Top of State Street Issues Can't Be Ignored
Like most other cities in this nation, we here in Madison are facing complex problems at the intersection of poverty, mental health, addiction and use of public space. One place in our city where this is most visible is the area of the Capitol Square by State Street and near the Central Library.
Right now, we are hearing a great many complaints from residents and business owners, about disruptive activity at the top of State Street – much of it by people who are not homeless. This escalating pattern of behavior poses legitimate concerns for the safety of workers, visitors and business patrons, as well as a range of other public order, health and wellness concerns.
The concerning behavior includes:
Weapon violence, including shots fired and threats to use weapons during heated confrontations
Multiple batteries and one sexual assault, including one woman who was punched in the face and another who was grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground
Drug overdoses and open use of drugs, including the smoking of crack cocaine in broad daylight
Open-air drug dealing
Thefts and robberies – including a nearby mugging of a 97 year old resident
Individuals incapacitated by alcohol, drugs or a combination of both
Individuals urinating or defecating in public view – including immediately in front of a restaurant window
Frequent fist fights and fights over food or supply “giveaways”
- Aggressive panhandling, threats to employees and other confrontational behaviors.
The impacts of these problems has been significant.
The actions of a few are preventing many people from using this area. Businesses are reporting the loss of customers and revenue; employees being afraid to walk home or use public transit due to activities in and around bus stops; visitors, women and senior citizens tell us they are avoiding the library and Overture Center; and we have received many complaints from residents who say they have never seen it this bad.
My office and Alder Verveer have received stacks of emails:
“I have lived downtown for nearly 20 years and never felt unsafe until now. I dread to walk to work and home, I am frustrated and nothing is being done.”
“There are places in downtown Madison where I have lived for 11 years that I will no longer walk because I fear for my safety.”
“Never have I been so concerned about the safety of our neighborhood. I witnessed two serious fights one on upper state street another just outside the library.”
“I love to support local businesses” but “a man threatened to kill a staff member in front of me as I was standing in line.”
I know full well that complex problems require careful and detailed analysis involving a wide array of stakeholders. My staff will be leading just such a deliberative assessment process in the coming weeks with meetings with city and county staff, advocates, outreach workers and mental health professionals. Until then however, the escalating behaviors, including the recent, unprecedented shots fired incident, indicate the need for a more immediate response.
To address the criminal and problem behaviors we are seeing at the top of state, my staff will be working to examine the affected areas for opportunities for further crime prevention through temporary environmental design interventions, including increased lighting and limiting seating in areas where crowds are gathering and attracting a more serious criminal element.
The Madison Police Department will be conducting stepped up interventions in the area to focus on education and enforcement for crimes and city ordinances to mitigate problem behaviors. This intervention will include special operations and the increased use of police officers on foot patrol during the evening hours.
We will also be working with Downtown Madison Inc. and local business owners to explore further increases in positive activities accessible to everyone in these areas, to increase the sense that there is responsible oversight by non-police community stakeholders.
I want to be clear that these interventions are not targeting our homeless population, many of whom are equally concerned by these violent behaviors and feel excluded from this space as well. Nor are they meant to exclude any group or type of people from State Street, but rather to prevent violent and criminal behaviors. We have in the past, and will again, address other hot spots of such behaviors in other places as well.
I am deeply committed to collaborative, data driven responses to the complex social issues. These interventions are being initiated to stabilize an unstable situation, while our discussion about these issues continue.