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Violence reduction initiative relies on police community outreach, extra enforcement

July 9, 2018

On a beautiful weekday evening this spring, Madison police officers Brian Dyer and Kraig Knutson stop their squad cars and get out to walk, engaging with children and residents in an area plagued by crime on the Southwest Side.

They mingle, tossing footballs with a group of kids, then set up a portable basketball hoop and block off part of Theresa Terrace near the tiny neighborhood center there. The children like it, and the vibe is good.

They’re not there long, perhaps 20 minutes, before leaving for short strolls on Balsam and Russett roads, neighborhoods that — like the Theresa Terrace area — police have identified as crime “hotspots.”

About a week later, a different policing scene plays out.

Around 1 p.m., police stop a stolen Mercury sedan at the corner of East Dayton and Third Street on the East Side and arrest the driver and passenger. The arrests are part of a daylong operation to apprehend violent fugitives, interdict drug trafficking and prevent violence in the same areas.

Over 12 hours, police make eight arrests, go to 30 addresses, recover the stolen vehicle, a handgun, a stolen laptop, and a large quantity of drugs, seize a motorcycle, and send a no-nonsense message, Violent Crimes Unit Detective Sgt. Diane Nachtigal said.

Both operations, one positive engagement and the other enforcement, are part of a Madison Police Department Violence Reduction Initiative begun last August to focus resources and reduce crime in hotspots identified by the department’s Criminal Intelligence Section.

But the operations are costly and drive overtime, and they are only part of the solution in addressing rising gun violence, Chief Mike Koval said.

“We have had sort of a healthier run since last August,” he said. “But there’s no false allusion or pretense that we’ve achieved Mecca.”

Police began the initiative after a sharp jump in gun violence in the spring and early summer of 2017, resulting in seven of the year’s record 11 homicides that year and a significant increase in calls reporting gunshots.

To plan the initiative, police identified areas with a higher level of violent crime. Data, for example, showed 45 percent of violent crime and 72 percent of shootings in the West District occurred in hotspots, and on the North Side, 40 percent of the entire city’s homicides occurred in them.

Police then focused extra resources on the hotspots, including placing officers on the scene and engaging with residents combined with more traditional law enforcement such as drug interdiction and arresting people wanted on warrants.

‘Gets people engaged’

The positive engagement piece is based on the “Koper Curve” theory, which measures the effectiveness of high visibility, positive, community walking patrols in random 10- to 15-minute increments in identified hotspots several times a day. Officers contact people, share information about violent crime, listen to concerns, discuss solutions and distribute neighborhood safety pamphlets.

The officers go out in pairs, park their vehicles and walk. The intent is casual positive engagement, but they’ll stop criminal behavior if they see it.

“For the most part, it’s social,” Dyer said.

“It gets people engaged,” Knutson added. “I love walking. I love talking. We talk about life. How we can improve things. A lot of times, people are thankful we’re out here. Sometimes, a guy just walks by. That’s OK. I get it.”

Community policing just isn’t as effective if officers stay in their cars all the time, Knutson said.

“They feel safer. They know we’re more accessible. It’s good to know people on a personal level.”

‘We know who you are’

In a starkly different, less frequent, citywide piece of the initiative, police identify and arrest people involved in recent gun violence, seek to disrupt gangs and drug-dealing, and arrest fugitives or those with warrants for violent offenses.

“We give them the word: ‘We know who you are. We know where you live,’” Nachtigal said. “We try to do some mediation, especially with young people. We try to contact parents. We see if we can offer some peer support with the Focused Interruption Coalition.”

At 8 a.m. on June 7, about 50 members of law enforcement — including members of Madison police and its gang unit, the Dane County Drug Task Force and the FBI — gather for a briefing in a room at the City-County Building. They are receiving intelligence on 26 targeted people, including two juveniles, their criminal histories, associates, addresses they frequent, jobs, schools and vehicles, Nachtigal said.

A command post is established, and three teams with seven to nine personnel each including undercover officers doing surveillance, detectives and uniformed officers are dispatched to make arrests, execute warrants, and make contacts, she said.

In the early afternoon, police observe the stolen Mercury in an area of surveillance around East Washington Avenue and stop it. Two people are arrested and drug paraphernalia is found.

The day was a success, Nachtigal said, noting the intent is to get violent people off the street or let them know they’re on the department’s radar.

“I think we met our objectives,” she said. “We made eight arrests. We contacted a lot of individuals, family members, girlfriends and associates, and got the message to them. We got some good intelligence.”

Funding not sustainable

Police say the program is effective but worry that funding for it, currently provided through federal grants, won’t be there in the future.

In August, September and October of 2017, police conducted about 100 engagement and enforcement initiatives citywide, a department report says.

In those months, police contacted more than 2,500 individuals and distributed 1,000 pamphlets through positive engagement, and arrested 70 people on tentative charges including homicide, recklessly endangering safety, armed robbery, illegal possession of a firearm, carrying a concealed weapon, theft of firearms, drug dealing and other offenses. Police also issued 53 citations and more than 100 warnings.

In just the West District, the report found, shootings dropped 66 percent and violent crime fell 72 percent in targeted areas. Officers got mostly positive feedback from residents and reported higher job satisfaction.

“Unfortunately, the number of current authorized and available personnel does not allow for staffing such an initiative such as this without the use of overtime,” the report says. “Although effective, this overtime strategy alone is not sustainable.”

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