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Sunday, August 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fog
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Mobilize resources, plot a strategy
How should the city respond to west-side crime? Soglin says stepped-up policing alone isn't enough
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Soglin: Few if any low-income neighbors were present at the meeting. But they are the people most often victimized by petty and not-so-petty crime. Their support is critical because they will be on the front line in challenging the gang bangers, drug dealers and thugs.
Soglin: Few if any low-income neighbors were present at the meeting. But they are the people most often victimized by petty and not-so-petty crime. Their support is critical because they will be on the front line in challenging the gang bangers, drug dealers and thugs.

Rich or poor, all neighborhoods are susceptible to the deterioration that accompanies crime. While poor communities are more vulnerable, nice middle-class neighborhoods like Meadowood on Madison's southwest side can begin slipping when problems are ignored.

Recent urban history shows us that many fine neighborhoods with residents who embraced community values fell when the will of the people failed. Sometimes, families saw too many of their neighbors flee, and they joined them. In other instances, elderly couples adopted a siege mentality and figured they could ride it out, accepting the rising crime.

But determined residents deciding to stand and fight is not enough. This is precisely the situation facing the 700 or so Meadowood residents who turned out to bemoan the lack of safety at a community meeting. They need partners, and they need a strategy to combat crime and neighborhood deterioration.

Among the partners they need are their low-income neighbors. Few if any were present at the meeting. But they are the people most often victimized by petty and not-so-petty crime. Their support is critical because they will be on the front line in challenging the gang bangers, drug dealers and thugs.

Second, Meadowood needs to inventory neighborhood assets to determine what resources are available. Not just to fight crime, but the scourge of poverty, too.

Third, city hall needs to marshal its resources. Already the county is on the scene with its Joining Forces for Families program to coordinate school and social service help for struggling families. But absent is a city commitment to a full-time Neighborhood Resource Team.

Let me explain why this is important.

The Neighborhood Resource Team will provide a comprehensive approach to crime and poverty. It should include a community police officer, public health nurses, building inspectors, city engineers, librarians, equal-opportunity and affirmative-action staff as well as representatives from the city's planning and transportation departments.

The team should meet regularly, compare notes and advance programming in concert with the nonprofits that bring their special sets of skills to the problems of poverty and crime. (Porchlight, the low-income housing provider, is already on the scene.)

These programs can begin addressing the three most critical needs for turning around a troubled neighborhood and helping its poorest members.

First, child-care, transportation and job-training programs need to be put in place. Those efforts provide hope to the residents and reinforce their will to fight crime.

Second, health resources must be made available to low-income residents. Perhaps space can be acquired in the Meadowood Library or in the Meadowood Mall for a health-care program.

Third, tough law enforcement is needed. It requires a clear message delivered by everyone, including city officials, neighborhood residents and community leaders: There will be no tolerance for violence, for weapons, for extortion or petty crime.

Some people are going to have to make changes. City officials must acknowledge that the spreading crime and poverty problems aren't confined to Meadowood. Those who feel that hard-line law enforcement is the best approach will have to understand that successful community policing requires neighborhood trust and building alternative institutions to shore up families.

Those clamoring for social services, job development and better housing must acknowledge that tough law enforcement is part of a comprehensive solution.

All of this costs money. For some, the price tag is too high despite the success of previous Madison investments in poor neighborhoods. Perhaps if they are reminded that the city and school district will be rewarded with higher property values, those who choose to ignore the problem will be motivated to act.

Meadowood can easily be turned around, as can the adjacent poverty areas around Hammersley and Raymond roads. It's going to take the reinforcement of community values, the will to prevail and money to pay for the programs to make the difference.


Paul Soglin is a former Madison mayor. He blogs at www.waxingamerica.com.

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