Here is an interview with Lt. Joe Balles of the Madison Police Department about issues of homelessness and panhandling in downtown Madison.
Blaska: What is your advice to the average citizen when they are hit up for money (panhandled)?
Balles: Personally, Dave, I pass right by them. For several years now, I continue to dedicate dozens of hours each year to the Dane County United Way working on various committees that seek long term solutions to a wide variety of the social problems we face here in Madison and elsewhere in the county. The couple of dollars or spare change the average citizen gives to a State Street panhandler is more than likely going to end up buying their next bottle of booze or some crack cocaine from a dealer just around the corner.
If they really feel moved to make a monetary donation, I would suggest they give the person a Milio's or Subway gift card for $10 and at least they'll end up with a sandwich, chips, soda and a cookie if you buy the "meal deal."
What should one do if that panhandling turns aggressive (say, you are being followed. Or screamed at)?
Call 911 immediately.I command seven sergeants and nearly 50 officers who police downtown Madison 24/7. We have absolutely zero tolerance for aggressive panhandling. With the new video surveillance cameras on State Street, we may be able to retrieve video evidence of the behavior. We do not have every part of State Street covered, but some key areas of State Street are covered.
Hopefully, Mayor Dave will continue to support the expansion of video surveillance cameras in the State Street area. While we have had some technical glitches, they hold great promise for the future for ridding State Street of this kind of behavior.
Some are saying the Bassett Neighborhood and West Washington Avenue vagrants (transients) are not homeless. Can that be true?
Dave, I have always tried to use the word "transients" when describing those who frequent the State, W. Wash and Bassett areas whom MPD is having to spend many hours of police resources each month responding to calls for service with this population. What is really more relevant when describing these individuals is their "predatory behaviors."
Predators move into an area and will seek to survive anyway they can by taking advantage of anyone and anything in the immediate area. Student housing areas are obviously a target rich environment for predators. There is no doubt we have seen an increase in these types of individuals in our downtown area.
The fact that some of them are also homeless is secondary to their predatory behaviors. We have for years had many homeless men and women in the downtown area who have survived on the streets without exhibiting the kind of predatory behaviors we increasingly have seen (aggressive panhandling, burglary, trespassing, theft from autos, drunk and disorderly behavior, etc.).
We have pulled lists together from our MPD records management system based on police reports of our daily contacts with transients who come on our radar screen... and we can document between 80 and 100 such individuals living on the streets in downtown Madison over the course of a given 3- to 4-month period.
I heard an alder say recently "We don't know who these people are."
I would beg to differ, we do know who many of them are, and we know them by their first, middle and last name, and sometimes their fingerprints and DNA as well.
Are these people getting their most basic needs -- hots and cots, perhaps not every day but many days -- from the Madison homeless shelter industry? Or are they entirely outside this social safety net?
I have great respect for people like Steve Schooler and Porchlight Inc. who are under contract to provide many of the shelter services in the downtown area, and all of those who volunteer or work supporting the homeless population through churches, community groups, etc. Through channels at the United Way, a number of us got together just last August after the Brittingham park shelter situation exploded over the summer.
One of the things we learned from looking further into that situation, and Steve even acknowledged, that we are seeing an increasing number of homeless men who do not want services, they don't want shelter, and they just want to survive anyway they can. Some of these men are in that category of "predators" I described above, some simply have significant mental health issues, yet do not want to take their daily medications, etc. Most are getting by, some albeit better than others.
One phrase, Dave, I will say that has to go away is... "We can end homelessness."
When you have individuals in the United States of America who have the right to live a homeless lifestyle if they so choose, you will never really end homelessness. What we as a community need to figure out is how do we safely tolerate the presence of those in our public spaces who want to live a homeless lifestyle?
One place I strongly feel we need to step up is in the area of mental health commitments for those who police can articulate are a danger to themselves.
Unfortunately, Dane County, particularly Corp. Counsel, really does not help us out much getting homeless individuals off the streets of Madison under Chapter 51 of the state statutes and into mental health facilities. They will tell us we lack the evidence in our petitions, but I can't help but suspect that the costs to house such persons, which is a county, not city, responsibility, is really more behind their failure to support or emergency detention petitions on a more regular basis.
Trying to get "the system" to help just one homeless person with AODA or mental health issues is an absolutely complex and challenging process.
Overall, is Madison a magnet for vagrants/transients?
Last fall, Dave, we discussed the need for a more comprehensive assessment to the homeless, transient population in the downtown area with the UW Law School. This semester, Professor Mike Scott has had about 20 second-year law school students doing a research-based class on this topic. I've requested one of them to seriously look at some type of in-depth survey with those on the streets in downtown Madison to learn a little bit more about them.
We (MPD) know some of their demographics just from our police contacts, but there are those who actually have not had contact with MPD who we need to know more about. We also need to know more about where they came from, and if they came from elsewhere, why did they come to Madison.
If you look at the environment downtown, you have all the components for the "Perfect Storm" -- bus station, shelter and meal services, low cost liquor, nice parks, nice business areas with very compassionate citizens and shoppers, caring churches, and target rich student housing areas who never seem to figure out that you need to lock your doors.
Police are listing persons prohibited from certain streets -- I believe 23 are currently prohibited from West Washington Ave. Are we just pushing the problem around?
Yes to some extent we are. Displacement, Dave, is often a desirable law enforcement strategy at times. It's like putting radiation on a cancerous tumor. We may reduce the size of the tumor, but not prevent the cancer cells from spreading elsewhere. Our ban lists, for both State Street and West Washington Ave now, are just one way we can stay on top of the most problematic predators we must deal with on a daily basis in the downtown area.
The message I give my sergeants and officers is this... we can welcome them to Madison, but we do not need to make their stay here hospitable. Plenty of others do that. Maybe after they get arrested six or seven times and incarcerated in the Dane County Jail, maybe they'll decide to go down to Bedford Street and use $15 or $20 to buy a bus ticket to the next city down the line. Many of these individuals arrived here from somewhere else, you have to wonder how they ended up here.
What tools does the Police Department need to combat the social ills attributed to vagrants/transients, such as aggressive panhandling, intimidation, cursing, public urination, etc.?
Arresting and issuing city ordinance citations under Madison General Ordinances and sending them before Judge Dan Koval and Madison Municipal Court.
The state (Dane County District Attorney's Office) does not have the resources to help us out criminally with many of the low level crimes committed by this population. Municipal court, however, because of our increase in city ordinance arrests for this population, has also been impacted, and the Dane County Jail probably doesn't like us locking up transients for city ordinance warrants when they fail to pay their tickets... but the MPD has no other alternatives available to us. We try to work with Dane County Mental Health, Corp. Counsel, the shelter system, to try and work more proactively with some of our more problematic individuals. But as I said before, there is nothing easy in that process.
I am hearing that Brittany Sue Zimmermann managed to call 911 but that the call was cut off. The 911 center called back, a man answered and another man could be heard in the background. True?
I can not speak to details of the on-going investigation by either confirming or denying such information. Sorry Dave... nice try though...
I also hear that about 24 vagrants/transients have been swept off the streets and are being held in jail. True?
I don't have an exact count... but since the Zimmermann homicide, we have significantly stepped up patrol and enforcement actions against those who exhibit predatory behaviors in the downtown area. This was done for multiple reasons. Seeking further information from them about who was around and about on April 2 being one of the bigger reasons. I have the jail logs for the days after arrest, but I haven't had time to count up just how many. Two dozen however is a pretty good estimate. Some have since been released or bailed out... some are still there.
Snarky question: Does Dave Mahoney have room for them?
Dave understands what we are dealing with, but he also is working to reduce the number of inmates in the jail. There are days when we need to incarcerate certain predators... and I'm glad he has the room for them. He has never turned us away... though his booking deputies aren't always happy with us...
Does not the possible involvement of a transient/vagrant in the murders of Joel Marino and Brittany Sue Zimmermann complicate apprehension?
Any possible stranger homicide is complicated, Dave. Nationally... you looked at www.fbi.gov for information on homicides... you'll find that in the vast majority of homicides you have some type of victim-offender relationship. That is why whenever a homicide happens... you first really end up investigating the victim because more often than not this is where your first clues will be to identifying who may have perpetrated the act against him or her.
When that perp is a stranger... it really does complicate the police investigation... thus why the need for information from the community, transients included, is so important to solving the crime.
How do you pronounce your name? Do you get various smart-alecky interpretations of its pronunciation, depending on whom you are dealing with?
It's Balles... rhymes with Wallace. I've had a lot of friends having some good laughs about the variations lately.