Operation Safe Streets

The original plan involved targeting nine neighborhoods on the north and south sides of town. The chosen areas had the highest concentrations of "shots fired" police calls. They also included 30 of the 35 highest minority-populated census tracts. Police were to spend their time patrolling the streets in Near North, Phillips, Central, and Willard-Hay, stopping motorists for minor traffic violations or being a "suspicious person" or driving a "suspicious vehicle." Then they would ask for permission to search their cars. The "zero tolerance policing" idea was based on a model already tried in Houston and New York City, where officials claimed it had helped reduce the murder rate. As Houston Police Chief Sam Nuchia describes it, the point is to make the lives of possible criminals "as unpleasant as possible." Regarding charges of racism, he had this to say: "We've warned the public that if your kid is out running around looking like a gang member and sounding like a gang member, then we're going to treat him like a gang member. So keep your kids at home where they belong and stay out of these areas if you don't have legitimate business."

Minneapolis police officers received special training--in part based on an already implemented St. Paul gun interdiction program--on search and seizure techniques, including how to say may I search your car, rather than I am going to search your car. "It gets to be a minor verbiage change," explains Deputy Chief Greg Hestness, who administered the program. "Instead of saying, 'Stop, we want to talk to you,' they need to say, 'Excuse me, can I talk to you for a while?'" Chief Olson did admit in the press that cops would be asked to "push the envelope a little bit" as far as the law went. It was a matter, he said, of "looking for little things that will lead to big things." Publicly the tactic was lauded: County Attorney Mike Freeman, famous for implementing gun buyback programs, approvingly compared Olson to Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

Operation Safe Streets was launched August 2 for a two-month trial run. During that time police made nearly 2,200 "contacts" that resulted in 330 arrests for various offenses and the recovery of 174 guns. While this sounded like a reasonable ratio to the city's leaders, members of the targeted communities said they felt under siege. People on the street started calling the areas where they lived "hot zones," the term soldiers in Vietnam used to describe ostensibly allied villages suspected of containing Vietcong soldiers or sympathizers.

Young men complained of being stopped time after time by police while never being charged with anything. Ed McDonald, who spends a lot of time talking to people off the street in his role as housing advocate and community outreach manager for Family & Children's Service, says people felt like they should start carrying township passes. "You have communities already under siege in different ways, like not being able to find affordable housing. And on top of that you now have police riding on top of people--police who have no clue about the people who live in these communities beyond what they see during their eight-hour work exposure to them. It's like the militia police in the townships in South Africa."

There is no question that the neighborhoods targeted by Safe Streets have crime problems. But McDonald says that giving officers more discretion in making arrests has hurt already strained police and community relations, an issue that came to the fore a few weeks ago when an 11-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man were shot and killed on the same north Minneapolis street within a week of each other. Witnesses were reluctant to cooperate with the MPD. "A lot of the young men who are randomly stopped and who have their constitutional rights violated--not a lot of that has to happen before the result is more ill will about the police department," McDonald says. "It's not to say that the intent of the program isn't a good one, just that the Operation Safe Streets program was a top-down initiative by the chief. It was a knee-jerk approach keeping with traditional police operations."

There were community meetings to discuss concerns. But if anything, discussions only served to lower the program's profile and to improve the bad manners of a few overaggressive cops. Nobody talks about Safe Streets as a discrete entity anymore; police officials concede that it's "ongoing"--that its aims and methods have become part of everyday procedure. Each precinct now decides which areas to target and which crimes to concentrate on. Hestness says the department will be receiving state funds and is using some of its "Clinton cops" money--federal aid specifically designated for putting more police on the street--to pay for officers to conduct "directed patrol" in designated areas. "As they did in Safe Streets," he says, "they can make a lot of pro-active stops." And police are still targeting a number of the same areas: Chicago and Franklin and Lake and Chicago on the south side, Broadway and Penn and Lowry and Lyndale over north.

Governor Arne Carlson has also talked the Legislature out of more than $3 million in funding for police overtime and new hires to expand the Safe Streets principle metro-wide. He's endorsed police sweep operations in which groups of officers would saturate targeted high-crime neighborhoods, "making arrests for traffic and curfew violations, loitering, truancy, and other minor offenses in an effort to find and seize guns and drugs." The idea, he said during a press conference, is to hit criminals coming from "Illinois and elsewhere.... We're going to harass them out of here, and I mean it.

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