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An Eight-and-a-Half Block Plan to Combat Downtown Crime

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The numbers speak for themselves. Between 2014 and 2016, incidents of gun violence in Minneapolis went up from 1478 to 2475, with shootings more than doubling. In the First Precinct, which covers Minneapolis’ downtown area, virtually every form of crime has increased over the last two years. Violent crimes are up 20% from last year. Whereas at this time last year we had zero homicides in the First Precinct, this year we’ve had 5. The number of gunshot victims has increased 46% in the last year. Robberies are up 41% since last year. Incidents of rape have increased 34% since 2015. At the same time, arrests for these crimes are down. The mayor of Minneapolis has sole responsibility for the city's police department and, as such, no one is more accountable for failures of crime and public safety than the mayor. It is clear that we are moving backwards and that our leadership lacks the clarity of direction to set us back on the right course.

First Precinct Crime Statistics as of 9/25/2017. Source: MPD

First Precinct Crime Statistics as of 9/25/2017. Source: MPD

It is unacceptable to ignore this problem. It is negligent to insist that we’re doing everything we can or that what we’re doing is working. The simple truth is that it’s not and that there’s much more we can do.

Earlier this year, in response to pressure from downtown businesses, the Mayor formed a working group to develop a downtown safety plan for reducing crime along Hennepin Avenue. The Mayor chose to exclude from that work group the city council members who represent downtown. The resulting plan is limited in scope to daytime safety issues and does not mention, let alone address, violent crimes like shootings, assaults, and robberies, most of which happen at night. The plan also does not provide for any increase in ongoing police presence and visibility nor address ways in which policing can be reformed to improve crime prevention and reduction. Indeed, the action steps presented in that plan are largely targeted at reducing the motivation of would-be perpetrators to commit crimes (e.g., work with nonprofits to expand youth dialog and engagement) to the exclusion of measures that can make it more difficult or risky to commit a crime or that remove situations that are well-known catalysts from crime and violence.

It is time to offer up specifics. I propose a targeted strategy of bolstered police presence, dramatically increased engagement, and results-oriented interventions for reducing crime and increasing safety in the eight-and-a-half block area of downtown Minneapolis that is at the center of most violent crime incidents (“The Eight-And-A-Half Block Plan”). Just as we know that a small number of people are responsible for the majority of violent crimes, we know that a small number of places comprise the locations where most violent crimes take place and that a small number of illegally obtained guns from a small number of sources are being used in the course of those crimes. We also know that specific situations, such as large crowds that are produced at bar close, create environments that often trigger violence. The Eight-And-A-Half Block Plan focuses on those discrete, actionable dimensions of downtown crime and on increasing the difficulty of committing a crime, reducing the opportunity to commit a crime, and eliminating known catalysts of crime.

  • Narrow officers’ beats. It is well-known and studied that crime reduction strategies work best when concentrated on very small geographic areas--typically 2 blocks or less. We should narrow the geographic size of officers’ beats downtown and maintain consistent assignments and scheduling so that the same officer is patrolling the same area at the same time on the same days every single week. This will help both to strengthen relationships with officers and the businesses and residents they serve and to increase the depth of officers’ knowledge and ability to anticipate when, where, and how crime is most likely to occur. As further described below, this will require increasing the number of officers on the force.
     

  • Empower tailored solutions. Narrowing officers’ beats is not, in and of itself, sufficient if those officers are bound by top-down protocols that interfere with their ability to work with businesses, residents, and community members to tailor their public safety and law enforcement approach to the unique circumstances and attributes of the area in question. We must enact police policy and practice that grants officers the discretion to work with residents and business to identify when, where, and what type of law enforcement activity is best suited to address the specific problem crimes and problem areas at hand.
     

  • Increase the number of officers on the force. Narrowing officers’ beats means that we need more officers. Just as the number of teachers affects class size and the level of student-teacher interactions, the number of officers affects the size of beats and the level of officer-community interactions. Let me be clear that the goal of increasing the number of officers downtown is not to increase arrests by X percent but to decrease crime by 100 percent. The days of lurking and spitting laws are rightfully over in Minneapolis and they should never come back. As such, the focus of my plan is getting crime down, and doing so by reducing opportunities for crime to take place and enabling meaningful, results-oriented community policy. Currently, the Mayor’s budget allocates for adding one additional officer to the force. This is nowhere near what is needed to get our force up to the number of officers it needs. In fact, two weeks ago in her 2018 budget address, the Mayor stated that she has “no hesitation” extending the timeline to reach our city’s goal of having 901 sworn officers by an additional year. She may be unconcerned with the need for more officers, but those impacted by the dramatic increase in downtown crime are not.
     

  • Focus downtown CRT officers more on street crimes and gang activities.  Community Response Team (CRT) officers are used by MPD to deal with specific high-crime areas with predictable patterns so that the precinct can maintain flexibility and capacity to respond to other service requests and needs. Currently, the city uses CRT officers primarily to deal with complaints about drug dealing and illegal liquor sales, which are mostly non-violent nuisance crimes. Given the predictability of gang related activities and their immediate nexus to much of the violent crime downtown, CRT officers should be refocused on following and watching gang members and their movements and activities, especially following bar close.
     

  • Reduce truancy and divert truant youth into community programs. An increase in crime goes hand-in-hand with an increase in truancy. Truancy and curfew laws were among the best short- and long-term crime prevention strategies the city of Minneapolis used after experiencing a rise in crime in 2006. First and second time offenders were directed into community-located diversion programs that helped these young people find constructive outlets for their energy. Overtime, enforcement of truancy and curfew laws to direct young people into these programs has waned. We should make the necessary investments and reforms to revive them.
     

  • Convert vacant lots into green space, parklets, or multi-use public spaces. Vacant lots are frequently used to hide and transfer illegal guns and often become hot-spots for loitering. Converting them into spaces with great foot traffic and public use reduces the opportunity for such activities.
     

  • Improve night time illumination in high-crime areas. The city should partner with housing developments and businesses to improve lighting on both municipal and private properties.
     

  • Improve MPD protocols for evidence collection, especially for crimes involving guns. Ensuring the integrity of evidence collection enables convictions for serious gun crimes to stick and helps remove illegal guns from the streets.
     

  • Improve identification and tracking of illegally owned guns. Violent crimes are very often committed using illegally obtained guns, the majority of which come from a small number of sources. Identifying those sources can both help shut down the flow of illegal guns and track down illegal guns already in circulation.
     

  • Develop a public-private network of security cameras. MPD should work with local businesses to develop and implement a memorandum of understanding and related policy to link together public and private security cameras into a network that can be accessed by law enforcement during emergencies. While we can presently access public cameras in a timely fashion, we need contact and location of camera placement for privately held businesses so we can all work together.
     

  • Create municipal summer employment for at-risk youth. The city should collaborate with the Parks Board, Hennepin County, and other units of government to provide these targeted opportunities.
     

  • Train and deploy street outreach workers to de-escalate conflicts and fights before they turn violent. While much of this is already being done, the program can be bolstered and laser-focused in warmer months.
     

  • Stagger bar closing times to reduce rush of crowds emptying onto the streets. We can’t claim to be a 24-hour city if we are rolling up the sidewalks at an arbitrarily selected hour, and we can’t pretend to have a vibrant nightlife if we are herding people away from downtown as soon as the clock strikes 2 am. We must stop using the “stampede and clear out” method presently being used, where bars empty onto the streets at 2 am, people are then pushed out of downtown, and leaving a city void of activity and eyes on the street. Like clockwork, it is almost always in these hours following the clearance when shootings occur.
     

  • Learn to value the night. Our night life can be more than a bunch of people getting drunk and going home. We can further enhance cultural aspects from design to fashion to music, and that innovation and creativity can further bolster our economy during the day. For purposes of crime, positive activity and street life hinders crime from taking place, and dissipates dead space that is ripe for bad activity. Other cities like Amsterdam and New York have instituted a “Night Mayor” - an unelected individual tasked with offering real time solutions and recommendations to the unique set of circumstances at night. This individual can help prevent crime, eliminate red tape, protect cultural icons notwithstanding increased rent, and provide real-time feedback to a council that may understand downtown during daylight hours but lack familiarity with nighttime issues.
     

  • Incorporate additional valet zones, cab stands, and ride-share pickup areas outside of bars and nightclubs to aid egress from crowds at bar close.
     

  • Steer urban improvements toward high-crime areas of downtown, not away. Density, walkability, adequate street lighting, and even landscaping are all elements of urban design that have been empirically shown to reduce crime both by reducing the opportunity to engage in criminal activity and by increasing the enjoyment and pride that residents take in inhabiting the space and reducing their willingness to vandalize it.
     

  • Restore funding for Crime Prevention Specialists. Several years ago, Minneapolis drastically cut funding for Crime Prevention Specialists that work with neighborhoods to develop local strategies for preventing violent crime, sex trafficking, and robberies. While there have been several opportunities to restore funding for crime prevention specialists in the Mayor's budget, it has not happened. A reactionary approach to crime is more costly than prevention both in terms of financial burdens on the city and, more importantly, irreparable harm to victims, communities, businesses, and, also, perpetrators. Restoring funding for crime prevention specialists must be a top priority.

For my broader public safety and police reform policy, please click here.