The 600 block of University Avenue has been a hot spot for late-night violence for years, but recent incidents have Madison police suggesting that the corridor has reached an unprecedented level of violence.
“It’s tough down there right now,” said Central District Capt. Jason Freedman.
New to the job — he was appointed in January — Freedman has made it a point to look at the situation from ground level. He’s pulled several recent late-night weekend shifts and said that on each occasion he’s witnessed or intervened in fights and disturbances in the block, located between Lake and Frances streets and home to bars like Wando’s, Liquid and Double U, and near the Red Shed on Frances Street.
He said on nights he hasn’t worked there have been stabbings and people using Tasers or pepper spray to either assault or threaten others.
“Honestly, I’ve missed some of the biggest ones,” he said of the large disturbances that have become a regular feature on the block.
He noted that one disturbance at 2 a.m. on June 11 led to a homicide at a Vernon Avenue parking lot.
Jameel Easter, 25, was shot dead in a spray of bullets about 90 minutes after the brawl, which resulted in one injury that required medical attention. A vigil for Easter Saturday night at the site of the murder was also peppered with gunfire.
In a blog post Friday Freedman drew on statistics to highlight the new level of violence.
Data from January to June show that batteries on the block have increased from last year by 70 percent. Felony batteries, of which there was only one last year, numbered nine in 2017. Disturbances, which numbered 61 last year, have risen by 59 percent to 97. And calls for service are up 10 percent to 507.
“Things have been getting worse for the last several years,” Freedman said. “But this year some things have really spiked.”
Fights have long been a problem in the area, but the level of violence and the frequency of weapons have increased, he said.
So, too, has the disregard for police authority.
“It seems like the overall level of defiance or lack of compliance — it just seems like the temperature’s gone up this year versus last year, although last year was hotter than two or three or four years ago.”
Freedman said the city as whole is seeing an escalation in disturbances, which he attributed to “growing pains,” but the downtown in particular has become a destination for people looking for a place to “hang out.”
“When you get lots of people just hanging around, you add in intoxication, bad things are going to happen,” he said. “And there’s a certain level of anonymity down there because of the numbers.”
He said the crowds have provided cover for “predators” looking to cause trouble.
“The environment kind of sets that up,” he said. “In almost any other place in the city you wouldn’t have some of those ingredients in play.”
For years, the Police Department has beefed up downtown staffing on summer weekend nights, but Freedman said their presence is not sufficient to get a handle on the violence.
The escalation of disturbances isn’t restricted to just the summer months, Freedman said. The department dispatched a team of extra officers downtown last winter for several weekends in a row, “which is something we haven’t done for the last several years,” he said.
“Not only are we seeing more problematic stuff over the summer, but in general, even in the cold months, we’re going to continue to see issues,” he said.
The city is looking at other means to deal with the issue, including a proposal to ban late-night vending on the block, which encourages the thick crowd of intoxicated young bar hoppers to linger and interact.
Freedman said that he also called a meeting between police, city attorney staffers, the area’s alder, Mike Verveer, and area bar owners to look for solutions. And he’s hoping that increasing the lines of communication with bar owners, and between bars, will help police respond to incidents before they get out of hand.
And he said the department is utilizing technology “to make for more consistent approaches to dealing with problem individuals.”
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff at play,” he said, “but it all starts with ‘Are we on the same page, here?’”