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City moves to address crime problems on upper State Street

City moves to address crime problems on upper State Street

Upper State Street fight

Video surveillance of the intersection of State Street and the Capitol Square last week captured a confrontation between a man, seen at bottom left in black clothing, chasing another man, in light shirt, before stabbing him in the back. 

Madison is increasing police presence and brainstorming with business and neighborhood leaders to address crime and other problems around the crossroads of Capitol Square and State Street.

The area, benign much of the time, has become a magnet for chronic alcoholics and others who use doorways and alleys as toilets, argue and fight, deal and use drugs, steal and cause other problems.

Although many who hang out at the junction are homeless, the area more recently has attracted an element who might be involved in gangs, engaged in the drug trade and more violent. On Tuesday, a separate stabbing and battery-robbery occurred in the area, both incidents having to do with people involved in selling drugs.

The police are already increasing presence and enforcement — including responding only to priority calls elsewhere in the Central District — and Mayor Paul Soglin, his staff and city agencies are preparing short- and long-term responses.

Soglin vowed a set of focused recommendations as soon as the end of the week “to deal with this new, escalating challenge.”

The mayor declined to discuss specifics until analysis is done and the recommendations are ready.

In addition to more police presence and possibly more activities and food carts in the area, the city is rethinking the physical design of the public space, especially the “Philosopher’s Grove” next to the Wisconsin Historical Museum and the 100 block of West Mifflin Street that connects with the Central Library and Overture Center.

Soglin is organizing a briefing for the City Council at Tuesday’s regular meeting. Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the area, said he or the mayor will seek to double funding for the Downtown Safety Initiative from $50,000 to $100,000 and expects to seek funds to explore physical changes of the landscape in the 2014 budget.

“There is tremendous reason for optimism because so many people are trying to find a solution,” Verveer said, noting that Downtown Madison Inc., Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., businesses and property owners are engaged in the effort.

Behavioral problems in the area, which have been increasing over the past two years, have gotten worse this summer, officials said.

Soglin and Verveer said the situation may be partially fueled by state Department of Corrections policies for releasing offenders who list their address as a homeless shelter on the 100 block of West Washington Avenue.

Although police typically hadn’t seen a lot of gang activity at the crossroads, in recent months officers have observed more people using gang signs, colors and dances, said Neighborhood Officer Jeffrey Pharo, in his third year of patrolling the Capitol Square-State Street area.

“It’s a lucrative spot,” Pharo said. “You have a type of people with drug addictions, alcohol addictions, mental health issues. There’s a lot of criminal history down there.”

Some in the crowd who engage in drug-related behavior and jockey for territory tell police they’re homeless but aren’t, he said.

On Tuesday morning, a 21-year-old Fitchburg man was stabbed in the back, possibly with a pair of scissors, during a territorial dispute over a drug deal in the Philosopher’s Grove area. The assailant is still at large.

That evening, police arrested a man for battery, robbery and disorderly conduct after an incident in Philosopher’s Grove. Pharo saw the aftermath of the alleged battery in real time on a surveillance camera and informed officers patrolling the general area who caught the man as he fled on the 100 block of West Mifflin Street.

During a random surveillance camera check of the area at 1:50 p.m. Wednesday, just hours before a Jazz at Five event was to begin, Pharo counted about 30 people hanging out, including three known drug dealers and the suspect involved in the alleged battery and robbery.

DMI’s safety committee has produced a draft plan that focuses on possible solutions.

The draft plan calls for:

• A foot officer in the area at all times, more cameras and strict law enforcement.

• A city staff person to provide program activities for State Street.

• Guidelines for those who give away food to the homeless in the area.

• Opening up the area’s physical space so more events can take place, improving lighting, and perhaps adding food carts to serve people visiting the library and Overture Center.

“It is a problem we want to nip in the bud now and send a message that this kind of behavior is unacceptable,” DMI President Susan Schmitz said, calling policing the top immediate priority.

“Right now, just being down there is our strongest play,” Pharo said, adding that police have recently started joining shop owners and others having coffee, breakfast or lunch in the area.

Soglin said his recommendations may be broader than DMI’s.

The city’s Department of Planning, Community and Economic Development is already exploring ways to improve the physical space, which should be more of a gateway between the State Capitol and the library and Overture Center, director Steve Cover said.

In the short term, programming and food carts can help generate more activity and enliven the area, Cover and others said.

Verveer said he was confident the reopening of the library on Sept. 21 and completion of the Block 100 project on State and West Mifflin streets early next year will bring more pedestrians through the area.

In coming years, the state also intends to create a new historical and Veterans Museum on Capitol Square and the 100 block of West Mifflin Street, which will further revitalize the area, officials said.

Cover said in the future, the city should consider rearranging the artsy, granite seating and landscaping in Philosopher’s Grove to open the space and eliminate a cul de sac on the 100 block of West Mifflin Street so the connection between the Capitol and other civic buildings can be a major pedestrian thoroughfare and suitable as part of major events on the Square and State Street.

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