I almost didn't go to the meeting. It was touted as a discussion about neighborhood crime - something I haven't encountered in my three years on Madison's north side. I've seen several instances where people called police on their neighbors for things they probably should have talked about, like roaming cats or a car parked in the wrong place. But crime? Nope. Never.
But the Northside News has been warning of worsening crime, telling residents to lock their doors and windows. So I decided to go hear what others have been experiencing.
The meeting was a shocker. One after another, people rose to ask for more police. But except for a Hispanic man who said crime was on the rise in Vera Court since the neighborhood officer was taken away, no one talked about crime. Instead, they spoke about their perceptions of crime.
I am afraid to walk from my car to my home, someone said. Youth are drinking and playing loud music in the woods, said another. People are driving too fast and playing music too loud. Gangs are hanging out near my apartment. I'm afraid.
No one talked about any crime that was committed against them or someone they know.
Here are some factors to consider:
The meeting was self-selected. People who think the north side has a serious crime problem came. Those who don't, didn't.
And those perceived as the problem didn't come either. The audience of about 200 people was almost all white.
News accounts of the event all neglected to mention that I also spoke - in disagreement. Reading those reports, you'd think there was unanimity of opinion. I know this isn't true because some people thanked me afterward for saying what they dared not.
Thus an unrepresentative group joined with the local fear-mongering media to create a false consensus that people on the north side desire and need more police.
Madison's opportunist mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, has seized on the crime issue in the wake of his trolley fiasco, water woes and several contentious hirings. He has announced plans to hire 30 new police officers, as part of his 2008 budget.
The cost, according to Cieslewicz, will be $2.5 million per year. Before inflation. For eternity, 'cause once you hire police officers you'll never downsize them. The majority of our representatives on the Common Council seem inclined to go along.
Will 30 more police officers solve Madison's real and perceived crime problem? Actually, it's just as likely to make matters worse.
The resources that will be funneled into beefing up Madison's police force (which has been growing annually for the past eight years) will not come from nowhere. They will be taken away from programs that can actually reduce crime - child care for single parents, job preparedness, youth programs, midnight basketball, neighborhood centers.
If these programs diminish, crime will increase. People don't sell drugs on a street corner because it's fun or because that's what they always wanted to do. They do it out of need and desperation. Because as a child they were left alone when their mom tried to make a living. Because they couldn't make it in school on an empty stomach and haven't received any help learning a profession or a trade.
More police will result in more arrests for petty lawbreaking, and more people in jail and prison. Already, Wisconsin incarcerates four times more people per capita than neighboring Minnesota. And it locks up 18.4 times as many young blacks as whites, according to a report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
One critic of the status quo - Gov. Jim Doyle - has said we need to stress "economic opportunity, good education, getting off to a good start in life, not being subject to abuse and neglect in early years of life, having a good educational foundation, having an economy that's producing jobs. Those are the greatest fighters we have against crime."
In 2002, according to a Taxpayers Alliance study, Wisconsin ranked 11th in police per capita, and first in arrests per capita (8,286 arrests per 100,000 residents, 71.2% higher than the national norm).
Wisconsin is spending vast amounts on corrections. In 1991, the state prison system had about 7,000 inmates and 35,000 people on probation and parole at a cost of $232.5 million. Last year, there were 22,400 inmates and 72,000 people on probation and parole at a cost of nearly $1.1 billion. This has not corrected social ills. Nor will 30 more Madison officers.
I have never seen the mayor working so quickly to make something happen, nor the Common Council following a mayor in such a conforming and compliant way. There has been practically no public discussion and debate beyond the three neighborhood meetings. The rest of us haven't spoken - but the budget is about to be passed!
North-sider Adam Chern, in an email to a neighborhood listserv, said it best: "If you held a meeting for people afraid of bears, and everyone in attendance was afraid of bears, might we have gotten a mayoral decree for an increase in bear traps?"
No? Then we shouldn't spend our scarce resources on 30 new cops.
Citizen is forum for Isthmus readers. Esty Dinur is a north-side Madison resident.
It's almost too late, but there are still opportunities to comment on the city's 2008 budget. A public hearing will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 6:30 p.m. The council will take up budget amendments, including public comment, on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m., and, if needed, Wednesday, Nov. 14, and Thursday, Nov. 15, both at 7 p.m. All meetings are in the Common Council chambers, 210 Martin Luther King Dr.
And emails can be sent to the entire council at firstname.lastname@example.org.