Two weeks after Jonathan Wilson was shot and killed on Troy Drive on Madison's north side in the latest of three shooting incidents since September 11, about 200 neighbors gathered with police officers and other local officials at Mendota Elementary for a community meeting with the theme "Healing and Community."
"We've been through this once before," said Mayor Paul Soglin. "We won and we are going to win again... In 1990, we had a murder out here. A woman lost her life because she stood up for the neighborhood and we said at that time that she was not going to die in vain and within a couple years, this became a wonderful neighborhood. And it still is. This is still a fine neighborhood."
Underscoring that point, Capt. Cam McLay of the Madison Police Department pointed out that in the midst of the chaos following the gang-related Wilson shooting, when no witnesses were available, neighborhood residents were instrumental in coming forward to identify suspects.
"What I'm going to remember the most is the integrity shown by some of the families involved in this incident," McLay said. "Our investigators contacted a mother and informed her that her sons might be involved in a homicide. That lady brought her two babies to the Madison Police Department and turned them over to us and I have zero doubt that she told them to do the right thing. I'm never going to forget that. I can't even imagine the moral courage that took to turn your babies over to the police."
An open forum allowed anyone present to take the microphone and focus on trying to find answers to four questions:
- What issues exist in our community that allow these types of situations to occur?
- What can we do in our community to address this?
- What can we do with a little help?
- What do we need other people to do?
Many made it clear they knew the victim and expressed sympathy to members of the Wilson family, some of whom were present. They urged others to reconnect with their neighbors, keep an eye on who was on the street and call the police on any suspicious activity in the neighborhood.
But one speaker took issue with the portrayal of the north side as a great, cohesive neighborhood. A transplant from Chicago, Richard Harris admitted to being a member of the Gangster Disciples as a teenager and was astonished by the three shooting incidents in the neighborhood between September 11 and October 20.
"People are saying we have a great community but we had three shootings in 60 days!" he said. "Our standards need to be higher than that... If I wanted to live like this, I would have stayed in Chicago."
And while many speakers said they're committed to working toward cleaning up the community, at least one person in the crowd admitted the incidents have left her shaken.
"One of the messages we're hearing tonight is that we should call the police," she said. "Well my question is, what are we looking for? When should we call the police? What kind of activities should we be watching for? I have no idea... This is not like any community I have ever lived in. It makes me want to move."
Many residents expressed concern that landlords weren't screening tenants thoroughly, essentially welcoming criminals into the neighborhood.Soglin pointed out that the recession has been challenging for landlords and some are saying they don't have the resources to keep up their properties or strictly screen tenants.
"It doesn't do any good to simply point a finger at somebody. What if they just walk away from the property? That doesn't solve anything," he said. "Just as the residents of the neighborhood have to stand together and fight, we have to extend a welcoming hand to the landlords and say to them, 'Are you willing to join us in addressing these issues? If you are, we will work with you.'"
Capt. McLay specifically answered concerns about the lack of a police presence in the neighborhood by promising to step up patrols and pledged to convene another meeting (Wednesday, Nov. 30, 6:30 pm at Mendota Elementary) to put neighborhood residents in touch with North District officers. But Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne added that residents also need to have a presence.
"It's the difference between being in the back yard and on the front porch," he said. "Take a walk in your neighborhood and when you take your walk, say hello to someone and look them in the eye. When you look somebody in the eye, they know that you have seen them. When you say hello, you are inviting them here. I hear a lot of 'landlords are letting these people move here,' but you can never fault somebody for wanting a better life. You need to make them feel welcome. You look them in the eye and you let them know that you accept them, but you will hold them accountable."