Walking home from the office with hands tucked deeply in my jacket pockets and headphones hugging my ears, I avoid eye contact with the remaining bar patrons on the 100 block of State Street as they stagger out of the bars. It’s early morning. I have to get up for class in seven hours.

I make it safely back home. On my way up the stairs to my apartment, I tug out my headphones and fumble around for my keys. I turn the lock. It was as if I flipped a switch.

Three loud pops.

Sirens follow.

The next morning, I wake up to the words “Weapons Violation” glaring on my phone screen. I see my address in the incident report.

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A rising concern

Whether it was walking home from work, to the first day of school, through the park, from a friend’s house, or back from Christmas tree shopping, the daily lives of many Madison residents were disrupted in 2017 as a rash of gun violence gripped the entire city.

The ring of a shot fired.

The cold barrel of a gun pressed against the chest.

Bullet casings scattered across the sidewalk.

The Madison Police Department responded to an estimated 226 cases of shots fired in Madison in 2017 — a rise of 65 percent from the previous year. Along with a record number of shots fired, the city saw its highest homicide number in years — 11.

To put it into perspective, the city has averaged five over the last two decades, MPD Police Chief Mike Koval said.

While shots fired around the city have remained at a relatively equal level among districts, the Central district — home to a mix of University of Wisconsin students and young professionals — has seen an unprecedented rise in violent crimes ranging from simple to aggravated assaults. Though the Central district had the least shots fired, the 600 block of University Avenue has become a hotspot for some of these other violent crimes, with most occurring on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights — times when UW students and Madison locals are hitting the bars.

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While violence is nothing new to the area, the demographics of the patrons and their lengths of stay have changed.

Compared to the last few years, MPD Central District Capt. Jason Freedman said officers have identified an increase in the number of gang-affiliated people visiting the 600 block. Though there are such people present in the area, Freedman said it’s not MPD’s position that there is gang war or strict turf being established in this corridor.

“The downtown is a magnet — it’s available, it’s there. There aren’t many places in town where it’s open late, where you can show up and hang out until 1, 2, 3 in the morning,” Freedman said.

What is also new and slowly becoming the norm is the marked increase in violence in the 600 block and other areas of the Central District Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, represents. This includes Hawthorne Court, the 400 blocks of West Gilman and Frances Street and — to a lesser extent — North Lake Street and the 500 and 600 blocks of State Street, he said.

“Most any cop that has worked in this area on weekend nights would tell you they think it’s largely sheer dumb luck that we haven’t had another shooting down there despite the police best efforts and a wide range of strategies,”Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4

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Compared to other blocks of the downtown area, the 600 block has an “extraordinary amount” of liquor license establishments, making it prone to violence over time, Verveer said. Though the violence isn’t anything new, the growing presence of gang-affiliated people has created a concern for public officials.

“There’s been a significant number of folks who choose to take advantage of this entertainment district that unfortunately have a history of gang affiliations and more concerning criminal histories involving weapons,” Verveer said.

The ingredients for violence are there — alcohol already impacting good judgement, a dark and crowded area creating a sense of anonymity and the knowledge of weapons already being down there, Freedman said.

Verveer said the fact that gun violence has not seriously injured or killed more people in the 600 block of University Avenue can only be explained in one way — sheer, dumb luck.  

“Most any cop that has worked in this area on weekend nights would tell you they think it’s largely sheer dumb luck that we haven’t had another shooting down there despite the police best efforts and a wide range of strategies,” Verveer said.

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Eight years ago, MPD debuted the Downtown Safety Initiative, which pays officer volunteers overtime to work between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. On average, MPD sees between 12 to 15 officers patrolling the downtown area during these times to address late-night issues that may arise.

A neighborhood officer working in the Langdon Street area, a State Street officer interacting more with the business community, a general community policing team and mounted patrol accompany the volunteer police.

“Our basic toolbox [of how MPD operates] doesn’t change, but the tools we use are more precise or are more frequently used than in other districts,” Freedman said.

As the 600 block of University Avenue continued to pose safety concerns, Freedman unveiled a plan in Dec. 2017 that looked at a variety of initiatives to decongest the area and add more surveillance. Some of the measures included strategic plans to move food carts, increase lighting, install more cameras, enforce bar walk-throughs, capacity checks and more.

Verveer said the most serious incident didn’t occur in the area. But a fight that started at Churchkey Bar & Grill ended with someone’s homicide on the far east side of the city.

Beyond the university bubble

In an effort to combat the unprecedented rises in gun violence that have gripped other parts of the city, city officials, police and community-based organizations have come up with a variety of strategies to reduce the number of shots fired and look into solving the issues that make these incidents more prevalent.

In Sept. 2016, the Focused Interruption Coalition —  a group of community-based organizations, faith leaders and activists — presented their 15-point plan before City Council. The plan aimed to reduce the rates of gun violence and recidivism as well as invest in other crime prevention strategies. Mayor Paul Soglin awarded FIC $400,000 in principal funding in the 2017 operating budget, with $150,000 allocated in 2017, $200,000 allocated in 2018 for forensic peer support and $50,000 allocated for crisis intervention peer support.

“Law enforcement presence can cause anxiety and exacerbate situations that would normally lead to an arrest unless there was a peer to help talk [someone] down … We provide familiar faces, credibility. We have a wide range of diversity in experiences and our presence would have a more profound effect opposed to law enforcement.”Caliph Muab-El, a faith leader and grassroots organizer in Madison

Caliph Muab-El, a faith leader in Madison and one of the key FIC organizers, said their network primarily provides peer support in the midst of a crisis such as a violent or volatile act – like a shooting or a homicide. When shots are fired and law enforcement is called to the scene, Muab-El said members of FIC, called “interrupters,” come out and provide crisis intervention. Whether it be talking people out of retaliation or calming those who are traumatized, Muab-El said interrupters act as the “bridge” between law enforcement and the community.

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“Law enforcement presence can cause anxiety and exacerbate situations that would normally lead to an arrest unless there was a peer to help talk [someone] down,” Muab-El said. “We provide familiar faces, credibility. We have a wide range of diversity in experiences and our presence would have a more profound effect opposed to law enforcement.”

Once the program for crisis intervention received the $50,000 in funding for the program, FIC started to dispatch people to crime scenes, Muab-El said. After, the city began to see a decline in the number of shootings and violent acts, he added.

While Koval said FIC is not an official agent of MPD, they are working for peaceful mediation and operate on the crime scene with “a different set of lens.” Koval said he appreciates their collaboration and hopes to see their network expand into hotspot areas like the 600 block of University Avenue.

Around the time FIC began providing crisis intervention peer support, MPD began the Violence Reduction Initiative. While part of the initiative largely focused on prevention strategies, one operation stemming from the VRI gained significant backlash from community-based organizations.

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The operation sought to find and arrest high-profile criminals that already had outstanding warrants for their arrest. Freedom, Inc., a Madison community-based advocacy group, condemned the plan as “racist and dangerous,” as they said it disproportionately targeted African-American men.

Koval said the operation was “not a wholesale roundup by any means” because he recognizes MPD isn’t going to be able to “ticket or arrest” their way out of the current situation.

“We’re going to have to develop long term strategies within the community. Ultimately, I feel that is what’s going to be our greater long-term solution. There was definitively pushback for the nature of what the fugitive list was,” Koval said. “If it’s too wide and not surgically direct, it becomes perceived to be pretextual. We had to do a lot of groundwork by this initiative and I hope that that contextualized what the objectives were and weren’t.”

But as someone who has lived through the gun violence and comes from a community where many were impacted by gun violence, Freedom, Inc. organizer M. Adams said it’s important to understand that the police don’t have the monopoly on addressing violence — the community does.

“When you’re trying to get rid of weeds, you don’t try to just trim the top of the weed — you pull the root out, looking at the root of the problem … We see ourselves in the community and always in the community — before shots, after shots and we are there even if there are no shots.”M. Adams, Freedom, Inc. organizer

Instead of increased policing, Adams said Freedom, Inc firmly believes in community control of the police — where residents of a district that is drawn out geographically and socioeconomically sit on a board and determine the policies, procedures and budget of the police.

Believing the police is not designed to do preventative work, Adams said the only true way to stop the violence is to change the circumstance.

“When you’re trying to get rid of weeds, you don’t try to just trim the top of the weed — you pull the root out, looking at the root of the problem,” Adams said. “We see ourselves in the community and always in the community — before shots, after shots and we are there even if there are no shots.”

Examining the roots

While brief moments of heightened emotion in the face of drugs, romantic conflict and interpersonal disputes caused many in 2017 to pull the trigger, they are not the issues that brought the gun into that person’s hand in the first place.

“I think we have to look at this as an onion with many layers. And in peeling back those layers, there’s only so much traction that policing can offer in terms of that algorithm of need,” Koval said. “Ultimately, it’s about jobs, housing, education to put them in a position to maximize their next steps, whether that’s college, the trades, or military. We cannot go it alone, so we’re going to need businesses to step up and offer subsidies, allowances, job training and job opportunities”

“You want to help people have enough so they can stop feeling like they have to rob? Create economic programs and plans,” M. Adams, Freedom, Inc. organizer

When people lose the incentive to go out there and do great things or just survive, what police find is that they are responding to desperate people’s desperate acts, Koval added.

Adams calls this particular type of violence “survival violence.” Enduring extreme hardships such as not having money for housing and food and not having fair access to education and employment forces people to survive in those conditions by any means necessary.

“You want to help people have enough so they can stop feeling like they have to rob? Create economic programs and plans,” Adams said.

Muab-El has a lot planned for 2018, but the money FIC received thus far is not nearly enough to run a solid and robust crisis intervention program. Currently, FIC is in the process of partnering with other agencies and organizations so they can have a greater and more solid presence in the city of Madison and Dane County.

Current funding only allows FIC to deal with Madison and not of all Dane County, Muab-El said. FIC hopes to build better relationships with other governing Dane County cities where crime from Madison areas has seeped through.

“There can be a lot of bureaucratic red tape when it comes to distributing public dollars to nonprofit organizations and organizations that have not participated in that process probably could very much feel frustrated that there is so much required of them,” Verveer said.

The solution for gun violence will be complex and nuanced and will likely encounter many obstacles before finding success.

The end of January is approaching. There have been 13 shots fired thus far.

“The beauty of Madison is that when shots are fired, overwhelmingly multiple sources are calling us in real time, allowing us to respond quickly,” Koval said. “Madison folks have not flown that flag of surrender. We’re still getting people cooperating and wanting to own our neighborhoods and not let it fall asunder to those who want to hijack it.”