Wis. PD adds community outreach officers as part of new grant program
The Madison Police Department has added six community outreach officers through a federal COPS grant as part of the department's initiative to combat crime
By Dean Mosiman
The Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. — With gun crime still too high and homicides near a record in Madison, police and public health officials are using new initiatives to combat the violence, including identifying active and prolific gun offenders and getting resources to people headed in the wrong direction.
With three months left in 2023, the city has seen nine homicides this year, one shy of the record 10 set in the entirety of 2020 and then 2021.
But the number of shots-fired incidents continues to decline. It peaked at 250 in 2020, then dropped to 231 in 2021, 184 in 2022 and 107 through Sept. 4 of this year.
"Madison is successfully reducing the number of shots fired in our community," Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. "While any gunshots in our community are unacceptable and understandably worry people, it's important to note that this significant decrease is unusual when compared to communities our size around the country, who continue to struggle with an uptick in gun violence brought on by the pandemic."
To further reduce gun crime, the Madison Police Department has identified problem areas where such crimes may likely occur, addressing environmental concerns such as lighting, using high-visibility patrols, and working with businesses and residential communities, Chief Shon Barnes said.
The department's community outreach efforts have increased with the addition of six community outreach officers through a federal COPS grant, Barnes said. The officers are working on a weekly basis in areas that have seen violence this year, including the Meadowlands and Harmony apartments on the Far East Side and Tree Lane Apartments on the Far West Side.
"The goal is to help connect families and people in these areas with the resources they need to improve their quality of life," he said.
Another initiative involves identifying prolific and active offenders using firearms to harm others, the police chief said.
"We have a monthly 'gun screening' meeting with our state, local and federal partners," he said. "This also includes our district attorney's office. We take a collaborative approach to ensuring that those who harm our community are held accountable."
Meanwhile, Public Health Madison and Dane County has created the Violence Prevention Team that's proactively providing resources to people headed in the wrong direction in an effort to prevent crimes and victimization.
The team connects with people through referrals from the multi-agency Community Safety Intervention Team, outreach in "hot spot" areas, and through relationships with municipal law enforcement agencies, said Aurielle Smith, director of policy, planning and evaluation for Public Health.
"We work with these individuals using peer support practices and provide case management-like services," Smith said.
Through Sept. 4 this year, the police have seen 107 incidents of shots fired, 19 people struck by gunfire and 31 instances of property damage, and recovered 273 shell casings. Those numbers compare with full-year highs of 250 shots fired incidents, 48 people stuck, 97 instances of property damage and 1,111 casings recovered in 2020.
"I think the landscape of America and our communities here in Madison are rapidly changing," Barnes said. "Our officers are seizing more illegal guns each year. These illegal weapons signal increased opportunities for negative outcomes. Unfortunately, these outcomes often result in a homicide."
The department has identified stolen firearms from unlocked vehicles as a top priority for crime prevention and community education, Barnes said.
The gun crime isn't directly connected to gangs, Barnes said.
"We have seen some conflict between groups; however, their affiliation to gang culture is preceded by conflicts related to a myriad of issues, including the illegal drug trade, family disputes, interpersonal conflicts, and an inability to resolve conflict without resorting to gun violence," he said.
Police also have found a dramatic increase in homicides related to domestic violence this year, Barnes said.
"These are often difficult to prevent because the risk factors are often hidden behind closed doors," he said. "This is why our officers take reports on our domestic calls for service. We make the appropriate criminal charges when probable cause exists, and we partner with community agencies like DIAS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services) to offer help to any family in need."
"From a Public Health perspective, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to community-based risk factors that already existed in Madison such as housing affordability and job security," Smith said.
"During that period, many of the community-based, social interactions in neighborhoods were not available, and people developed new and more isolated patterns to their lives," she said. "It has taken some time for community-based activities to resume and for people to return to those social engagements."
Meanwhile, Madison has experienced a significant population growth and a shortage of housing, Smith said.
"This has resulted in new housing complexes being built, and people being forced to move from their neighborhoods, into new neighborhoods where they have not yet had the opportunity to develop community bonds, and in places where community spaces or activities have not yet been established," she said.
Early in efforts
The city and county have been evolving and expanding their approach to gun and other violence since the late 2010s.
In March 2021, Public Health released "The Roadmap to Reducing Violence," which takes a public health approach to violence prevention as if it were an infectious disease. The road map uses science and data to understand the problems surrounding violence and leans on the expertise and experience of local partners to carry out the plan.
About a year later, the city and county relaunched a diverse Violence Prevention Coalition, which was paused during the pandemic. The coalition is intended to inform a broad, public health approach to violence, suicide and other forms of self-harm.
Then, in May 2022, Public Health announced that nearly $1.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds would be made available to agencies and organizations that help meet goals outlined in the Roadmap. In a first round of funding last year, Public Health awarded $300,000 to five agencies and community-based organizations. In July, Public Health awarded $475,000 to eight agencies and organizations.
The city is paying community-based organizations to do outreach and intervention, create a network that responds to violent crimes after they occur, support healing groups for victims, and provide free bystander intervention training for State Street area bar and restaurant staff.
"Most of our homicides have been instigated by interpersonal issues — including intimate partner violence, which accounts for over 40% — but none of them have been random," Rhodes-Conway said. "I want to stress that because so much of our work to curb violence in our community comes down to individuals' ability to problem solve and deescalate interpersonal issues."
To address trends and gun crime as a whole, Public Health has expanded its prevention efforts to include the Violence Intervention Team, which started in April and will soon be expanded to a coordinator and three specialists who have experience with working with those involved in violence.
"Generally, the team works with individuals who may be engaging in or experiencing violence in our community," Smith said.
The team has worked with some connected to shots-fired and homicide incidents to better understand their immediate needs, she said. It looks to secure resources to support the person, conduct referrals to other service agencies, and serve as a dedicated person to be in their lives to ensure they know someone cares about them and their safety, Smith said.
The team, for example, has worked at the Meadowlands and Tree Lane apartments, which have faced city nuisance abatements and experienced conflict and sometimes violent crime, she said.
"The team conducts this work to not only support individuals in our community who are participating in violence, witnessing violence or experiencing violence, but to ultimately work to disrupt cycles and patterns of violence," she said.
The city also has sought crime prevention through environmental design efforts in the State Street area. The initiative has identified a lack of lighting as a specific driver of violent crime, Smith said. The city has improved lighting at its Buckeye parking lot, 214 W. Gorham St., where people were storing firearms or other items in their vehicles, allowing easy access. The proximity to State Street also provided a place where fighting, drinking or other illegal activity was occurring, she said.
The design efforts also include identifying areas where cameras could be better used and ensuring cameras are maintained and working properly.
The city is supporting more youth programming and has expanded the Community Safety Intervention Team, which is composed of community partners who track and exchange information on violent crime and connect with intervention services to prevent future incidents.
The police and partners will continue to do outreach, Barnes said, noting that police participated in a public meeting with city leaders, Public Health, the City Attorney's Office and the property managers to discuss high calls for service at Meadowland Apartments that packed the community room at the Pinney Library on Aug. 30.
"We are early in our efforts as a city," Smith said. "There is some preliminary evidence that suggests that our collective strategies are making a difference. But proving causality in violence is difficult."
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