Madison Police Captain Carl Gloede admits that when it comes to estimating crowd size, "there's no science behind how we do it."
But Gloede is confident that the Madison Police commanders are good at guessing. "All of us commanders have 20-plus years of police experience," he says. "We don't like terming ourselves experts, but we've been around crowds enough."
In a month of almost daily protests, wildly different crowd estimates have been bandied about. The Department of Administration has released estimates of Saturday crowds that are much lower than the estimates made by Madison police.
Who should you believe? Joe Skulan, a scientist with the UW Geology Museum, says it definitely should not be the DOA.
Skulan says the DOA's crowd estimates for Saturday, March 12, are "not even within the range of possibility. It qualifies as a lie. That'd be as much of a lie if someone said one million people were there."
The DOA's estimates ranged from 33,000 early in the day to a high of 68,000. The Madison Police Department had a much higher estimate, giving a range for the day of 85,000 to 100,000 people.
Skulan says there are methodical ways of estimating crowd sizes, and he did his own calculations. He marked out a square meter on his living room floor and put several teenagers into it to see how easy it was to move through that space, compared to the Capitol crowd. He estimated there were at least four people per square meter in the Capitol crowd and then used Google maps to calculate the area around the Square. He determined it to be 44,000 square meters, not including the grassy areas, entrances or feeder streets.
At four people per square meter, the total would come to 176,000 people. For the DOA's lower estimate to be correct, each person in the Square would have had about a square meter of vacant space, which clearly wasn't the case.
"My point really is this isn't magic," Skulan says. "It's simple math. You can sit down and figure it out."
Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman for the DOA, says Skulan's formula is similar to how Capitol police make estimates, despite the wildly different numbers. Asked about criticism its estimates have been low, she says, "It is an estimate. We simply publish the estimate that the officer makes at the time."
Gloede says estimating crowds in open spaces like the Capitol grounds is complicated by people constantly coming and going. But the crowd was packed enough on March 12 to worry officers.
"We were getting nervous because of the density on the State Street side," he says. "When you start feeling trapped, people get skittish. Any little pushing and shoving can be misinterpreted, and we get nervous from a crowd-management standpoint."
Hot meal seeks steady home
Protesters aren't the only ones who have been locked out of the Capitol in recent weeks.
A nonprofit group called Savory Sunday has for more than five years served a hot lunch meal to the homeless and poor every Sunday. In the winter months or on rainy days, the group uses the basement of the Capitol to serve 80 to 120 people, including some children. (In better weather, the group serves at James Madison Park.)
But the group says it is no longer allowed in the building, and, two weeks ago, was even told to move from a makeshift location near the Madison Library.
"Since we're not able to be at the Capitol where we're able to set up tables, we've been serving an abbreviated lunch, hot sandwiches and things that people can take with them," says group member Dale Lavelle. He's now searching for a location in the downtown area where a sit-down hot meal can be served on Sundays.
Anyone with suggestions can call Lavelle at 608-274-1228.
High turnout expected for April 5 election in Madison
Local spring elections aren't normally known for bringing out voters, but these aren't normal times.
Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl sent an appeal to city workers on Monday, asking for help at the polls on April 5. "The number of absentee voters we have seen so far indicates that the turnout for the April 5 Spring Election may be similar to the turnout we see for a November Election," she wrote, predicting that the turnout could be as high as 65% of the city's 173,026 registered voters.
"The City Clerk's Office would like to recruit city employees to work at the polls on city time with their supervisor's permission," she wrote in her email to staff. "This would enable our polling places to split the poll books if the lines get long. We do not want our voters to have to wait in line any longer than 15 minutes."