Cops Start West Side Crackdown

Mary Yeater Rathbun

The Capital Times

Starting right now, police in one Madison neighborhood are going to sweat the small stuff.

In a major pushback against growing crime, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz Monday night declared the Balsam-Russett area a "no tolerance" zone for offenses, no matter how small.

"This is going to be a suppression action," West District Capt. Jay Lengfeld told an almost completely white crowd of 800 at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church. "Everyone will get tickets. It is a no-tolerance stance."

The crackdown action will give cops in the West Police District 600 hours of overtime to police "quality of life" offenses such as thefts from vehicles, gang graffiti, loitering, drugs, burglaries and prostitution, Wray said.

This area was targeted because crime has increased 30 percent in this area over the last six years, compared to a 15 percent increase throughout the West District, Lengfeld said.

The funding will come from a new $50,000 West Side Safety Initiative for the last quarter of 2007 and 2008, Cieslewicz said.

When Wray asked for a show of hands of those in the crowd who had lived in their current homes more than 30 years, a huge number of hands went up. An even larger number went up when he asked who attended the Aug. 8 listening session that, in the words of Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele, started a citywide discussion of public safety that has continued ever since.

"What happens here will be the template for the rest of Madison," she said.

Chicago difference

Lengfeld said he has learned that long-term residents of west and southwest side neighborhoods have different tolerances for noise and kids up late than newcomers from Chicago.

He said it's Chicagoans, and not so much former residents of Allied Drive, who have moved to the Balsam-Russett area.

"There has been an effort to empty out some of the projects, and people have been moving here for a better life for their families," Lengfeld said.

He said people moving in to the area from larger urban areas have a higher level of tolerance for noise. "They are used to it being noisy at night," he said.

Lengfeld also noted differences in customary bedtimes and patterns of supervision of children. However, he said, "There are limits on what the city can do about when people go to bed and how they raise their kids."

But what Lengfeld stressed most had to do with differences in patterns of socializing, because what long-term residents may see as loitering, the new residents see as normal ways of hanging out with their friends.

Street socials

Both Wray and Lengfeld said the most common concern far and away among the attendees at the August listening session was loitering.

"People in big cities socialize in groups in front of their houses in their neighborhoods," Lengfeld said. "Going into backyards is more formal, although it may seem more normal to you and I."

He pointed that in New Urbanist developments such as Middleton Hills, filled with expensive houses lived in by traditional Madisonians, a concerted attempt is made to get people to do this same thing. There are very small backyards and prominent front porches in order to push people to socialize in front of their house, he said.

Socializing on the street side of a house does not necessarily indicate drug dealing and use. Langfeld said that just socializing there is not a police issue.

Pool of poverty

Lengfeld also noted there had been great increase in poverty on the west and southwest side. He documented this increase by showing a chart of the increase in families on public assistance in some of the neighborhoods between February 2000 and February 2007.

There was more than a 100 percent increase in the Balsam Road area, the Hammersley Road area and Moraine View. The increase in the Schroeder Road neighborhood was less, 44 families to 63 families, but still substantial.

One of the biggest crowd responses of the night was to Lengfeld's statement that the police thought an ordinance limiting the number of subsidized housing units in any neighborhood should be explored. He said that "would spread the problem out."

Although Lengfeld did not characterize the people causing this problem beyond this, he did echo Chief Wray's earlier comments, when he said, "We must reach everyone."

While not specifically mentioning race or ethnicity, Wray said, "People more directly connected to these issues are not here." There were less than a dozen people of color in the crowd of more than 800.

Wray said cleaning up the west and southwest neighborhoods and improving public safety will "not happen unless they are here."

Copyright 2006 The Capital Times

This story originally appeared in September 14, 2007, editions of The Capital Times.