Mike Hanson is one of 14 neighborhood officers who walk a beat in Madison, out of a total police force of 438.
1. He could go either way
He's a tiny fella, maybe three years old.
"What's that Officer Mike?" He pounds a tiny palm on the uniformed man's belt.
"That's my weapon," Madison Police Officer Mike Hanson answers.
Hanson is the community police officer for the west Hammersley Road area here on the southwest side of Madison. The little tyke had followed him down the sidewalk, peppering him with questions about all of his gear: The flashlight, the radio transmitter, the cuffs.
It is amazing what a beat cop carries with him including, on this early July day with temperatures in the low 80s, a bulletproof vest under his dark blue uniform.
Hanson is one of 14 neighborhood officers who walk a beat in Madison, out of a total police force of 438. A generation or two ago, they were the norm. Picture the nightstick-twirling Irish cop greeting passersby by name, sticking his head into the barber shop, asking about your mother's health.
"If they see you walking it helps build trust," Hanson explains.
I'm tagging along with "Officer Mike" and can not help speculating that one day the little boy could become a police officer. Children of that age imprint on things that impress them. Put a violin in his hand and he might become the next Itzhak Perlman.
Or he could become a victim lying on a metal gurney like Karamee Collins Jr., the 17-year-old father of one who lived on the same street until he took a slug from a .22 caliber automatic pistol shortly after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9, just across Raymond Road on Balsam Road. He crawled to a doorway on Leland Drive where he breathed his last. It was believed to be retaliation for previous encounters.
There are said to be 15 gangs operating in Madison; Police Chief Noble Wray estimates as many as 900 gang members - 1,400 if you count "associates." Even the police seem conflicted about this one. Whether this one was gang-related or not is immaterial. Bottom line: one human being is dead and three other lives are ruined.
Certainly, there are arguments for both outcomes on Theresa Terrace the day I take my walk with Hanson. At the south end of the street, which makes a T intersection with Jacobs Way, three "youths" - black young men around the same age as the dead kid - lean against a green automobile, their hooded eyes guardedly watching the policeman's movements. One of them occupies himself with combing his hair. On the other corner, a large multi-racial family is swirling about on the worn lawn in front of a modest home … including the husband and wife in the mid-afternoon of this weekday.
The pavement between these two groups is littered with the residue of high explosive fireworks after being expended in observance of America's day of independence.
Hanson suggests that the young men might have time to sweep up the debris at their feet. He may as well be speaking a foreign language. His audience of three, as emergency medical technicians often put it, are non-responsive.
Hanson issues the same challenge to the household on the corner. The mother promises to do the job when vehicular traffic eases up. Hanson looks up and down Theresa and Jacobs Way. "What traffic?"
Not that many of these folks could be said to be truly independent. Although possessed of every civil liberty, many of the folks on these streets - the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (given the accelerated rate of reproduction) of the civil rights generation - are very dependent on subsidized Section 8 housing. This is one of the largest concentrations of such housing in the city. Madison and Dane County ordinances enjoin landlords from "discriminating" against "lawful sources of income" thereby demanding they enter what the federal government envisioned as a voluntary contract.
As "ghettos" go, this is no Cabrini-Green, the Chicago high-rises famously imploded in the requiem of LBJ's Great Society. Balsam-Leland and Hammersley-Loreen enjoy their own parks, complete with community gardens. The housing is no more dense than four-plexes. Park Ridge is a combination of duplexes and single family homes, only a few blocks north of one of Madison's great green spaces, Elver Park.
Officer Hanson's domain consists of about 250 housing units - and many of those are owner-occupied, single-family residences. It is a patchwork of neatly trimmed, immaculate yards next door to hard-packed bare dirt lost to the litter of empty bottles and snack food wrappers. Littering brings a $298 ticket but enforcement is difficult.
That is the remarkable thing about Madison. It has long prided itself on dispersing poverty - but to uncertain effect. It hasn't seemed to stem crime - just moved it around like a kid's plate of mashed potatoes and peas. Police will tell you it makes their jobs more difficult.
Just a couple blocks to the east, the homes on Hammersley Road are assessed close to $300,000. From one of those homes on July 6, two 13-year-old cousins ventured two blocks too far. As a crime, it barely crossed the Rubicon from a quality of life issue. Not long after noon, two young people jumped the bicyclists and stole $15 from one of them.
Hanson shakes his head. "These kids should feel safe riding their bikes. Here they get jumped and pushed off.
"Is this the crime of the century? No. But if these punks get away with it they'll do it again." Or worse.
Hanson has just elucidated the "Broken Windows" theory of community policing. New York Police Chief William Bratton, serving under Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, employed the theory.
Ignore the breaker of windows one day and reap a crack house a few days later. In other words, the quality of life issues can lead to felony crime because society sends a billboard-sized, neon-sign message that no one around here gives a good goddamn, so have at it.
Coming up next on Blaska's Blog: "It's like Lord of the Flies out there."