Minneapolis cops fight crime, and the perception of crime, downtownby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Over the last few years, an increase in law enforcement presence in downtown Minneapolis has become one of the rites of summer. This summer, the city is coordinating its efforts with Metro Transit, in the wake of some high-profile violent crimes on buses. In addition to patrolling the streets, city police will keep an eye on several busy downtown bus stops.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Hennepin Ave. passes through the heart of the downtown Minneapolis entertainment district. It is often packed with cars and buses. It's also the site of heavy foot traffic. Police officers who patrol here are on the lookout for robberies, assaults, drug possession and drug dealing.
Bus stops are often magnets for drug-dealing or aggressive panhandling. Police officials say targeting so-called nuisance crimes helps prevent more serious, violent crime.
On a recent afternoon, two Minneapolis police officers are in the process of placing a young man under arrest. The suspect is African American. He appears to be a teenager. His hands are cuffed behind his back and his elbows are at an awkward angle. It looks like he's struggling against the grip of the two white police officers who are trying to get him into a nearby squad car. The policemen shout at the young man, telling him to stand up.
It is a scene that will likely be repeated many times this summer. The city of Minneapolis has recently appropriated $500,000 to pay for overtime for more police officers to work primarily in the downtown Safe Zone. The zone is several blocks long, and extends about two blocks on either side of Hennepin Ave. Thirty security cameras monitor the area.
Police officials say the strategy has led to decreases in violent crime downtown, by as much as 20 percent in 2005, the program's first year. Arrests for livability crimes have increased more than 40 percent since then.
Minneapolis police officer Dave Shotley is standing on the corner of 7th and Hennepin, right outside the entrance of Gameworks. The arcade with a bar is one of the main attractions in the Block E entertainment complex. It's also one of the hot spots Minneapolis cops are paying particular attention to.
As he talks, Shotley's eyes scan passersby.
"You'd be amazed at how prevalent narcotics dealing is," says Shotley. "And you just watch their body language. They're looking back and forth. Most people when they're walking, they don't keep looking behind themselves. But these people, the drug dealers, they're looking back and forth. They're looking to see if we're around."
Shotley and his partner, Officer Jeff Murcel, have just started a walking patrol. They've been instructed to ticket people they catch jaywalking, or even just spitting on the sidewalk. They will also stop and talk with others they see repeatedly walking up and down the street.
"We'll stop and talk to them, and see what they're up to. See what's their destination, run their names for any warrants," says Shotley. "Sometimes you get lucky -- they have warrants and you bring them to jail. Sometimes you just tell them, 'We don't want to see you down here anymore.'"
Over the course of their shift, officers Shotley and Murcel stop and talk to five young men and get their names. All of them have criminal histories. Their records include arrests for loitering and burglary. One has an auto theft conviction.
One man is carrying a joint's worth of marijuana in a small bag. But the officers don't arrest him. In fact, they don't arrest any of them -- apparently because all the young men were relatively cooperative.
All the men are African American except for one named Michael, who is white and lives in Anoka.
Michael has been up and down Hennepin Ave. He's wearing an oversized Philadelphia 76ers jersey, baseball cap, sunglasses and short pants that hang low enough that the cuffs hit mid-shin.
Michael finally says he's trying to find a friend who got busted for possession of stolen property.
A squad car pulls up, and Shotley uses its computer to check Michael for outstanding warrants. He's got an arrest for burglary and a protection order against him, but no warrants.
Michael is carrying an unopened can of beer in his backpack. And since he's not yet 21, officer Shotley dumps it in the gutter.
"Hey Mike -- watch your P's and Q's out here," Shotley warns.
Rain is falling on Hennepin Ave. this weekday afternoon. Despite the soaking, there's still considerable foot traffic. A couple of young black men are keeping dry under the overhang in front of Gameworks.
"I'm just standing here waiting for my ride," says one young man, who won't give his name.
He's 24 and a student at a vocational school in north Minneapolis. He's wearing baggy clothing and has rows of braids that sit tight against his head.
He knows that just by standing there, he's attracting the attention of police officers. And he says the police unfairly judge people who look like him.
"They judge you just by your appearance," he says. "I'm not going to say it's a racial issue, but they just judge you."
His complaints draw the attention of another young man standing nearby.
This man will also not give his real name, but says he goes by P-Funk. He's 23 and lives in north Minneapolis. He says the city would rather keep young black men like him out of downtown.
"Look at the City Center," he says. "It ain't nowhere for a young black person to go in there no more. No Twins town, no Foot Locker. None of that. No Urban Wear. They took all that (expletive) away from us. They trying to make this to where it ain't nothing but white people."
Police officials deny that they single out black youth. Officers say they look at the behaviors that raise suspicion of criminal acts, not skin color.
But the perception that police are pushing out black youth as a way to make white people feel safer about coming downtown is shared by more than those who feel targeted.
Julia Pollock is waiting for a bus near the corner of 7th and Hennepin. She says the police presence here borders on overkill.
"Who are they protecting?" asks Pollock. "People who live out in the suburbs and aren't used to this urban life?"
Pollock, who is white, suspects that race is playing a factor in the amount of police downtown.
But Carmela Swanson doesn't think the police are unfairly targeting the young black men downtown. Swanson, an African American woman, says the young men bring the attention on themselves by their behavior.
She says she often gets cat-called and verbally harassed, and she says recently her daughters got that treatment when they came to Block E to see a movie.
"They were harassed by some young men due to the fact that they would not engage in any conversations with them, so, they were called names that I would not care to repeat," says Swanson. "And they were harassed all the way until they got on the bus. So I welcome the police presence downtown."
Swanson adds that while law enforcement plays a role in safety downtown, she says there's a more important solution. She says most of these young men wouldn't be hanging out down here if they had other more productive things to do.
Swanson says she works with urban youth teaching them how to cook, and hopes to open a cooking school some day that would give young people something better to do than hanging out downtown.
But for the city, and especially the downtown business owners, allaying fear of crime now is paramount. Last year a visitor to downtown was killed by a bullet meant for someone else, right outside Block E.
Several months later, one of Block E's anchor tenants, Borders, announced plans to move out. A company official says the store is underperforming in sales. But there are concerns among city leaders that crime was a contributing factor.
The police department has a saying to match its philosophy on the downtown presence: "Visibility equals livability."
Meaning that people feel safer when they see more officers. The question is whether there will be enough cops to overcome public concerns about safety downtown.
- Morning Edition, 05/30/2007, 8:40 a.m.