As the City of Madison changes, so does crime

By Jessi Schoville

MADISON, Wis. – Madison continually shows up on national “best places to live” lists, but while the chances of your car getting stolen are declining, the chance of becoming the victim of a violent crime may be rising.

Nationally, crime has been a declining trend since the 1990s when crime peaked across most of the nation. Statistically, this holds true for much of Wisconsin as a whole, including the city of Madison.

Hernando Rojas, the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, confirmed this finding. His scholarship focuses on various topics, but one of his specific concentrations is in the area of media effects and their relationship with public opinion, particularly in the cases of crime and government.

“There are national and local dynamics that affect crime. In the U.S., it’s pretty clear that the pattern since the ’90s has been one of declining crime, in particular violent crime,” Rojas said. “We see a similar sort of pattern in Wisconsin.”

Rojas also argues that while crime has been decreasing, the perception of danger in society has been on the rise. The professor has a few theories as to why this might be.

“I think one of the obvious explanations is it is related to media content and coverage of crime,” Rojas said. “I think that’s a fairly problematic thing — we are not recognizing the public policies that have actually had a positive impact on crime. Still though, people continue to be worried about crime – I’m not saying they shouldn’t be worried – but they should probably be worried less.”

But should they be?

In most types of criminal offenses, this statistical evidence holds true. For example, crimes such as burglaries, auto theft and robberies have decreased.

In 2005, the City of Madison reported 1,463 burglaries, 635 motor vehicle thefts and 330 cases of robberies, but with new policing methods based on community trust and proactive action, those numbers have dropped respectively to 1,208 burglaries (-18 percent), 262 motor vehicle thefts (-59 percent) and 222 robberies (-33 percent) in 2015.

Unfortunately, this dramatic improvement is inexplicably failing to reach some of the more serious criminal categories like homicide, assault and sexual violence.

When contrasting the same two years — 2005 and 2015 — rates for all three of those crime types is shown to climb, and in some cases, dramatically so. In 2005, Madison Police reported three homicides, 80 rapes and 431 aggravated assaults. By 2015, those numbers had risen to six homicides (+100 percent), 247 forcible sex offenses (+309 percent) and 569 aggravated assaults (+25 percent).

The Madison Police Department, however, is convinced things are getting better, but says the geographic area has become undoubtedly different.

“There were more pockets of problems where most of the crime was contained to certain geographic areas,” said MPD’s Public Information Officer, Joel Despain. “I think the city got very good at disrupting those areas and building up community in those areas where crime was prevalent, and in doing so, they moved some of it into neighborhoods where people had been living for 30 or 40 years and never experienced any level of crime.”

While the argument that crime is simply dispersing appears to have some merit, it still brushes past the growing numbers of certain types of crimes and crime as a whole.

Even when not looking at specific examples, an increase can be seen when it comes to the case of Madison. For example, when crime peaked in 1990-1991, the amount of total criminal offenses reported by MPD numbered at 14,728 in 1990 and 15,053 in 1991. Since then the numbers have steadily decreased and since 1998, Madison has continued to hover around the 10,000 mark. By 2015 that number had jumped back up to 14,265, nearly what it was when crime was at its worst.

So, while certain neighborhoods may have been “cleaned up,” Madison as a whole does appear to be in a crime rut no matter which way you look at it. Violent crime and total crime have risen to near historic levels in the city, and with the problematic geographic areas no longer around to target, the Madison Police Department is looking to the city for help.

“Primarily we are looking at being proactive, community-based and trust-based in our policing,” DeSpain said. “But, we can’t do it without the community, and we have very strong community partners across the city, whether that be with the school district, with clergy or a neighborhood association. It’s a collective effort to keep the city prosperous and good place to live.”

All statistics were obtained through, whom partners with Madison Police Department.