Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and challenger Gloria Reyes say Madison is a relatively safe city with challenges including gun violence, stolen cars and traffic crashes.
Both cite public safety among their top priorities.
But the candidates have differing views on many specifics, including whether to adopt police body-worn cameras. The mayor acknowledges cameras might be part of the answer to preventing police misconduct and violence, while Reyes is convinced the technology is necessary now.
Reports of serious crime — including homicide, drug crimes, assault and theft — increased from 13,524 in 2021 to 14,004 last year, while crime overall increased from 25,188 to 26,703 incidents over the same period.
But data also show some serious crime peaking during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling in 2022.
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The number of homicides fell last year to six after 10 in both 2020 and 2021. The city saw four homicides in 2019, five in 2018 and 11 in 2017. Incidents of shots fired also fell to 184 in 2022, down significantly from the 232 in 2021 and 250 in 2020, but up from the 144 in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic and the year Rhodes-Conway was first elected mayor.
Car thefts dropped to 612 last year, down from 834 in 2021 and 744 in 2020, and similar to the 639 in 2109. Burglaries fell to 735 in 2022, down from 978 in 2021, 1,316 in 2020 and 1,081 in 2019. Robberies fell to 133 in 2022, a drop from 158 in 2021, 190 in 2020 and 243 in 2019.
The city, under the leadership of Police Chief Shon Barnes, has used data to target crime trends during the pandemic and continues to focus on shots fired, crashes and stolen cars, the latter influenced by the relative ease of stealing Kias and Hyundais, the mayor said.
Rhodes-Conway said she’s delivered on community requests for a patient-centered approach to mental health emergencies while adding public safety personnel and reducing EMS response times and gun violence.
She advocates for a public health approach to violence and long-term investment in community development and youth. “That’s what the city is doing,” she said.
Reyes, a former Madison police officer and deputy mayor under former Mayor Paul Soglin, said Rhodes-Conway has not been a leader on public safety. She points to the police union’s vote of no confidence in the mayor in July 2020 for the way she portrayed law enforcement in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as to an uptick in gun violence around that time and the mayor’s reluctance to embrace body-worn cameras.
Further, Reyes said many key initiatives to address violence and other crimes, such as the public health approach to violenceand the Community Safety Intervention Team, were launched when she oversaw public safety as deputy mayor.
“Rhodes-Conway talks about public safety because she knows this is an area of concern for me and one of my priorities,” Reyes said.
Shaping the response
The city continues to mend strained relations between police and the African American community, which frayed after the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who was Black, by a white Madison police officer on the Near East Side in 2015.
In December 2017, under Soglin, California-based OIR Group completed an independent study of the police department and delivered a largely positive, 258-page report that has influenced the department since then. In September 2020, under Rhodes-Conway, the city created a 13-member Police Civilian Oversight Board and the city’s first independent police monitor, filled by attorney Robert Copley four months ago.
Reyes said she’d support hiring additional officers to keep up with the city’s growing population.
In the last two budgets, the city added 14 new officers and three civilian positions. But Rhodes-Conway is not advocating for more officers, saying the need is for data analysis and records management. More officers will depend on factors such as population growth, she said.
Both candidates strongly support Madison CARES — Community Alternative Response Emergency Services — launched on Sept. 1, 2021, to send unarmed crisis workers to certain mental health- and substance abuse-related 911 calls instead of police. Since its inception, the CARES team has responded to 1,963 calls, Assistant Fire Chief Che Stedman said. The CARES budget has grown from $560,000 to $1.2 million annually.
CARES has added a second team, expanded citywide, extended its hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and is handling more than five times as many calls as when it started. The city intends further expansion in 2023, Rhodes-Conway said.
Reyes said she was an early proponent of such an initiative while serving as deputy mayor and that the current service is still not enough.
“It has to be a 24-hour service,” she said. “This will help our residents in crisis all hours of the day and night.”
As deputy mayor, Reyes started work on an approach to violence that sees it as akin to a disease, and began and led the Community Safety Intervention Team. In late 2018, the city and Dane County launched a violence-prevention coalition, but then COVID-19 struck, forcing Public Health Madison and Dane County to redirect staff and resources to fighting the pandemic.
In March 2021, during Rhodes-Conway’s term, the city and county produced a long-awaited, 26-page “Roadmap to Reducing Violence” and in 2022, invested more than $1 million in programs that intervene in cycles of violence, the mayor said.
The city has also added 20 firefighters and paramedics and a ninth ambulance operating from Station 14 on the Southeast Side, she said.
Reyes said the entities created to address violence are not communicating adequately. She is proposing a “Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention” and the hiring of a deputy mayor whose sole responsibility would be to focus on violence prevention and intervention, working with the public health department, police, schools and others to take a broader, data-driven approach to identifying violent trends in the community and providing recommendations for spending.
She would also create a “Homicide Review Commission” composed of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals and community service providers to look at ways to prevent murder.
She said she’d allocate resources to support after-school programs and reinforce the “school-to-workforce pipeline” to provide vocational opportunities. She said she’d work with the Dane County Jail to support residents in transition back to the community.
Rhodes-Conway said she’s already taking many such actions, including funding for 20 organizations to run nearly 30 programs last summer providing mentoring, educational and leadership opportunities, and for more than 1,000 opportunities for youth to work, learn and earn. The city also launched “Parks Alive!” to energize parks with positive programming, she said.
The candidates take different approaches to body-worn cameras. This spring, another City Council vote is expected in the nine-year debate over whether to equip all police officers with body cameras, with Barnes optimistic that the council will move ahead with a body-cam pilot project on the North Side.
All police should have body cameras while the Police Department continues to build a culture in which officer misconduct is unacceptable, Reyes said. “It’s not either/or,” she said. “It’s both.”
Rhodes-Conway said the question is how to prevent police misconduct and violence.
“Body cameras may be part of the answer, but it’s not the only answer,” she said. “I want to see what we learn (from the pilot program).”
In the fall of 2021, for the first time in decades, Madison’s four main high schools began the school year with no police officers stationed inside. When fights and other disturbances broke out over time, some saw evidence that the School Board’s June 2020 decision to dispense with the officers, known as school resource officers, or SROs, was partly to blame.
Reyes was School Board president at the time of the decision. With students not in school due to the pandemic, she agreed to remove the SROs, saying she listened to the community, felt it was unfair to officers to be where they were not going to be effective, and was willing to see what safety and security looked like without SROs.
Although she still likes the idea of SROs, she’s not actively pushing for their return. But “I would hope that we go back to a place where officers have a strong relationship with our schools,” she said.
Rhodes-Conway said SROs are a question for the School Board, but is willing to have a conversation if it wants one.
On traffic safety, the mayor promotes the city’s Vision Zero program to reduce serious car crashes and fatalities. It includes reducing speed limits, traffic enforcement, education and more than 50 infrastructure projects such as flashing crosswalks to improve bike and pedestrian safety.
“I do think it’s important to take a comprehensive approach,” she said.
Reyes said she also believes in a data-based approach and education, but said the mayor’s program “is based on ideology” and lacks a neighborhood-based approach to determining what makes most sense and where, and that such initiatives require public engagement and transparency.
“We just see these policies thrown out there because you’ve gone to a conference and that this city is doing this and that we should do it,” she said, questioning the safety, for example, of placing station stops for the coming Bus Rapid Transit system along the center medians of busy thoroughfares.
“You have to really look at what is best for our community,” she said.
In this Series
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