(WORT)–A recent string of gun homicides in Madison has community leaders and elected officials looking for better ways to curb violence, particularly among youth.
Susan Williams, Assistant Chief of Support Services for the Madison Police Department, says MPD has been feeling the pressure from recent violence as well.
“The city is seeing things it hasn’t seen before,” Williams says.
As the police department prepares its operating budget for submission in June, MPD is looking at requesting 40 new officers over the next four years, an increase of nearly 9% of the standing force of 450 sworn officers.
On April 12th, Williams told the city’s Public Safety Review Committee that the department’s staffing ratio has never caught up with the recommendations of a city-led study from 2003. While that study suggested there be 2 officers for every thousand citizens by 2010, Williams says the current ratio is only at 1.87.
According to data compiled by the FBI, however, Madison is still above the national average of 1.7 for cities larger than 50,000.
Williams says the department’s greatest need is for new officers to staff the yet-to-open Midtown District in southwest Madison, which she hopes will take pressure off West and South Districts while also providing what she calls more “proactive” services.
“A lot of the things that we’re hoping to accomplish by opening Midtown and the staff that would be added are the things we think help us in mitigating the need for incarceration or arrest,” Williams says.
“In other words, our mental health unit, same with our gang officers… who are out there proactively in the community.”
But Williams says patrol services are their number one responsibility and, without increased funding, they may have to “pull back” on specialized units.
“Our bread and butter, as our chief likes to say, is our patrol services,” Williams said. “If we cannot continue to answer those calls…, we’ll have to start looking at which one of those units will have to be pulled back.”
Mayor Paul Soglin has expressed reservations in the past about the financial viability of opening the new police district before 2021, and given the needs of other city agencies, Williams says the staffing increase could be a tough sell.
“We believe it’s our job to tell policy makers what our needs are. And ultimately it will be up to them to listen to different agencies making their pitches and make those tough decisions,” Williams says.
Williams acknowledges that a staffing increase of 30 new officers in 2008 created financial hardship for the city. But she is hopeful a gradual increase in staffing would be easier for the city to manage.
But many community organizers and prison abolition activists say more police will not address root causes of violence.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, at least 15 people registered to speak in opposition to the tentative proposal to hire 40 new officers. Although the item was not on the agenda, council opted to hear from those present.
M Adams of Freedom Inc. says she has been touched personally by the kind of gun violence that has been making headlines. But she doesn’t think more police is the solution.
“Two years ago my brother was gunned down, nearly lost him to gun violence. And even though there was a lot of pain, a lot of rage, a lot of confusion, what never came into my mind was more police as a solution,” Adams said.
Adams emphasized the need for preventive and restorative services. “The person who did that…is not a faceless monster. I know that person who did it. My brother knows that person who did it. And at one point I called that person my brother too,” Adams said.
“So this idea that there are these monsters… who need to be extracted from our community as though that is going to improve the wellness of the community overall is just not true.”
Activists urged city alders to redirect money from the Police Department, which makes up over 23% of the city budget, to more community-led initiatives.
Alder Matthew Phair, who represents Madison’s southwest side, unveiled a series of initiatives Tuesday evening aimed at preventing youth from getting caught up in criminal activity.
Phair says that while he’s open to the idea of more officers, he doesn’t think Madison can police its way out of the problem.
“We can’t police our way out of this problem. There’s been no city on record that’s done that,” Phair said.
“I might be open to some more officers, we’ll see. I haven’t heard the arguments for it yet this year anyway,” he said. “But I might be interested in the gang taskforce unit, or the violent crimes unit, or the burglary unit, maybe adding a few officers there.”
In a press conference Wednesday to address the measures the city is taking to curb violence, Mayor Paul Soglin stressed that the city needs to recommit to youth employment, affordable housing, and public-private collaborative initiatives. But he said he “takes exception” to activists’ call for no new police, and thinks most of the council does too.
“I concur with one half of what they’re saying which is the need to attend to these areas I’ve just described,” Soglin said. “In terms of their assessment of the law enforcement needs of the community, I take exception and I think much of the council does.”
Standing alongside the mayor Wednesday, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said his department is supportive of recent community and city proposals for greater investment in preventive services.
But banging the podium for emphasis, he said the likely connection between recent homicides and Chicago gang violence underscores the need for “suppression.”
“Given the age and proclivities [of the suspects in the shootings], neither one of these proposals adequately addresses the notion of, there are times when you have to deal with suppression. And that’s right now. It’s a suppression time.”
With the wide range of approaches to public safety that will be vying for city funding, elected officials are likely to have a lot to debate before they passes next year’s budget in October.