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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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On the bar beat
Police enforcement team does what it can to keep order
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For Jordan Ludwig, Oct. 31 was just a regular night out with his friends. Until the cops showed up.

Ludwig, then 20, had used his older brother's ID to get in to Ram Head Ratskeller on Henry Street. He and his friends, who were also underage, quickly left when they saw the cops walk in. About a half a block away, a cop grabbed him from behind.

Ludwig showed the officer his brother's ID, which he'd used regularly at several bars. But the police were suspicious and cuffed and searched Ludwig. They found his real ID and began writing him tickets.

It would turn out to be an expensive evening for Ludwig. The tickets for obstructing, producing a fake ID and underage drinking totaled a whopping $1,400.

"It cost me a large portion of the money I earned all summer," says Ludwig. "That was most of the money I had saved." It upsets him that police resources are being used to go after underage drinkers, even if they're not, as he puts it, "being rowdy."

The group of officers that arrested Ludwig that night is called the Community Police Team, or CPT; each of the city's five police precincts has one. They were established to address ongoing problems that beat cops don't have time to tackle.

In the downtown area, these cops go barhopping to check IDs and make sure the places they visit are safe and orderly. At its June 2 meeting, the Common Council approved sanctions to three bars, including suspending the licenses of Ram Head and Madison Avenue for July, based largely on complaints generated by the CPT.

But Ald. Bryon Eagon, who represents a largely student district, was critical of the team's efforts: "I am concerned about the prioritization and subsequent time, energy and resources spent on trying to catch a handful of underagers in bars when a higher focus should be on real, serious crimes like assault and burglary."

Some bar owners feel similarly. Marsh Shapiro, owner of the Nitty Gritty, says he's not on the CPT's "hit list" but thinks the team goes overboard. Recently, a man was having dinner with his daughter and a friend at his bar, drinking a pitcher of beer. Shapiro says the police cited the man for procurement, the friend of the daughter for underage drinking.

"We have a city where there are certain neighborhoods that have serious problems with alcohol, drugs, guns. We've had homicides, shootings," Shapiro says. "Yet we have a police team of six officers spending five or six hours in the evening trying to find one or two 20-year-olds having a beer. That's an utterly ridiculous waste of manpower."

Police counter that alcohol is a big source of the downtown's problems and often leads to worse offenses.

"We've had four homicides in the last few years directly related to establishments serving alcohol," says Sgt. Tony Fiore, who heads the Downtown CPT. "When you have 150 or at least 100 taverns in the downtown area, that really affects the atmosphere."

It's early on a Thursday evening and Fiore is cruising State Street, looking for trouble.

"I'm staying mobile," he says. "I'm just snooping around to see what's going on." What does he see? "Pretty benign."

Fiore's team currently divides its time between three issues. Early in their shift, team members will cruise State Street, addressing problems relating to panhandlers, drug dealing and the mentally ill.

Today this means asking a woman who keeps having loud arguments with imaginary people around the Capitol Square if she's okay. She says she's had trouble with her family and is staying at the Salvation Army. Fiore decides she's safe.

"At the end of the day, people very much have a right to act bizarrely," he says. "If she was like 'If they don't leave me alone, I'm going to jump off a bridge,' it's probably a trip to the emergency room." And that, he notes, could take him off the street for the rest of his shift.

Later that evening, the team deals with one of its other priorities: traffic. It sets up a speed trap on East Johnson Street near Tenney Park, writing about 10 speeding tickets in an hour. "The neighborhood keeps complaining, and nobody slows down," says Fiore. "It's well marked."

Later still, the CPT tackles its third issue: bars. Fiore says the goal is to visit every bar in the district at least once every six months; but it's the bars on State Street and University Avenue, he admits, that get the most attention. He estimates 90% of calls for service are from here: "You end up getting sucked over here all the time."

Around 1 a.m. on Friday, June 26, Fiore and four other officers are scanning the crowd at Ram Head. They've given the bar a lot of attention and have a contentious relationship with its owner, Richard Lyshek.

The police say Lyshek gets unnervingly into their personal space during visits and have heard him tell patrons they don't have to show identification.

Tonight, Lyshek follows the officers around his club, leering as they check IDs.

The police write a couple of tickets to underage patrons. Lyshek asks if they'll help him photograph these patrons, so he can post their pictures at the entrance. The cops say no and suggest he get their pictures from court.

Fuming, Lyshek yells as the team members depart, "Thank you very much for your help. Downtown officers are so helpful. Hopefully, nobody got killed tonight."

Lyshek, in a phone interview, accuses the CPT of creating "resentment and anger against the police." Young people, he says, are often afraid to call the police when they need help. Ram Head is closed this month, and Lyshek says he's uncertain whether he'll reopen in August.

Eagon agrees that bar checks are creating mistrust: "I know of too many cases where students hesitate or refuse to call the police because of issues related to alcohol, and they think they're going to get in trouble."

He also fears that police enforcement efforts are pushing students to drink in more dangerous settings - unregulated house parties, where there is no one to break up a fight, make sure the crowd doesn't get too large or give medical attention when needed.

Not all the students resent the police presence. Stacy Bruner used to use his brother-in-law's ID to get into bars. "I could get into even the most difficult places," he says. His luck ran out earlier this year, when the police caught him at Ram Head. But Bruner doesn't hold a grudge.

"We told them we got in with fake IDs. So the cops were very nice about it," he says. "They gave us a ticket, sent us on our way."

Ram Head was one of several State Street and University Avenue bars that the CPT visited on June 26.

One officer, usually Fiore, stands at the door, while the rest fan through the crowd, searching for people who look too young - or who make a beeline for the door when they see the cops come in.

Fiore says the youngest bar patron he's ticketed was 17. He admits he's not great at guessing ages: "It gets tougher and tougher as I get older and older. Everybody looks like they're 12."

Besides looking for underage kids, the cops are making sure the crowd is orderly and not over capacity. Officer Carrie Hemming, who has been doing the bar checks longest, usually counts patrons. "There are times when the bar is so crowded I can't physically move," she says.

The police can't cite bars for overcrowding (that's the fire marshal's job), although they can raise a concern. And complaints about overcrowding could become an issue at liquor-license renewal time.

Some patrons are mischievously curious about the cops. At Brothers Bar on University Avenue, a woman flirts with Fiore, asking why the police are there and trying to get him to guess her age. Two other guys say they're studying to be cops.

"Some of them are very coherent conversations and some of them are not," Fiore muses. "You get a lot of 'I'm going to school to be a cop' conversations."

Fiore has seen entire bars empty out when his team shows up. The officers try to be low key, but he admits that their presence is sometimes unwelcoming.

"If nothing is happening in a bar," he says, "we move on."

Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district includes part of State Street, says some bar owners try to get on the police's good side by turning over fake IDs or volunteering their bar for training sessions. Verveer has heard that some bars pay their bouncers a bounty for every confiscated fake ID.

"You do these little things and people think you get favors from the cops," he says, adding, "I'm not alleging the cops play favorites."

As Verveer sees it, police have a right and need to go into bars, but he misses the days when they would just confiscate IDs and let people go, instead of writing tickets.

Verveer, who sits on the Alcohol License Review Committee, is also upset that money from the Downtown Safety Initiative has been used for enforcement of alcohol laws. The $100,000 annual fund was established by the mayor's office in 2006 after a rash of late-night muggings and violence downtown.

"The muggings," says Verveer, "were not occurring in the bars, so I really don't understand the rationale for funding officers doing alcohol enforcement."

But Lt. Kristen Roman says the funds are being used as intended, to increase police "visibility and presence in the State Street corridor. They're out of their squads, walking and patrolling. The initiative is not alcohol enforcement. But alcohol enforcement does occur."

On Tuesday, the MPD released numbers (PDF) showing that, between February and June, the downtown CPT spent 17% of its time on alcohol enforcement, 18% on traffic, 30% patrolling State Street, and 26% assisting officers.

At 2 a.m., the cops are back in their squad cars, patrolling the streets. The last hour of their shift is typically spent driving around, as drinkers pour out of the bars. Crowds sometimes linger on the street corners, which can spell trouble.

June 26 is typical for a summer night, with most of the students gone. "I like it," Fiore says, scanning the street corners at around 2:15 a.m. "The crowd's starting to thin out pretty well."

But then there's a call for a scuffle on State Street near Frances Street. Fiore drives to the spot. A kid sits on the curb, blood spilling from his nose, while several police struggle to subdue another kid. He tries to run, but they catch him.

His girlfriend, crying nearby, yells at him to shut up and cooperate. He doesn't listen.

Three police eventually subdue the young man with restraints as he screams, "Would you stop pushing me like I'm a fucking animal? I'm going to sue the shit out you."

Fiore says he understands there are other perspectives about how the CPT should be used downtown. But he notes that alcohol is linked to violence and crime, leading to incidents like this one.

"Where else should we be?" he asks. "Predicting where people would get mugged or sexually assaulted - that doesn't work. Where else do you put your resources?"

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