More than half of the weapons violations in Madison earlier this year, and half the homicides since 2009, were gang-related or -motivated, new police data show.
City officials voiced concern about a rash of gunfire reports in the late winter and early spring — 80 reports between March 1 and the end of May — and were especially troubled by bold and brazen incidents. Many of those could not be verified by police.
Of 19 reports that could be verified over a broader period, between Feb. 1 and June 16, police determined 10 were tied to gangs. Police have made 25 arrests, the majority in gang-related cases, but no arrests have been made in nine cases.
"This type of offense is a priority for us," Police Chief Noble Wray said.
There may have been more instances of shots fired, but officers did not find forensic evidence or victims, Assistant Chief John Davenport said.
The city continues to suffer from gun violence. On Friday night, three men displaying handguns entered and took items from a residence on the 1800 block of Fordem Avenue, and on Sunday night, a man robbed two others at gunpoint outside a residence on the 1000 block of Ann Street.
But the number of incidents has slowed since Mayor Paul Soglin, police and others raised concerns at a May 17 press conference, and gunmen two days later fired shots into a crowd of more than 100 people outside bars on the 600 block of University Avenue, Wray said.
"It helps when you get a number of these folks arrested and charged," Wray said.
The community has also responded, including a Boys & Girls Club of Dane County initiative to bring summer programming to youth in the Brentwood neighborhood. And the City Council recently approved $57,000 for police overtime and benefits for citywide safety initiatives and to buy bicycles and equipment to increase bike patrols in challenged neighborhoods.
Police are also pursuing a $300,000 grant to support the department's gang and special investigations units, and officials are expected to announce another initiative in the near future, Wray said.
"We will continue to use a combination of strategies relying on law enforcement and community services," Soglin said.
"The key is being proactive," Wray said. "The key is prevention."
The city has experienced a dramatic increase in gangs and gang membership since city officials first publicly acknowledged their existence in the fall of 1993.
Back then, police identified roughly 200 hard-core gang members. Now, police estimate more than 60 gangs with more than 1,300 members in the city.
The proliferation is due to an increase in Latino gangs, the increasing involvement of young women and the fact that the city now has second- and third-generation gang members, Wray said.
The gang activity can bring violence. A police study shows that 16 of 42 homicides from 2004 through 2011 were gang-motivated or -related and that many suspects and victims had gang affiliations.
"We're not much different than most cities," Soglin said. "Our homicides and shootings are primarily from gang activity and domestic violence."
Police are continuing investigations of unresolved weapons cases and will continue to be proactive, including an attempt to work with the hip-hop community to promote a message that crime and violence are not acceptable, visits to the homes of known gang members before school resumes, and revisiting recommendations in a 2007 gang task force report, Wray said, adding that education and jobs are important deterrents to gang activity.
"Every young person has a choice," Soglin said. "I want to make sure everyone in this city has an opportunity to contribute and that they don't feel isolated from our economy."