Letter to Minneapolis city officials on more efficient services to fight crime

December 23, 2006


Dear Elected Officials:

The City of Minneapolis is devoting many of its scarce resources to hiring additional police officers in response to concerns about crime. I, too, am concerned about crime but want to make sure that the resources are used efficiently.

This month’s meeting of the Metro (formerly Minneapolis) Property Rights Action Committee, held on December 20, was devoted to issues related to crime. We had a number of no-shows from among city employees and others who work in this area. So, instead, we took testimony from a man whose 12-unit apartment was recently closed down by the city after he received his third warning letter and from another man who is targeted by your Problem Property Unit.

To a certain extent, I agree with the decision to put more officers on the street - if they really go on the street and do not wind up in a desk or community-relations job. But I also think you should use your police resources more efficiently. You should work cooperatively and not antagonistically with property owners - apartment owners, convenience store owners, bar owners, and others - to try to address our common problem of crime.

A major problem of property owners is that they have little idea of the criminal background of individuals with whom they are dealing. It’s true that Luther Krueger posts on the internet a city-wide list of criminal arrests in the city, and that is helpful; but, in checking this list once or twice, I found it hard to find anything that would concern me.

Let me make this suggestion: The Minneapolis police often arrest individuals for criminal activity and produce a written report on the arrest. I believe that the report usually includes the name and address of the person caught committing the crime. Would it be possible for the police or someone in city government to look up the owner of the property where this individual lives and automatically send him or her a copy of the police report with a note saying that this person lives at your property and here’s the phone number of a SAFE officer who could recommend ways to deal with the problem? Wouldn’t that be a more efficient use of resources than continually rearresting the individual?

I also have suggestions about combating drug dealers, especially those who deal on the street. Install more video cameras and use the tapes as probable cause to arrest someone. Perhaps you could get the buyer or the seller to testify against each other.

The current procedure, as I understand it, is: (1) Someone in a neighborhood complains about drug dealing. (2) The police assign an officer to sit in a car to see if drug selling takes place. (3) If there is drug dealing, the police next try to do a controlled buy from an individual observed to be dealing. (4) If the controlled buy is successful, the drug seller is arrested and, hopefully, prosecuted.

This is an extremely inefficient use of police resources. Cameras would work better. Bypass the surveillance stage and proceed to gathering what evidence the police would need for a successful prosecution.

Many drugs are sold by dealers on the street to customers who arrive by car. Would it not be possible for the police to observe transactions on the street and then stop the customer as he leaves the scene in a car? Search the car. If drugs are found, prosecute the customer or, better still, make a deal with the customer to testify against the seller.

When I had this discussion with a SAFE officer, he said, in effect, that “That’s not the way we do things. We need probable cause to arrest someone. Only the testimony of a reliable police observer will give us confidence to prosecute.”

Let me give a cynical reaction to that. Many people believe that the police are not really interested in reducing crime because high levels of crime mean more employment for police officers. In this case, it’s a rather comfortable job to spend hours in parked car watching suspected drug activity. The police may be designing their job requirements to suit themselves rather than use city resources more efficiently.

A second cynical reason might be that the police know that, if they arrest criminals, the criminals will not be prosecuted or they will not receive meaningful sentences. Maybe the prisons are full and the judges cannot sentence any but the worst offenders? In that case, increased police staffing is meaningless. The only result will be that the prison door swings more quickly. The public will rightfully suspect that government’s approach to crime is all a charade. Nothing effective will ever be done.

The second proposed theme in MPRAC’s meeting last Wednesday was crime prevention and, in particular, youth programs that would steer young people at risk into activities that might lead away from crime to productive lives. I believe that this type of program is far more cost effective that hiring more police officers, arresting more people, and putting them in prison. But is the city doing enough to help young people?

The Camden Community News recently had an interview with the new Minneapolis police chief, Tim Dolan. What caught me eye was Dolan’s account of his own problems as a young man growing up in north Minneapolis. He had engaged in some borderline criminal activities and, but for the helpful guidance of adults, might have become a criminal himself.

The article states: “Coaches, his dad included, played a big influence on him. And there were many people at after-school programs and drop-in centers (in the 1970s) to keep kids out of trouble. He truly appreciated all those mentors and programs and says, ‘Today so many youth programs come and go, so it’s hard to keep a stable community environment for kids.”

I was curious what youth programs exist in Minneapolis today. I called the mayor’s office to ask for the name of someone who was knowledgeable about these programs who might be able to come to our meeting. The mayor’s aide referred me to someone who worked for a non-profit in north Minneapolis. I called that person and explained my purpose. She said she would think about who might be a good speaker for our meeting if she herself could not come. She promised to get back to me.

During our conversation, I expressed the opinion that perhaps the programs that served young people in previous decades did not exist today and that might be a factor behind the city’s increased crime. The woman took exception to that statement. She said that the same number of programs existed but “we do things differently” today.

The woman did not get back to me so I called her. When I first called, she was at a meeting. When she returned my call, she said she had not been able to find anyone for our meeting. People were getting ready for the Christmas holiday and had so many things to do. Normally, she would have found time for this, she said. In other words, she could not find time for someone else to get her message out on their dime.

Now let me jump to a conclusion. It may not apply to this particular woman. It may not apply to city programs - but you tell me. Yes, I think that these youth programs are “done differently” today. The programs consist of attending staff meetings and writing memos. Most of the dollars go toward salaries for the qualified people who administer the programs; and a decreasing share goes toward direct services for people who need the services. The programs are run increasingly to benefit the people who work in the programs and are paid for those services rather than for the supposed beneficiaries.

I see the same tendencies in my own neighborhood association. Each month we read through a packet of photocopied materials of perhaps 70 to 80 pages keyed to our agenda items. But this organization delivers precious few services to neighborhood residents. We’re playing the game of junior government rather than providing services. We have a brand-new facility with a gymnasium and several meeting rooms. But when I recently asked to hold a meeting in one of the rooms, I was told that the room might cost $50 an hour. So instead this room stayed empty and we met elsewhere.

No maybe Tim Dolan is right. The youth programs today are “done differently”. The services, as we know them, may not even exist. Large numbers of young people, especially minorities, are left to fend for themselves after they reach a certain age. Crime finds them before the responsible adults of this city do. The paid professionals in this area would rather coordinate unpaid volunteers to work with young people than do the work themselves.

My general conclusion would be that the city is incompetent in providing youth services. We’re so into bureaucracies that we can’t do anything else.

So I am writing you to ask if I am wrong in reaching such a conclusion. As a taxpaying citizen, I would ask you to be more efficient in your expenditure of tax dollars to provide crime-related services. Hire more “unqualified” people who know how to work with today’s young people and fewer bureaucrats with credentials. If you could replicate what this city had thirty or forty years ago, it would be enough for me.


William McGaughey


Note: There was no response from city officials.

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