Satya Rhodes-Conway, Paul Soglin take similar tack on policing, public safety

March 22, 2019 GMT

By most appearances, Madison is a safe city, one factor that has helped it earn high marks in national rankings for quality of life.

But drill down and, for many, violence and gun violence are a fact of life, especially among young people exposed to childhood trauma who act on impulse and have easy access to weapons. Car thefts are on the rise. The opioid crisis has taken a toll here, as elsewhere, as has human trafficking connected to the drug trade.

The data show mixed trends. The number of homicides fell last year to five, after rising for three years in a row. Incidents of shots fired, which had been rising, fell from 221 in 2017 to 186 last year. Aggravated assaults remained around a 10-year high in 2018. Burglaries and robberies have been generally dropping over the decade, but both crept up a bit last year. Vehicle thefts hit a 10-year peak, more than doubling since 2014.

The city continues to suffer from strained relations between police and the African-American community, which frayed after the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson, who was black, by a white Madison police officer in 2015.

In December 2017, California-based OIR Group completed an independent study of the police department and delivered a largely positive, 258-page report. Since then, a special city committee has been painstakingly making its way through each of OIR’s 146 recommendations. It’s also taking up a set of 13 police-related “action items” recommended by a City Council committee.

While Mayor Paul Soglin and challenger former Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway offer voters stark differences in experience and style, and disagree in other policy areas, when it comes to public safety, both put a heavy emphasis on broad prevention strategies over more cops on the street.

Rhodes-Conway says she would focus on root causes by, for example, paying community members to advocate for families, and also wants to establish an Office of Violence Prevention. Soglin is proposing to expand peer support — under which people who have been through the criminal justice system work in the community to de-escalate violence — and hopes to persuade Dane County to re-institute group homes for convicted youth that offer supervision and case management.

Both candidates are intrigued by OIR’s recommendation for an independent auditor/civilian oversight board for police but said they are awaiting the committee’s findings.

Addressing violence

The city’s biggest immediate public safety challenge, Soglin said, is the criminal justice system’s “failure” to effectively work with a group of fewer than two dozen young people, mostly juveniles, responsible for rising car thefts and many other crimes.

The problem, he said, is that judges have limited choices in where to send those who get caught, essentially either releasing them to parents or sentencing them to the troubled Lincoln Hills correctional facility for boys. One solution is to work with Dane County to re-establish small group homes, he said.

Rhodes-Conway said she sees public safety challenges broadly: from violent crimes to crimes of opportunity to prevention of slip-and-fall injuries to public health challenges such as mental health and substance abuse.

Focusing on root causes such as a lack of affordable housing and access to transportation, healthy food and health care are key to prevention, she said. The city can advocate for families, particularly African-American parents, many of whom now turn to community leaders in times of stress, by paying community members to help, she said.

Rhodes-Conway also wants to look at disparities in arrests and convictions and use data to analyze every step in the criminal justice system. “That requires partners, working with Dane County, the school district and other organizations,” she said.

With homicides and incidents of shots fired rising from 2013-17, Soglin has become more committed to the concept of paid peer support specialists as a means to calm violent confrontations and prevent future incidents. The mayor and council began with $400,000 in annual funding for peer support in the 2017 budget. Soglin sought to add $300,000 for 2019, but the council reduced it to $209,500.

Soglin said guns are too easy to obtain and that the state must address background checks and waiting periods so those identified as violent can’t get weapons.

He said economic stress induces trauma and derails academic success and careers. He has championed initiatives like connecting tax incremental financing (TIF) to jobs with training opportunities, expansion of summer youth employment opportunities, and the Madison-area Out-of-School Time (MOST) program, a partnership between the city, county, schools and others to connect children and teens with high-quality programs after school, on weekends and during summer vacation.

Rhodes-Conway says the city needs to create more out-of-school opportunities, particularly mentoring, and would keep community and neighborhood centers open later. She would support an Office of Violence Prevention, like in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. “There’s a lot we need to do on the prevention side,” she said.

Staffing, cameras

From 2003 through 2011, under former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the Police Department’s sworn personnel grew from 382, or 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents, to 446, or 1.9 per 1,000. Under Soglin, sworn personnel have grown from 446 to 479, still at 1.9 per 1,000.

Soglin said the Police Department needs more personnel but said that will have to be weighed against competing priorities. He declined to say what he would propose in his 2020 budget. Rhodes-Conway said the department doesn’t need more sworn personnel and wants to explore ways to address non-crime calls without sending officers and channel more resources to addressing mental health and drug addiction.

The current budget, Soglin said, expands efforts to investigate human trafficking and crimes against children.

“We’re seeing a significant refocusing of Police Department resources to deal with these issues,” he said. Rhodes-Conway said the crime is a real concern but hasn’t yet developed specific policy initiatives.

Soglin favors a pilot program for police body cameras. Rhodes-Conway said she’s not opposed to body cameras but isn’t ready to spend taxpayer money on them because she hasn’t heard a clear message from the community or officers that they’re wanted.

On opioids, Rhodes-Conway called for better coordination between first responders and treatment opportunities. “Anything we do has to be in partnership with hospitals and insurers, and it’s got to be coming from a public health approach,” she said.

Soglin said the community is responding through actions such as distributing Narcan and needle exchanges, but that more in- and out-patient treatment is needed. “We have to remove the stigma attached to addiction and we have to be compassionate,” he said.

He supports keeping school resource officers in high schools, but said “if the school district doesn’t want them, that’s their decision.” Rhodes-Conway said she supports SROs for the short-term, “but for the long-term, I think the answer is no.” She said she would explore ways to work with the district to improve safety that doesn’t involve uniformed officers.