Crime Wave Hysteria vs. Reality

By Dan Fitch

Billboards attacking alders over a supposed crime wave have popped up around Madison. The ads appear to be funded by Save Madison PAC, a group which did not respond to a request for comment. We couldn’t ask all the questions these billboards prompt. What does a “shooting” mean? Over what period are they “up?”

Where did this statistic even come from? As a source, they list the police department, so it’s time to delve into Madison Police Department’s (MPD) quarterly reports. Leaving out accidental discharges and self-inflicted gunshots, we graph shots fired, subjects struck by gunfire, and shell casings recovered from 2018 to now:

Shots fired incidents have increased a bit, by 39% from 2019 (a particularly quiet year) and by 15% from 2018. Subjects struck by gunfire have increased slightly, but not as much as the billboard is implying. The only major increase that stands out on the graph is the shell casings found. No other numbers have increased by 78% from anything else.

The 78% number on the billboard is likely from an August blotter post from MPD that said “Year-to-date (8/31) there have been 176 shots fired in Madison compared with 99 at this time in 2019”. That comes to 78%, but as the full end-of-Q3 numbers show, that was an inflated timepoint to choose.

MPD does not regularly post crime statistics to their blog, which is usually reserved for dopey videos and community updates. Statistics are released in the quarterly and yearly reports. MPD did not post August crime statistics in 2019, but they did post about people looking in windows. They did post similar YTD August statistics in September 2018, but not in prior years.

Robberies are down slightly since 2018 and 2019, so let’s look at total arrests and burglaries:

During the pandemic, there has been a slight decrease in arrests and a slight increase in burglaries. Are we surprised as a community that our already-unequal systems have failed during a pandemic, leading to a slight increase in desperation and, in some cases, crime?

And are we surprised that some people in the community will treat statistics like propaganda and blow them out of proportion?

Violence in Madison

There is real violence in Madison sometimes. An amorphous narrative of “shootings and looters” does not really describe what’s going on, and fails to help us find causes or solve harms.

It would be good for this discussion to delve into causes, because nothing is simple. What is the true, complex narrative underlying how someone dies at the end of a Monona police chase? What are the root causes behind a girl being fatally shot? Can we ask, what does the community at large do to affirm and value all lives in Madison? Do we ensure housing for all? Do we provide medical care for all? Do we even work hard enough to give all our children food? If we, as a community, with our budgets and moral decisions made with that money, place a low value on people’s lives, this can be a likely explanation of how we end up with the disparities we see.

Those disparities can then fuel a rise in desperation as people are evicted from their homes, as people are thrown in jail pre-trial, as people are clawing to support themselves and their families, especially during a pandemic. Do we want to change our systems of support to help people, or are we simply okay with funding the existing systems to roll onward and crush people under their wheels?

Police Budgets

In the context of police budgets, it’s worth remembering Acting Chief Wahl’s budget double talk with threats to cut Mental Health Unit and community outreach first. And with some reactionary parts of the community up in arms that we don’t fund the police more, we need to keep in mind that Wisconsin has already been funding police more and more as violent crime has fallen precipitously across the state.

Over the past five years, MPD’s operating budget increased from $68.3 million to $86.8 million, an increase of 27%, compared to an inflation increase of just over 10%. That increase mostly (82%) went towards increases to salaries, wages, and benefits for staff.

When we talk about “defunding the police,” it is specifically this trend of over-spending on police that we want to reverse. We should take away that money and spend it elsewhere: on police-free mental health services, restorative justice like community restorative courts, and fighting homelessness by housing people instead of forcing police to deal with them as a problem. These are policies with the intention of reducing crime by rectifying inequality.
Giving the police department more money to have more police on the street to continue to over-criminalize Black people and uphold white supremacist culture apparently makes some people feel more safe. But it does not actually make us safe. Instead of facing inequality and helping those who need it, ramping up our racist policing will make our community weaker.

Racist Policing

Claims that Madison is currently suffering from a major crime surge are not supported by data, but the data does support a different narrative. 6 or 7 in 100 people in Dane County are Black. (5.5% in the 2010 census; the 2020 census will give more updated numbers.) More than half of the people in Dane County Jail are Black. More than half of the people charged with misdemeanors in Dane County are Black. Both those ratios are six to seven times higher than one would expect from an even distribution. Those are the facts. We must choose how to respond to this.

You can choose to believe Black people are genetically predisposed to crime. If you believe in genetic predisposition, that’s the position of overt racism. Racism of this form is in no way supported by science, and while we can talk about your belief, you’re not likely to listen; we encourage you to read and listen more to something outside your bubble, like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

You can choose to believe Black people are more criminal due to how they were raised, how much money they have, and other societal factors. “If we could only somehow fix those factors,” you think, “they will be as well behaved as white people.” This is also not supported by the evidence; Black people are more likely to be incarcerated at every economic level, including the 1%. And we can’t assume that it’s simply a correlation with class, where poor people do the most crime, Black people are more likely to be poor, and therefore are “more criminal.” Most peer-reviewed studies have found racial disparities in the criminal-justice system even after adjusting for differences in crime rates due to poverty.

Alternately, there might be some other reasons for why Black people in Dane County are charged with misdemeanors at 6 or 7 times the rate one would expect by population ratio. One explanation might be that the justice system is fundamentally racist, and simply continues to produce these obviously racist results.

How do we fix this? It’s difficult terrain. But billboards pushing a false narrative about a crime wave are not how we will move the discussion forward. Continuing to throw good money after bad, and investing in these racist systems, is not a good plan. We need to support our whole community, and end racist policing.

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