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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Fair
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Private funds sought for downtown Madison policing initiative
The price of safety

On weekend nights, says Capt. Schauf, the central district
'just blows off the map.'
On weekend nights, says Capt. Schauf, the central district 'just blows off the map.'
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Ald. Mike Verveer remembers it well - the late-night attacks in which drunk people were accosted, robbed and brutally beaten.

"For a fairly significant period, there was a palpable level of fear in the downtown area, particularly in the campus area," says Verveer of the wave of violent muggings in downtown Madison in the summer of 2006. "To make matters worse, around the same time, there were a series of brutal stranger sexual assaults."

In response, the city launched the Downtown Safety Initiative, a program that provides extra money to pay for police overtime on weekends around bar time. The program has been funded to the tune of $100,000 a year, which the council last year cut back to $80,000.

The city is now preparing to embark on fundraising to make up the other $20,000, but there are still questions about how the safety initiative money should be used. In the past, it's been used to do bar checks, which some feel are inappropriate.

As Verveer says, "Having cops bust college students for drinking in bars or house parties is not the idea we had in mind when we created [the initiative]."

Madison Police Capt. Mary Schauf, commander of the Central District, says police often experience a "huge bump in demand" as bars close on weekend nights. "All the other districts are starting to taper off and quiet down, and central just blows off the map."

Crime during the peak hours on Fridays, Saturdays and into Sundays - between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. - has generally dropped in the downtown area since 2003. That year, there were 220 batteries, down to 159 last year.

But the number of fights has remained high - 1,010 last year, after hitting a peak of 1,067 in 2007.

Officers working on Downtown Safety Initiative funds are out between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., Schauf says. They either work an extra-long day or come in on their day off, getting paid overtime.

There isn't enough money in the program to have extra officers out every weekend. The department is scheduled to use these funds 57 days this year, on busy weekends with football games or holidays, or when the weather is nice.

Last weekend was the first time this year that extra officers were scheduled. Says Schauf, "I did hear they were very busy, and there was more than enough for them to do."

Verveer calls himself a fan of the program and notes that the city has pledged not to use safety initiative funds for bar checks. But he wonders if bar owners and others will be willing to help plug the funding gap.

Joel Plant, neighborhood liaison for Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, says no private financing has yet been secured. But, he adds, "we're just starting to ramp our efforts up."

"This is an initiative to share some of the responsibility for the cost with the stakeholders who benefit most from the [initiative]," Plant says. "Everybody who owns property downtown benefits from a safe downtown."

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