Let’s Be Against Crime

Democrats need to come out forcefully against the bad guys.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with new Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes. I was impressed by him overall, but I was especially taken by one of the first things he told me.

“I hate crime,” he said with conviction. “I just hate crime.”

That would be, you might say, getting back to basics. A top cop who hates crime. That’s an excellent place to start.

The number of shots-fired calls reported in the first six months of this year in Madison was 103, or four more than in the same period last year and 42 more than in 2019. Last year, 10 people were murdered here. That’s still astonishingly low for a city our size, but it was about double our average number.

Barnes’ comment reminded me of Milwaukee’s long-time mayor, John Norquist, who had a sort of intellectual bluntness. When Norquist was testing a run for governor back in the 1990’s he told the state Democratic convention that the party should talk about crime. I remember watching him in an interview after his speech. “I told them that crime is bad and we should be against it,” he said.

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes says he hates crime.

There you go. Crime is bad. Let’s be against it.

If you think this is simple you don’t know the hard-left in the Democratic Party. As columnist Peggy Noonan wrote recently, “(To the Democratic left) rising crime is simply more evidence that if we don’t focus on root causes—poverty, racism—crime will continue to rise. Rising crime is proof that inequity brings violence.”

She goes on to quote New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a town hall last July, when the crime uptick had begun: “Do we think this has to do with the fact that there’s record unemployment in the United States right now?” People are “economically desperate.” “Maybe this has to do with the fact that people aren’t paying their rent and are scared to pay their rent and so they go out and they need to feed their child and they don’t have money so . . . they feel like they either need to shoplift some bread or go hungry.”

And to bring it closer to home, here’s what Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said right after looters trashed State Street last summer. “If you are angry about property damage, be more angry about the unjustified deaths of black people. Property can be repaired, but we can’t bring people back to life.”

She may have intended something else, but the clear message the mayor sent to voters was that looting, vandalism and arson were okay as long as they were committed in the cause of social justice. This, folks, is not a winning message.

I’m worried about this because I think that the Biden administration has done so many smart things, and has already done so much good for the middle class, that I badly want Democrats to defy the odds and keep control of Congress next year. By pushing the right policies, emphasizing the right issues, and talking about it all in the proper way, that’s possible.

But crime is a big issue and the Democrats, thanks to folks like AOC and Rhodes-Conway, are on the wrong side of it in the eyes of too many voters. But even moderate Democrats are afraid that if they talk tough (or even just display a sense of urgency) about crime, they’ll be accused of being racists.

Now, one could say that, to the hard-left, everybody is a racist (in fact, Barnes told me that he’s been called a racist) and so it’s not worth worrying about. But I used to be a pol and so I know what it’s like. It’s the activists in the party who make the most noise and so they can feel like the majority.

Actually, polls show that Black and Hispanic voters are more concerned about crime and more against defunding the police than white liberals. That makes sense when you think about it because affluent white liberals live in neighborhoods that don’t see much crime of any kind and see no violent crime at all. To them crime is a complex social problem that they read about in the Atlantic and Harpers and the New York Times. To too many Black people, crime is something they live with in their neighborhoods every day.

So, what should the Dems do? Well, for starters let’s declare a moratorium on talk of “defunding the police” or “attacking the root causes of crime.” Instead, demonstrate a sense of urgency. Show that you understand how serious this is and that you have no time for the guys with the guns. Say bluntly that your goal is to get the bad guys off the streets.

Look, I agree that there are too damn many guns out there and that they are too easy to get. I agree that crime is linked to poverty. I agree that we lock up too many people and that prisons can be crime schools.

I also think that we have too many broken families that don’t provide enough moral direction, but here I’m starting to cross a line with the woke left. To them, absolutely everything is about race. Racism explains 100% of every problem. But I don’t think it does. There is room for family and personal responsibility in the equation, at least in the minds of the vast majority of average voters, most definitely including voters of color.

The Democrats can do well in the next election and I want them to. But crime and wokeness are their weak points. They need to shore them up by speaking directly, and with urgency, to the problems.

Welcome to the 144th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “Let’s Be Against Crime

  1. This is where I had to stop and ask, “huh??” : It’s where it says, ”I’m worried about this because I think that the Biden administration has done so many smart things, and has already done so much good for the middle class,”

    In your column you can claim whatever you want with or without evidence, documentation, or further explanation — but this reference to “smart things”, and having done “so much good for the middle class”. Not saying you’re wrong, but rather that I’d a few arrows in my quiver if I’m to defend the Biden administration’s early achievements. Maybe there is a list that someone else has put together for us?


    1. Fair enough. Here’s a no doubt incomplete list. In the COVID relief bill (which I have said was bigger than it needed to be) there is an expanded child tax credit that is projected to cut child poverty in half. Mitt Romney proposed a form of this payment. so it’s fair to call it a bipartisan idea. The various small business relief programs aided the middle class. So did the $1,500 one-time payments (though I do think the upper limit for the payments should have been lower). And, Biden’s White House estimates that 90% of the work from his infrastructure bill (which it looks like some Republicans will vote for) will go to blue collar workers.


  2. You say “So, what should the Dems do? Well, for starters let’s declare a moratorium on talk of “defunding the police” or “attacking the root causes of crime.” Instead, demonstrate a sense of urgency. Show that you understand how serious this is and that you have no time for the guys with the guns. Say bluntly that your goal is to get the bad guys off the streets.”

    You contradict yourself by following with saying we lock up too many people and prisons are crime schools. You’re not actually putting forward anything tangible beyond broad words, no real policy or plan besides “get tough and lock up bad guys”. Useless.

    The defund movement is saying we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. It’s saying police don’t prevent crime, and they don’t. Obviously you buy into the extremist mischaracterization of the basic idea, which is exactly the path set out by those in power to prevent serious discussion about how we fundamentally approach policing in our society. You just jump on the “crime bad, need more cops” train that over and over proves to not really work – but at least you “did something”.

    You mention broken families as a cause then ignore it. There are policy decisions that could encourage stable families, too many to list here unless you really want to know.

    We could improve the “corrections” system to push it to actually correct because as is there is far too little. Where’s the data on recidivism broken down by prison? There are plenty of ways to incentivize the institution to actually rehabilitate those in their prison. And we don’t even collect the data to even begin thinking about that – do you think that’s on accident?

    Stop wasting time and resources on victimless crimes. That is the root of anti police sentiment and that’s why crime victims are disappointed in the police – not enough resources towards avenging actual victims and too many towards “addressing” the victimless crimes which are actually social problems. Get the cops out of that business. That’s another idea in the defund movement.

    Get police off of “crime prevention” and let them focus on “crime solving”. Telling police to prevent crime leads to viewing everyone as a potential criminal that they need to stop from committing a crime. Don’t you see how that viewpoint starts so many of the issues we have? That’s what happens when you measure Chiefs’ performance by crime rate rather than clearance rate.

    I want police to focus on crime victims and finding the actual person who committed a specific crime. That’s literally not what many officers do – instead they’re sent on “prevention” missions or drug war bs that only creates more problems and don’t avenge any victim at all. It incentivizes pretextural traffic stops and flimsy-justified searches and frisks and wide-net abuse of marginalized communities in the name of crime prevention. Yeah, these communities want less crime but how would you like getting pulled over 4 times a month as part of the crime prevention strategy?

    Get off slogans and messaging and get on some real ideas, real policy that make real changes, not shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. That’s the problem with our politics, and with this article.


    1. As I’ve written before, if the advocates of “defund the police” mean something other than literally taking money away from police departments, they need to say it, because “defund the police” is the most disastrous political slogan imaginable.


  3. I don’t really care about slogans, just policy. I’m not on a “defund the police” mission necessarily myself, I’d fund as the facts necessitate. But if that slogan pushes a closer look rather than endless budget increases with no structural changes, than great. I’m sure a lot of people mean it literally, I’m fine with that too. Let’s get a lot of ideas out there and really get open to real change.


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