleazer (Lee) Hunt, and hired a community engagement specialist, Alex Ricketts. The Madison Common Council voted to approve a body camera pilot in the north district, an $83,000 investment in data and science that will help inform police practice in Madison.

Less publicized initiatives include the acquisition of a patrol analysis tool to help automate the planning of directed patrols based on community crime data. “This technology allows our supervisors the necessary analysis to ensure we’re assigning the appropriate, often limited resources and staffing in the appropriate places to maximize crime prevention,” Barnes states.

The community engagement piece has been funded by the MPD itself. Since 2017, the police department has facilitated more than $1.5 million in grant funding, which was directed to 22 nonprofit service providers for programs to address the cycle of youth violence and improve equity and fairness in youth arrest and diversion. Other funding supports school violence reduction, the Madison Area Addiction Recovery Initiative (MARI), and a new Community Policing Advisory Board pilot program.

MARI is for individuals who have committed an eligible, nonviolent offense driven by an addiction. The program, which seeks to divert individuals with a substance-use disorder out of the criminal justice system and toward recovery, offers six months of treatment. If they successfully complete the program, their criminal charge or ticket is dismissed and no court record is ever made. At the time Barnes delivered his address in February, 16 people were enrolled in MARI.

Crime prevention among young people is a key part of the department’s strategy. Since 2021, all commissioned personnel who encounter a youth aged 12–16, including any municipal citation, now divert that youth to restorative justice through the YWCA’s youth intake coordinator. In the fourth quarter of 2022, the MPD issued 48 youth restorative justice referrals, and 33 opted into the diversion program.

Barnes reminds Madison residents that in addition to data-driven policing and other departmental strategies, they too are a key element in crime prevention and public safety. “Remember, we are the tip of the spear in crime prevention, but we’re just one part of it,” Barnes notes. “We need everyone, but the big part of the success is the collaboration of everyone.”

Mayoral mindset

One measure of whether citizens feel crime is under control is the result of an election. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot could not even make it out of the Windy City’s recent mayoral primary, and rising crime, especially homicides, was the leading factor. In Madison, Barnes and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway are of one mind on the use of data, analytics, and evidence-based practices to inform efficient resource allocation, and the public safety plan, devised with input from the public, has short, medium, and long-term elements.

Based on community input, the path to a safer community meant addressing shots fired, car thefts, and traffic safety, all of which influenced the city’s strategic planning. “In terms of going out and getting engagement from the community, that is happening in all three of those levels, notably in the violence prevention unit,” Rhodes-Conway explains.

Rhodes-Conway is confident the MPD can prevent an event such as Tony Robinson’s controversial shooting death, or outrages such as George Floyd’s police-involved murder in Minneapolis, or the more recent shocking episode of police brutality in Memphis that resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols. “I have a lot of confidence in Chief Barnes and the work he’s doing to create a culture within the police de­partment that is more focused on connecting with the community, but there is always more that we can do,” she says.

She’s also hopeful that further improvement will come now that an independent police monitor, whose office provides civilians an independent way of investigating and monitoring the MPD, is in place, and the Police-Civilian Oversight Board, which works with the independent monitor, has been set up.

Rhodes-Conway looks forward to what is learned from a body camera pilot program underway in the north police district but cautioned that body cameras have not proven to be a deterrent to police misconduct. “I tend to think they are more potentially useful for accountability after the fact and not so much as a deterrent,” she states. “I frankly would rather focus on the actual deterrents so this kind of thing never happens in Madison again. That’s where I think the conversation should be.”

Her message to city residents who question whether city government is doing enough to prevent crime is that fundamentally, Madison is a safe city. “We are doing a number of things to reduce crime and violence in the community, and for the most part, those are working,” she states. “We need to continue to do this work in a way that is evidence-based and data-informed.”

The collaborative approach is reflected in the work of Public Health Madison & Dane County. Public Health is coordinating the Isthmus Safety Initiative to improve safety in downtown Madison, where gun crime and sexual violence in the central police district — which includes the cultural and entertainment attractions of the downtown area — are its safety priorities.

An advisory council and a steering committee have developed several strategies to make the area safer, including bystander awareness training for State Street area bar and restaurant staffs, safety navigators stationed in the State Street area to welcome visitors and offer help to those who need it, and increased lighting to improve visibility in the Buckeye Lot above Lisa Link Peace Park.

As part of the RCC Sexual Violence Resource Center’s Safer Bar program, bystander-bartender awareness training and recruiting for safety navigator positions is well underway. The primary goal of the training is to ensure staff have the tools to stop potential sexual violence, prevent conflict, and to de-escalate and intervene if conflict happens. Safer Bar launched in 2017 but the pandemic and the resulting shutdown of the service industry put it on hiatus until a recent pilot program began. The pilot partners for the relaunch were Settle Down Tavern and Oz by Oz in downtown Madison, and organizers plan to take what is learned there beyond the downtown area.

Bri Breunig, assistant director of outreach and prevention for the RCC, notes the program can be tailored to each establishment because each one has its own identity and culture. In addition to de-escalation to reduce reliance on police interaction, the training involves noticing predatory behavior. It’s done through a trauma-informed lens because more than 50% of servers themselves report harassment every week on the job.

“A lot of people have given us feedback that it’s nice just to have extra tools — extra practices to intervene or reduce conflict because we do focus on de-escalation,” Breunig notes. “So, not only by standard intervention, but also making that intervention as safe as possible.”

The initiative is funded with the help of a federal grant awarded to the city of Madison from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). On an ongoing basis, the city will accept applications from anyone interested in becoming a safety navigator, and people interested in bystander awareness training can contact the RCC ( for more information.

Cindy Grady, public health violence prevention supervisor for Public Health, notes the violence prevention unit she’s part of is relatively new to Public Health, but it makes perfect sense because the agency’s approach looks at data and evidence-based practices to address some of the social determinants of crime and violence to prevent it before it occurs. “COVID had a huge impact on the downtown area,” Grady says, “and so we want to hopefully get that activity where it was pre-pandemic.”

At the Madison East Shopping Center, located in the 2800 block of East Washington Avenue, tenant Christine Ameigh, owner and operator of Christine’s Kitchens, Slide Potato Chips, and other small food businesses, knows her fellow business owners must be part of the solution to the problems that face their shopping center — primarily drug dealers that prey on the homeless. The issues have surfaced since COVID emerged, and business operators are working to form a business association, organize summer events to draw people, and address the area’s food desert issue by holding a farmer’s market and adding gardens that can be used by neighbors to grow produce.

A meeting with representatives from the city and the MPD reinforced the need for police to be more present, but tenants also have a role in making the center more welcoming. “It was their thought that the police can’t do everything here,” notes Ameigh, who came away from the meeting more optimistic. “It has to be a joint effort among everyone.”

Proceed with caution

Mayoral candidate Gloria Reyes, who is challenging Mayor Rhodes-Conway in the April 4 mayoral election, approves of the building of community engagement, a practice she has long advocated. But she warned that it should not come at the expense of a well-staffed and well-trained police force.

During her career, Reyes has been involved in public safety from a number of angles — as a Madison police officer, as deputy mayor under former Mayor Paul Soglin, as school board president, and now as the CEO of Briarpatch Youth Services. While working for the city, she started a program called Amigos en Azul, or Friends in Blue, to build trust between the Hispanic community and the police department.

In her view, public safety is not an either-or proposition, and it requires a multidisciplinary approach and investing in and supporting both structures — police and community engagement. “For the past several years, we’ve moved into this space of taking money away from police and investing in those community responses. We should not do that [exclusively],” states Reyes, who supports broader use of body cameras. “We should support and uplift and provide the tools for law enforcement to do the work that they do, while also uplifting a community response to violence. We can actually do both.”

Is justice denied in Madison?

They call their organization the Madison Justice Team and not only would they like to make significant changes in the criminal justice system, but they also want to make Madisonians aware of certain eye-opening statistics that argue for it.

Consider the following: One in every three Black baby boys will be incarcerated. Each year, there are over 3.3 million suspensions and over 100,000 expulsions from schools, and once a student drops out of school, he or she is eight times more likely to be incarcerated. The cost per inmate, per day under former county executive Kathleen Falk, a reform advocate, was $1,311 — almost $10,000 per week. The list goes on and on, and the Madison Justice Team’s key players — Diane Ballweg of Endres Manufacturing, attorney Stephen Hurley of Hurley Burish s.c., and Harry Haney, a former executive with Kraft Heinz in Madison — are trying to speak to heads and hearts.

One source of frustration is that when somebody is arrested on a Thursday, they remain in jail until Monday because, according to Hurley, local judges won’t hold a bail hearing on nights and weekends. Regardless of guilt or innocence, the four-day wait can result in lost jobs and heighten family duress. “We’re not asking for something that is novel,” Haney states. “Milwaukee County does this, so it is possible, and while there is an expense to that … there is also an expense for keeping people in jail over the weekend, not to mention societal costs.”

The Madison Justice Team is focused on a variety of reforms, including education in jail and beyond, job training and employment upon release, secure housing, public transit to available jobs, and rethinking the new jail to break out of the cycle of crime and recidivism. They believe a lack of public transit to employers in outlying areas prevents employment connections from happening. “It wouldn’t need to be transportation all day long, back and forth,” Ballweg says, “but they could have a couple of lines in the morning and evening.”

Asked what kind of reaction their proposals are getting from elected officials, Ballweg turned to an oft-cited quote that suggests the justice team has a long way to go. “Politicians know how to get the job, but they don’t know how to do the job.”

Have offices become easier marks?

During the week of Jan. 23, average office use was 50.4% of its pre-pandemic level, the first time it has exceeded 50% since the start of the pandemic, according to Kastle Systems, a property technology and managed security firm. In Madison, where return to the office is proceeding at a faster pace, Police Chief Shon Barnes reports there was a 43% increase in nonresidential burglaries in 2022, which begs a question: Do criminals view emptier commercial offices as easier marks?

Jeff Beckmann, CEO of J&K Security Solutions, says it depends on the business. “For those that truly switched to remote, you basically have vacant buildings with not much of a payday for those thinking of breaking in,” he notes. “From what we have experienced, it is the operating offices that are seeing an increase in crime, as they have more inventory and items to steal.”

Neither Beckmann nor Doug Fearing, CEO of Fearing’s Audio Video Security, has noticed a slowdown in demand for home or office security systems. Both agree that the demand for electronic security, including camera systems, has grown steadily over the years because fully integrated systems can help apprehend the perpetrators and recover property. That’s especially true now that images from those cameras can be viewed by business operators on a smart device.

Fearing also cites the emergence of more user-friendly products that integrate access control, video surveillance, and visitor management over the cloud. “It’s very information technology centric,” he notes. “Facility managers and IT managers love it because they can eliminate on-site servers and simplify the operations, which has just become a part of our business.”