The causes and solutions may be complicated. But the need for more attention and action is clear — from our leaders and ourselves.
This can’t go on. Nor can we become numb to the violence and death.
Though overall offenses and calls for police service in Madison were down 5% last year during the pandemic, homicides more than doubled to 10. Shots fired increased 74% to 250. Stolen vehicles increased 16% to 744. Burglaries were up 22% to 1,316. Weapon violations jumped 18% to 191.
Madison is still a safe city when compared to other communities of similar size. We shouldn’t forget that. And police say some progress has been made over the summer on crime prevention. But gun violence remains far too prevalent and heading in a disturbing direction.
Police warned Thursday that a spree of carjackings on Madison’s Southwest Side were becoming more “brazen.” The day before that, a 15-year-old Fitchburg boy was in court on charges he shot and killed his 11-year-old sister. The day before that, a 26-year-old man was arrested in the town of Madison in the shooting of a 41-year-old man in Fitchburg. The day before that, a 34-year-old Sun Prairie man pleaded guilty to shooting and killing another man through his front door.
On Sept. 17, a 20-year-old Madison man was sentenced for the shooting death of a former classmate at a Far East Side gas station. On Labor Day, a 20-year-old was shot to death on the Far East Side — the same day a 64-year-old was shot multiple times at Penn Park on the South Side. The Penn Park victim died two weeks later.
This isn’t just a Madison problem. Gunfire on a single night in Milwaukee this month left at least three people dead and six injured in separate shootings. Milwaukee counts 160 homicides so far this year, putting it on pace to break last year’s high of 190. Trauma surgeons and funeral directors say they’re overwhelmed, according to WTMJ-TV (Ch. 4).
Across the country, homicides increased nearly 30% last year. And more of the victims were children and toddlers, according to the Gun Violence Archive. About 1,375 minors were shot to death last year — a 33% increase — and this year is on pace to be worse.
Emergency room visits for firearm injuries across the country were up 73% last fall, according to health care data from Epic Systems in Verona.
What to do?
Wisconsin communities have wisely resisted irresponsible calls to “defund police.” Madison and other cities don’t need fewer law enforcement officers. We need better trained police to deescalate dangerous situations, to recognize mental illness, to connect more with citizens and avoid unfair bias.
La Crosse and Milwaukee police, for example, are now responding to mental health crises in tandem with professional counselors. Madison and Dane County say they’re using a public health approach to respond to “extremely pervasive” violence. This includes better use of data and more coordination between law enforcement, schools and social service providers to try to prevent violence. It includes job training and opportunities for young people disconnected from school.
We must do more to reach young people suffering traumatic lives. Madison is enlisting peers, such as ex-offenders who have turned their lives around, to diffuse conflict and steer people back to civil society.
In Rockford, Illinois, where homicides and people injured in shootings have doubled, research shows 70% of violent teens have been exposed to domestic or sexual abuse. The city has launched a program that takes troubled offenders on trips into the woods to hike, camp and work as a team.
We need to fight homelessness, which can lead to desperate and dangerous decisions.
We should legalize small amounts of marijuana to undercut drug dealing.
Alternatives to incarceration should be considered for nonviolent and first-time offenders, as long as victims are treated fairly. And when innocent people are threatened by gun violence, we need police to arrest the perpetrators. We need judges to ensure rehabilitation, with help finding work once released.
But our justice system can’t do it alone. We all must play a role in mentoring young people, getting to know our neighbors and providing police with the information they need to keep us safe. We need to lock our homes and garages to limit opportunities for crime. We need to lock firearms so they can’t be stolen and misused. Gun thefts increased sharply in Madison and Dane County last year.
It won’t be easy to curb the gunfire. An end to the pandemic and keeping students in school should help. Most important is a renewed and broader approach to fighting — and preventing — violent crime.