Madison, Wisconsin

Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation

Madison, Wisconsin

BCJI Funding Year: FY2020

BCJI Awardee: Madison Police Department

Research Partner: University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

Focus Area: Downtown Madison 

Challenges: Violent Crime, Gun Violence

Note: As of Fiscal Year 2020, the Community-Based Crime Reduction (CBCR) Grant has been renamed the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) Grant. Grantee sites from Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 were onboarded under the CBCR name, while those from Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021 were onboarded under the BCJI name.

Neighborhood Characteristics

Downtown Madison, located in south central Wisconsin, is host to the state capitol, a flagship university, and the main entertainment district for the city. Although the downtown is only 5.4 percent of the city's land area, it is home to roughly 12 percent of the total population. The median family household income is $15,412, which is 27 percent of the city's median income. Of the downtown population, 80.5 percent identify as White, 3.6 identify as African American, 9.6 percent identify as Asian, 3.8 percent identify as Hispanic, and 2.5 percent identify as "other" or multiple ethnicities. Additionally, Madison has ten separate federal Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZs).

Home to the largest open-air farmer's market in the United States, a steady stream of outdoor events designated to invite commerce in the area, Downtown Madison is rich with history and serves as a designation for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Named one of the best cities in which to live, like many developing urban centers, the historic Downtown is struggling with the tensions of gentrification. The construction of new condominiums for the affluent creates a natural tension between the historic feel and aspirational future of various residents and businesses. Many social service agencies and overnight shelters serve vulnerable populations in need of housing, mental health treatment, and substance abuse counseling. Many of these populations are not residents to the target area, nor do that have any connections to the area, yet they are sent to Madison by family members or other contacts.

Madison Police Department (MPD) crime analysts have identified 15 focus areas within Madison using focus area analysis techniques. The analysis found that 59 percent of the city’s violent offenses are concentrated in the downtown area, where 22 percent of the City’s violent offenses occur. The 600 block of University Avenue and the lower area of State Street are often the epicenters of late-night disturbances and violent activity. The 100 block of State Street, flowing into the Capitol Square, is the main focus area for much of the daytime and afternoon activity surrounding disturbances and other instances of violence.

Between 2017 and 2019, Madison has seen a dramatic rise in both minor offenses, such as municipal ordinance violations or misdemeanor crimes, and major violent offenses like aggravated batteries, sexual assaults, and weapons offenses. This has resulted in a 12 percent increase in calls for service ad a 30 percent increase in violent crime, while Madison's overall crime rate has decreased by 9 percent.

In 2018, an alcohol density study commissioned by the city demonstrated that a disproportionate utilization of public safety services occurred in this area due to large-scale fights and other disturbances at 2:30 a.m., which is the bars' closing time. The dense concentration of bars and other attractions in the downtown area and proximity to student housing serves as a draw for late adolescents between the ages of 18 and 23. Throughout the academic year, the downtown area is subject to large crowds of late adolescents with incomplete development of impulse control engaging in high rates of alcohol consumption. This combination of population density, degree of inebriation, and developmental phase contributes to the disproportionate number of violent crimes in the area.

There are also those who victimize and prey on the homeless who frequent the downtown area, such as drug dealers or human traffickers, to maintain and expand their customer base. Mixing the homeless population among visitors downtown has resulted in complaints of loitering, trespassing, aggressive panhandling, and general disturbances directly related to untreated mental illness. Local business owners and residents of the State Street area and around the Capitol Square have been inordinately affected by this behavior, which is having a negative impact on the safety and economic health of the area.

Finally, as the location of the state capitol, Downtown Madison is also subject to frequent, large-scale demonstrations. Most of these demonstrations are peaceful, as was the case in summer 2020. However, when the demonstrations become violent, local businesses and residents are profoundly impacted by the events. 

Planning Phase

Primary objectives for the Planning Phase included the following:

  • Develop a multi-stakeholder, cross-sector Action Plan to reduce crime and improve public safety in downtown Madison.
  • Improve the ability of residents and institutions to work together to reduce crime, promote public safety, and advocate for inclusivity within the focus areas.
  • Improve public safety through building trust and collaborative problem-solving among MPD officers, residents, and community organizations.
  • Improve communication and reducing conflict between area businesses, visitors, renters, and landlords.
  • Investigate initiatives and measures that can be enacted to make downtown safer and more welcoming for communities of color and other historically underrepresented groups, both from a policing and social standpoint.
  • Implement evidence-based programming and activities to achieve project goals.
  • Create a durable framework to sustain momentum and continue partnerships.

The Planning Process was carried out in three phases:

  1. Phase 1 focused on convening the steering committee, revising the Planning Phase and timeline to account for impacts of COVID, and finalizing data collection methods. Participants helped design and implement data-gathering activities, including gathering resources, and asset maps; conducted a community survey.
  2. Phase 2 involved identifying focus crimes and focus are based on shared crime data, information gathered during phase 1 and the lived experience of Advisory Council members.  Additionally phase 2 involved joint learning through site visits, dialogue, and deliberation, with an emphasis on deepening relationships, examining proven strategies, and creating a shared knowledge base.
  3. Phase 3 focused on reaching agreement about the overall approach, selecting tactics and solutions, defining accountably, and assigning roles and specifying activities.


Implementation Strategies

Based on the socio-ecological model, the grantee site's intervention plan takes a multi-level approach to violence prevention. After extensive deliberation in the Advisory Council, the grantee site prioritized three Action Plan strategies:

1.  Safety Navigators – Working in pairs in the entertainment district, Safety Navigators promote a sense of community and safety by welcoming visitors and offering help to those who need it in the State Street area. This could mean anything from basic first aid, providing “safe walk” services, giving directions, and more. Hired through Public Health, Safety Navigators are a non-enforcement position with Health Equity at the core. As a non-enforcement program, Safety Navigators may identify potential areas of disruption and escalation, and in limited situations work to safely intervene; however, they do not directly intervene to enforce laws and ordinances or to break up potentially hazardous conflicts or escalating situations.

2. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) – The program implements CPTED strategies, altering the physical environment to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity. This may include improving lighting, increasing opportunities to be observed by passersby, or limiting access to a particular area.

3. Bartender and Bystander Awareness Training in Bars – The Madison BCJI program contracted with the local Rape Crisis Center to provide the Safer Bar program free of charge to local establishments. The Safer Bar program provides bar and restaurant staff, management, and owners bystander awareness training to empower them to identify and intervene safely in risky situations. The training, cover topics like sexual violence and gun violence awareness, will teach bar and restaurant staff, management, and owners to recognize the signs of sexual predation or aggression escalation and to intervene.

Other Key Partners

Madison Police Department; Public Health Madison Dane County; Madison Mayor's Office; Downtown Madison, Inc.; Capital Neighborhoods, Inc.

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2018-BJ-BX-K035 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

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