Wis. city sees success in summer crime-reducing strategies – with one exception

"What we have been telling people is, 'take your keys upstairs with you,'" said Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes

By Chris Rickert
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Strategies to reduce specific types of crimes across Madison this past summer appear to have been overwhelmingly successful, based on data released by the police department Thursday — and not just in comparison with a tumultuous 2020.

The one major exception? A crime that is perhaps the easiest to prevent: car theft.

Last spring, Police Chief Shon Barnes directed captains in each of the city's six police districts to come up with three or four types of crimes they hoped to see reduced over the summer months, and to commit to specific percentage reductions so that success, or lack thereof, could be measured come fall.

All told, the captains committed to reductions of 10% or 15% for burglary, theft from auto, stolen autos, domestic disturbances, damage to property, retail theft, sexual assault, disorderly conduct/simple assault and shots fired.

Citywide from May 24 to Aug. 16, all of those crimes but disorderly conduct/simple assault and stolen autos fell by double digits in comparison to the same period in 2020, a year when the city saw a record increase in gun violence amid the stress caused the pandemic and sometimes-destructive racial justice protests. Reductions ranged from 30% for burglary to 68% for shots fired. Only disorderly conduct/simple assault and stolen autos were up, by 3% and 1%, respectively.

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There was a similar, though generally less pronounced, drop in the studied crimes in 2021 when compared to the same period over the previous five years, from 2016 to 2020. Overall, those categories of crime were down 12%, but again, the outlier was stolen autos. Auto thefts were up 48% in 2021 from the five-year average, from 113 to 167.

Madison police have for years said there's only so much they can do to prevent car thefts, the majority of which are committed by teens who go from neighborhood to neighborhood late at night or early in the morning looking for unattended vehicles left running or unlocked vehicles with keys or garage door openers in them. The openers they use to get into attached garages, where oftentimes the doors into the homes are left unlocked and they can get access to keys or valuables inside homes.

The vehicles are taken for joy rides or even rented to other people, police have said, and then abandoned messy and reeking of marijuana.

"The thing about the stolen autos ... we're not seeing a lot of glass breaks," Barnes said. "We're seeing keys left in vehicles, garage doors up, which you may also have a burglary as well."

He acknowledged that police can't be at every home to watch for car thieves and burglars taking advantage of cars and homes left unlocked by their owners, but said police do have a responsibility to educate residents on what not to do.

"What we have been telling people is take your keys upstairs with you," he said. "The whole thing back in the day of having your keys next to the door — we're asking people to do it a little bit different."

East District Capt. Jamar Gary said that in areas where his officers were seeing car thefts, community policing teams would hand out leaflets with reminders to lock up. If they saw areas with garage doors open, they reminded people to close them.

What did police do differently or more often in the summer of 2021 that might have led to the reduction in other kinds of crime?

Much of it focused on police being more visible, either in Officer Friendly kinds of ways — think pop-up ice cream stands, "coffee with a cop" get-togethers and police-sponsored basketball tournaments — or by engaging in crime prevention and what's previously been known as police "show of force."

As part of the latter approaches, officers in the Midtown District were planning to knock on the doors of homes with their garage doors left open and peeking in car windows to see if purses or other valuables were left in view. Residents not taking such precautions get bookmark-size "report cards" reminding them to be more careful.

Part of Gary's plan was to have officers knock on at least four doors around homes that had been burglarized to share information and collect leads. There weren't the staff to do it in every burglary case, he said, but there were in many.

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With a 2019 police department workload analysis showing the city could use 18 more patrol officers but local police-abolition and reform activists and their allies on Madison's left-wing City Council in no mood to spend more money on policing, Barnes, who began in his position Feb. 1, has also made it a priority to use data and research to get as much out of the personnel he has.

Each of the police districts were assigned its own crime analyst who, for example, was able to identify emerging upticks in crimes in particular neighborhoods so that commanders could deploy additional officers.

And Barnes has been relying on a research-based approach known as the Koper Curve that asserts police departments can get as much crime deterrence out of 15 to 20 minutes of proactive policing as sending officers to patrol an area for hours.

So, for example, send officers into a neighborhood for 15 minutes to knock on doors or pass out community crime prevention information, and crime tends to drop for the next hour to 90 minutes, he said.

"How many boots do I need in a particular area based on whatever issue they're having in order to have some type of effect in that area?" he said.

(c)2021 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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