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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison's Freakfest solves a nasty civic problem
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Credit:Kyle Bursaw

Treat, says Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Freakfest. "We've been able to transform what was once a black eye for the city into a safe and fun event for all of our citizens."

How we turned things around may be taken as a civics lesson in problem-solving.

Halloween on State Street isn't what it once was, namely "numerous criminal acts of violence, creating a storm commonly referred to as riot," as dryly defined by a 2008 Madison Police Department report. Nor is it the State Street Halloween celebration of the 1980s, when the Midwest's version of Mardi Gras gathered 100,000 people fairly peacefully and garnered national news coverage.

Instead, beginning in 2006, we made it a privately operated event with only 35,000 tickets. Freakfest is produced by Frank Productions, fenced, gated and patrolled by 300 officers from five law enforcement agencies, brought to you via sponsorship from a yellow carbonated soft drink whose name is meant to suggest hillbillies.

This year's celebration on State Street, which actually falls on Halloween - Saturday, Oct. 31 - also features a costume contest and three stages of entertainment.

Something has been lost, namely $32,000 in property damage and looting, the figure from 2002. These days, "There's less property damage than on a typical football Saturday," says Mary Carbine, executive director of Madison's Central Business Improvement District.

The city's bill has also decreased. "In 2008, our total cost was about $300,000," says mayoral aide Rachel Strauch-Nelson. "The city took in about $130,000 in revenue. To give you some context, in 2006, the event cost for the city was about $460,000, and city revenues were about $50,000. We hope to continue driving the cost down this year."

Meanwhile, incredibly, the economic benefit to the city is...unknown. The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown Madison Inc., the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce - no one apparently tracks spending. Using Arts Wisconsin's loose rule of thumb for entertainment spending, however, not counting ticket sales, the total could be as great as $1.4 million.

If you want a real spooky feeling this Halloween, know that, in the name of safety, you're essentially part of a living social science experiment.

First, a little perspective. Great-grandma may express shock over kids these days, but campus was no less wild during Octobers of the 1930s and '40s. Back then it was the campus homecoming bonfire that drew huge crowds. In 1940 old-fashioned high spirits turned into a riot, with broken windows and overturned cars. Firefighters had to put out the bonfire, and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. It was a recurring annual problem until 1947, when the University of Wisconsin banned the bonfire.

So, not much is really new - except the style of response.

Halloween on State Street began as an informal costume parade in the 1970s. In 1977 a total of 10 officers were assigned. In 1979 UW student government made it an official event, complete with bands and beer sales. In 1981 and 1982 crowds reached 100,000. The drinking age was raised to 21 in 1986. Attendance dropped, but the event gradually built back up. By 2002 there were 75,000 - and a riot.

"I saw it firsthand," recalls Capt. Mary Schauf, of the Madison Police Department's downtown district. "It was bike racks through front windows, looting, and we ran out of pepper spray, so tear gas was used for the first time in 30 years."

The city and university began a teeter-totter of responses, increasing the ante each year. Studies were made of similar events in Colorado, Illinois and Iowa. One option was always just to stamp out the event completely. That's how Boulder did it, closing access to their city at all major intersections.

Analysis showed that - no surprise - alcohol played a part in most Freakfest troubles. Around a third of those arrested were underage. Only 20% of arrests were of UW students, however, and almost a third were students who had made the trip from bordering states.

Penalties were increased. The UW banned overnight dormitory guests. Fencing, admission, stadium lighting and entertainment all helped. What really started things clicking, though, was data gathering in 2004, and real-time map-based responses starting in 2005.

The result was two policing strategies based on "disinhibitory contagion" and "rational choice" models. The desire for conformity, whether for good or bad, is strong. Seeing others engage in a behavior during Freakfest encourages us to do likewise. Restraint also diminishes with alcohol. Arresting leaders of antisocial behavior therefore inhibits contagion.

Making consequences immediate also helps engage our rational minds, thus on-site processing of arrests. Mounted police serve as mobile Freakfest watchtowers. Events are timed, and fencing is adjusted to continually control crowd movement. Surveillance cameras, real-time mapping and analysis allow instant response to hotspots from a command post staffed with an analyst.

As a result, "Our arrest numbers since about 2005 have declined steadily," says Schauf. There were 468 arrests that year, including five cases of battery. By contrast, last year 76 individuals received 99 charges, and only two were even misdemeanors. "The rest are all city ordinances," she says, for carrying glass and so on.

So are we ready? And will it be a good time? Mayor Cieslewicz thinks so: "I'm looking forward to another year of Freakfest and to working with Frank Productions, students and downtown businesses on making this a positive event for Madison."

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