Operation Safe Streets

It was just after dinner one recent evening when 18-year-old Adrian Mack and his little brother set out for a friend's house to swap Nintendo cartridges. They were walking down Portland Avenue in the Phillips neighborhood, where they've lived for four years, when they were stopped by two officers in a squad car. "Me and my brother got to 19th and Portland," he says, "and we were stopped by police because I had a stick in my hand." He was carrying what police reports would refer to as an "approximate[ly] four-foot-long wooden stick which resemble[d] a riot baton" because the neighborhood was rough, he says.

Mack, who has no criminal record and is on his way to college this fall to study psychology, says the officers made them stand spread-eagled against the car and pat-searched them both. The search, according to Mack, produced "deodorant, a Super Nintendo game, and keys on me. On my brother they found nothing. Just a piece of paper. They threw us in the car and drove from 19th and Portland to 19th and Park and parked on the corner." Police reports would later claim that officers had to push Mack's little brother into the police car by his head--he was being uncooperative, they noted--and that neighbors had noticed the confrontation and were voicing disapproval. "Numerous people on the street corner and in houses across the street began shouting, 'racism, excessive force,'" said the report. The account continues with the officers' apparent view of area residents: "It was evident to officers that the drug dealers and crack addicts were becoming angry because of the stop."

Once the two were whisked away to a quieter location, police asked the boys for their names, ages, and address. That wasn't all, says Mack: "The cop in front of me was saying, 'I'm getting sick of you crazy ass blacks.' On the corner, there was a white family with a child playing on a bicycle. He said, 'This is the only white family I've seen in this neighborhood.' He said, 'You black ass niggers are a menace to society.'" The officers eventually released Mack's brother, handing him a citation for loitering. But Mack was taken downtown to the Hennepin County Jail and held until almost 2:00 in the morning. He wound up charged with possession of a weapon for the stick he was holding, along with vagrancy and lurking with the intent to buy or sell narcotics.

A week later, when he and his attorney showed up in court to fight the charges, there was a simple note from the prosecutor attached to the case file: The case was being dropped due to lack of evidence.

Mack lives in a Minneapolis neighborhood targeted by the police department's Operation Safe Streets program, which gives officers increased latitude in detaining and searching people in the name of fighting drugs and violent crime. As the officers who stopped Mack put it in their report: "Since the spring, officers have been directed by the Mayor's office to target this type of activity and take as much enforcement action as possible." The pat search was warranted, they noted, "because of the area that we were in." Safe Streets, which began in earnest last fall and has since been incorporated into the way each precinct goes about its everyday business, has targeted minority neighborhoods almost exclusively, raising along the way numerous charges of racism and harassment.

The principle behind Operation Safe Streets appears to have gained official approval from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled a few weeks ago that so-called "pretextual" stops--such as deciding someone is probably looking to buy drugs and stopping him for jaywalking--don't violate the Constitution.

But the program is coming under fire locally. A group of attorneys from the Hennepin County Public Defender's office and the nonprofit Legal Rights Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Minneapolis man that amounts to the first test of the program's legality in state courts. They are arguing that Operation Safe Streets violates state and federal protections against unreasonable search and seizure along with provisions guaranteeing equal protection under the law. "It's a roving commission to stop people who these officers think are bad," says LRC attorney Joe Margulies, who has signed on to the challenge, "not because they are doing anything that justifies their stop, not because it's something that they would stop a similarly situated white person for, but because the police think they fit a profile. There is no justification for giving that kind of indiscriminate license to the police."

"From what I've been told about this Safe Streets program," says Adrian Mack, "it sounds like cops get the right to stop, question, and search you if you have a certain characteristic or attitude or if you look suspicious. If I'm young and black, I'm automatically going to be stopped and harassed by them. Me and my brother aren't the only ones."

In the wake of last year's record homicide toll in Minneapolis--97 murders, compared to 62 the year before--local politicians scrambled to make it appear they were doing something to fend off the city's apparent decline. Most of those pulling the triggers knew each other, according to the calculus of Police Chief Robert Olson. Gangs and drugs were often involved. The perpetrators tended to be black males, usually in their mid-20s. He left it to the mayor who appointed him to connect the dots. "Something's wrong and I'm going to say it," offered Sharon Sayles Belton during a press conference. "We've got a crisis in the African American community and we've got to deal with it." Her answer? Operation Safe Streets, which was supposed to "make it more risky to carry a gun in Minneapolis."

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