Night Safety

Staying Safe Downtown: 16 Safety Tips for Students

Published on September 10th, 2012
By Jennifer Oppriecht

It’s an annual rite of fall for Madison criminals to put out the welcome mat for returning UW students.  You’ve been away for a while, and you’ve probably let your guard down when it comes to safety in the streets and your apartment.

The criminal element takes advantage of that fact every year.  But what’s more troubling is that this year, there seems be an even larger criminal element in the city. Add to that the fact that funding for SAFEcab service has been discontinued, and it becomes very important for you to learn how to stay safe on campus.

A Busy Summer For the Bad Guys in Downtown Madison

If you were gone this summer, then you’re probably not aware that things got pretty busy for Madison police.  There had already been a 50 percent increase in burglaries and muggings  from January through March near the UW, but then several other high-profile incidents have occurred in the downtown area, including:

  • A May shooting near a University Avenue bar
  • An attack on Badgers running back Montee Ball
  • A July fight in the 600 block of University Avenue that resulted in police using pepper-spray to break it up

The City of Madison has responded, allotting an additional $50,000 to increase the number of police officers patrolling University Avenue on weekend nights.  According to a city of Madison news release: “The detail will consist of officers, detectives, and members of the MPD’s Crime Prevention and Gang Unit.

Their collective goal is to deter criminal activity in the State Street corridor, to include the 600 block of University Avenue. In recent months, large numbers of people have been congregating in these areas after 10 p.m. The composition of the crowd has changed dramatically from days when it has been predominantly students waiting to get into bars or area restaurants to large groups of people just hanging out.”

This obviously doesn’t sound like a place you want to be hanging out, but it’s an indication that, as Madison grows, it begins to feel the big-city problems encountered by other urban areas. A look at this map of downtown Madison, courtesy of, indicates crime is concentrated in the downtown, isthmus area.


The goal of this post is not to scare you, but to make you aware of what’s happening in the city, and to provide you with tips and resources for staying safe.

Why Criminals Put Out the Welcome Mat for Returning Students

Sad to say, but students are a big target for criminals in downtown Madison.  Why?  A variety of reasons, but the big ones include:

  • Students from a small town may not be used to the safety measures a bigger city demands.
  • Students may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, especially late at night.
  • Students tend to be walking the streets late at night after studying or partying.
  • Students are not used to living on their own, and may not recognize the steps they need to secure their apartment.

These are typical reasons, and they occur in campuses all across the country.  So what can you do about it?

Staying Safe in Madison

We addressed many of these items in a recent post, “Seven Ways to Stay Safe in Your Madison Apartment.”  In this post, we’ve updated that list, incorporating some great suggestions from UW-Madison’s “Safety Where You Live” page on their website: Before we get into safety tips for inside your apartment and outside your apartment, check out this safety video from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.  Enjoy the accents while you pick up some common-sense, universal tips!

And here’s a great video about personal safety, including advice on the use of pepper spray and how to ward off an attacker:

Staying Safe In Your Apartment

1. Make sure you’re renting in a safer area.  Cheap rent is tempting, but you get what you pay for.  In the case of some Madison apartments, you’ll be getting a high crime area.  Before you rent, be sure to ask current renters or try and seek out people who live in the area, and ask about the criminal activity.  You can also visit the City of Madison’s crime maps for a breakdown.

2. Keep your apartment locked up – especially when you’re at home or sleeping.  It’s the number one mistake of both first-time and frequent renters.  Forget to lock your doors and windows, even if you’re in a building with a secured entryway or on non-street level floors. For example, third floor apartments can be broken into through fire escapes.   Here’s the important point:  Lock them even though you’re at home – and especially when you’re sleeping!

3. Beware the propped door trick.  Madison police report that a common tactic is for criminals to prop open a door in a locked entryway during the daylight hours.  Residents, figuring that someone is moving, don’t bother to close the door.  Then, when darkness falls, the criminals return and break into an apartment. If you see a propped door, just close it.  If a resident has anything to say about it, let them know why you’re taking action. Anyone who is supposed to be able to have easy access a building should have a key or know the access codes. Don’t make it easy for everyone else, too!

4. Don’t talk on the cell phone when you’re entering the building.  Your cell phone can be tempting, but criminals like to take advantage of people who are distracted.

5. Watch out for people standing in shaded areas or overgrown shrubbery.  These are perfect hiding places.  If you feel like there are some potentially dangerous spots around the entrance, alert your landlord.

6. If there’s a problem with the entryway lock, let the landlord know ASAP.  Don’t count on a neighbor to phone in the issue.  Contact your landlord immediately and let them know.

7. Add an extra deterrent to your sliding glass door. If you’ve got a patio door on a lower level, slip a broom handle into the track of the sliding glass door for extra reinforcement.

8. Trust your feelings.  Obi Wan Kenobi spoke wisely.  If you notice a suspicious character or you feel uncertain about a late night walk across campus, either call the police or call a friend.  Don’t tempt fate.

Staying Safe Outside Your Apartment

9. Use the blue light emergency telephone.  Did you know there are over one hundred blue emergency telephones located through the campus with a direct connection to UW-Madison’s police department?  The phones have a blue light above them, and are labeled “Emergency.”  UWPD will respond to calls from these phones, generally in residence halls or on campus.

10. Carry your cell phone, but try not to talk on it.  Again, you don’t want to be distracted, so walk with a cell phone but try not to talk on it.

11. Travel with a friend.  Especially late at night, be sure to walk with a friend whenever you can.  The UW’s SAFE Nighttime Services can help you get from A to B.  (As we mentioned earlier, UW-Madison’s SAFEride Cab program has been discontinued.)

12. Stick to the well-lit areas.  Shortcuts are great, but not in the dead of the night.  Stay on the well-lit corridors, and keep your eyes peeled around building recesses or overgrown shrubbery.

13. Walk with your head up and make eye contact.  A very typical reaction is to avert your eyes when someone is walking past you, but making brief eye contact will help you quickly assess a potential threat.

14. Let friends know when you’re leaving and when you’ll arrive.  Look, you text your friends nearly 4,000 times a day.  Would it hurt to just let them know when you’re leaving?  Probably not.  In fact, it might help quite a bit.

15. Wear mobile attire.  You might be carrying some heels for an event later in the evening, but on your way from A to B, wear some tennis shoes.  Just in case.

16. Report any suspicious activity to the police.  Granted, there are quite a few suspicious looking types wandering around Madison.  But if you see someone that’s a potential threat, don’t hesitate to call.

Safety Resources Phone Number:

We’ve included a number of phone numbers below, courtesy of the UWPD.

UW-Madison Police Department (On Campus)
From a campus phone, dial 9 first: 9-9-1-1
Non-emergency 608-264-COPS (2677)

City of Madison Police Department (Off Campus)
Emergency 9-1-1
Non-Emergency 608-266-4275
Crime Stoppers 608-266-6014

SAFE Nighttime Services
Free late-night buses, and walking escorts available to UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff  608-262-5000
Downtown Cabs
Badger Cab 608-256-5566
Green Cab of Madison 608-255-1234
Madison Taxi 608-255-8294
Union Cab 608-242-2000

UW-Madison’s emergency notification system that’s designed to provide information about an active emergency.  You can receive text messages, emails, or phone messages.


A volunteer-based crime prevention effort modeled after traditional neighborhood watch programs involves over 600 students, faculty and staff volunteers. U

W-Madison’s University Health Services Counseling Services Resources include 24-hour crisis intervention and consultation on drug and alcohol abuse.

UW-Madison’s University Health Services Sexual Assault and Dating Violence Prevention A website with information about violence prevention, including sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and more.

We’ve provided you with quite a bit of information, but now we’d like to hear your thoughts.  Do you think UW-Madison is a safe place?  Are there tips and suggestions that we haven’t mentioned that you’d like to share?

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