After a drive-by shooting in front of bars on University Avenue near the UW-Madison campus in 2012, some feared gangs were beginning to invade an area dominated by college students.
Five years later, it has become clear to Madison police and city officials that gang members — some of whom are carrying guns — now consider the 600 block of University Avenue, with its dense collection of bars and restaurants, part of their turf.
Adding to the volatility: A bar in the middle of the block that showcases hip-hop music that also caters to people under 21 for some events.
Fights that started inside the bar turned into brawls involving hundreds of people that spilled onto University Avenue on three successive weekends in late September and early October. Police used large tanks of pepper gas to stop each of them as well as an additional brawl that broke out a few weeks later that started in another bar.
Nobody has been shot in the area this year, although one of those late-night brawls may have led to the shooting death of a Madison man on the Far East Side earlier this year, police say.
“We’ve had a couple of incidents that were bad but could have been much worse. Eventually you run out of that kind of luck,” said Madison police Central District Capt. Jason Freedman. “We’re going to assume that next year is going to be very challenging.”
Ald. Mike Verveer, whose district includes the area, said he’s so on edge about what might happen that many weekends he doesn’t go to bed until 4 a.m.
“It’s not UW students that are causing the problem. The issue is not underage drinking in the bars,” Verveer said. “I’m nervous about this very small area of the Downtown and the fact that it’s a magnet for people who have criminal histories involving use of weapons.”
In the first 10 months of this year, police calls to the 600 block of University Avenue resulted in 173 criminal cases, a 65 percent jump compared to the same period last year, according to Madison police records. Most of the cases (151) occurred between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., a 78 percent jump for that time frame compared to 2016.
The cases accounted for more than one in three of all of the Central District’s cases and included increases for disorderly conduct and underage drinking as well as for aggravated battery and simple assaults, credit card fraud and weapons violations, the data showed.
The city has made some changes that have helped reduce the problem, Freedman said. Congestion at bar time that had fueled fights and other incidents has been limited by moving food carts and taxi stands away from the block, he said. Quickie drug deals and other crimes in parking ramps have been reduced since the ramps eliminated free parking for short visits; now, late-night drivers are required to pay as they enter.
Bar owners and managers also have worked with the city to make the environment safer, Freedman and Verveer said.
For example, the music venue Liquid made several changes after the three fights that broke out there earlier this fall. The changes allowed the bar to maintain its license, which allows it to open its doors to underage patrons for some events, Verveer said. He said he hoped the effort marked a turning point for hip-hop in Madison, which some say has been too quick to crack down on such venues when problems crop up instead of helping them succeed.
“It is fair to say that Liquid is the latest example of being, in a way, victimized by the genre of (hip-hop) music and being victims of their own success,” Verveer said.
Freedman said Liquid’s owners and managers “are people of good faith and good will who want a place for 18- to 20-year-olds to hang out at night. I’m absolutely in favor of that.”
But he said he also wonders why the nightclub is located in the middle of an alcohol zone.
Earlier this year, the Church Key also made changes after police said a huge brawl that started inside the bar contributed to the shooting death of Jameel Easter, 25, of Madison, on June 10. Easter was shot multiple times in a parking lot in the 900 block of Vernon Avenue around 3:25 a.m., police said.
Loitering gang members
What city and police officials can’t control are the hundreds of people who loiter outside the bars, either while they’re open or after they close, Verveer said.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state Department of Corrections and the city’s gang unit have all done periodic surveillance work in the area on weekend nights and have spotted a number of people with a history of criminal activity and gang affiliations in the crowds, he said, including some with weapons.
Freedman, in his first year as district captain, expressed frustration that few of those people have been arrested or their weapons recovered.
“Clearly there are groups around the city that don’t get along with each other and sometimes they end up meeting each other Downtown. That’s certainly a driver” for the increase in violence, he said.
Sometimes the loiterers appear to choose places like food cart lines at bar-time to pick fights with drunken students, said Sonny Torres, the longtime bar manager at the Vintage bar, which is located kitty-corner to the troubled block of bars.
The situation has gotten so bad that the Fluno Center, a nonprofit conference center with guest rooms affiliated with UW-Madison that is located across the street from the bars, has added extra security and patrols, general manager Andy Abelman said.
Abelman said it’s just a matter of time before the fist fights turn into gunfights. “I think there’s going to be one or multiple fatalities,” he said.
at a cost
Overtime pay and other expenses to cover the additional police officers needed to patrol the area on Friday and Saturday nights this summer and fall could rise as much as 50 percent higher than last year, Freedman said.
There were times during weekends this year when all but a handful of the 28 police officers patrolling the entire city in the early morning hours were in a four-block area Downtown, he said.
“But it still wasn’t sufficient to keep people from engaging in disturbances, aggravated batteries, weapons offenses, you name it,” Freedman said.
Sometimes, it’s even difficult to find officers to work the overtime shifts because it’s becoming too dangerous. During one of the September brawls that spilled onto University Avenue, two officers suffered minor injuries, he said.
Freedman has told his officers not to put themselves in danger by entering big fights to arrest somebody.
“If people ask, ‘You had five people fighting, you pepper-sprayed them, why didn’t you arrest anybody?’ Well, (for) what is going to end up being a disorderly conduct or maybe a battery ticket, we’re not going to have our officers risk getting injured or possibly escalate and then we have a serious incident.”
But Torres said the gangs see that as a green light to fight, recalling one brawl that happened in front of dozens of police officers, some of them on horseback.
“You’d think with the bigger police presence that these people would be discouraged from fighting like they do,” he said. “But, nope, they don’t care.”