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Sunday, September 26, 2021

City officials have opposing views on nighttime safety initiatives and funding.

Madison after dark: public officials disagree when it comes to city safety

Do you feel safe in Madison after dark? 

The answer is contested — among the public and its local officials.

In June, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced an increase in police efforts at the intersection of State Street and Capitol Square to eliminate the frequent criminal behavior at the popular summer junction. 

People engaged in public consumption of alcohol, aggressive panhandling, fighting, public urination, using and dealing drugs, as well as prostitution. Rhodes-Conway said that the atmosphere was inviting criminality and “party-like.”

“The party’s over,” the Mayor said. “Illegal behavior will not be tolerated.”

And while many approved of the step to reduce disorderly conduct, most knew it would not be enough.

“I appreciate the mayor’s sense of urgency on this,” Central District Police Captain Jason Freedman said. “I don’t think it will be enough — I don’t think anyone involved in this would suggest it is. We need to have stronger mechanisms to connect people to services and also hold people accountable.” 

Summer has passed and Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, says there is much more work to be done. He is the council’s leading advocate for public safety spending.

“I do not feel that it is safe [in Madison],” Skidmore said. “Somebody just walking around not knowing the lay of the land could be in danger at any given time. It is unthinkable for a public official to say that the police should not enforce the law of the land.”

With 18 years on the city’s common council, Skidmore also works in the private sector, providing security for businesses, residences, apartments and hotels, which is “growing by leaps and bounds because of the deteriorating conditions.” They even provide security during the day now.

Freedman also stated that the police department’s tactics to combat crime during the day is different than that at night because people’s behaviors are different.

Still, Skidmore warns that, as of now, the city is “grossly underfunding their public safety initiatives.” 

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The 2018 Madison Police Department Patrol Staffing Report demonstrated the division’s need for an additional 31 patrol officers in order to be fully staffed. Since 2015, Police Chief Mike Koval has advocated for a gradual increase in staffing of 10 officers per year. 

“What the [city] is doing may even be counter-productive,” Skidmore said. “You cannot eliminate the enforcement — [or] limit the enforcement — to only what you want to do.”

Ald. Michael Verveer, District 4, represents the State Street area and says that Madison has historically always been a very safe community, supported by national statistics. 

There has only been one homicide this entire year which is “remarkable for a city of our size,” according to Verveer. 

The downtown area still sees crime, though. Especially at bar time.

So, approximately 11 years ago, Verveer began the Downtown Safety Initiative: a program that allows MPD offices to work overtime in the downtown area between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., in addition to the cops already on patrol.

The city spends over $100,000 a year on the initiative — fairly robust funding.

“It does sadden me when I hear people are frightened to be out and about at night because I think that’s overstating the reality,” Verveer said. “It concerns me that that’s the perception [of the downtown] because, as they say, perception is reality.”

UW-Madison Police Department’s Director of Communications Marc Lovicott also feels confident that the UW-Madison campus and the city of Madison are safe.

“We’re never complacent [but] we are only part of the puzzle,” Lovicott said. 

Lovicott cites the department’s proactive approach to the city’s safety, along with a successful partnership with the City of Madison Police Department. The two departments share many boundaries, so a lot of issues bleed into the opposite agency’s jurisdictions.

“Obviously things do happen,” Lovicott added. “When they do, we work hard to find those responsible and hold them accountable for their actions.”

In a survey conducted by The Daily Cardinal, 36 percent of students said they do not feel safe in Madison at night, while the same percentage still walk home alone.

When asked for suggestions on how to improve public safety after dark, the most common response was to add more blue light emergency phones surrounding campus and more street lighting in general.

While Alderman Skidmore and Marc Lovicott differ in their assessment of the city’s safety, they both urge citizens to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Walking in well-lit and familiar areas, informing friends of your whereabouts and avoiding walking with earbuds in or while on the phone are recommendations for staying safe at night.

The UW-Madison Police Department launched a free mobile app two years ago called WiscGuardian, which allows students to quickly reach the department via text or call if needed. 

Additionally, the safety timer feature allows students to designate a “guardian” who has access to their location. Students can set a timer as they walk to a specific location that will notify their guardian if it exceeds the allotted time. 

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