Mr. FixIt

Minneapolis Police Chief Bob Olson came to town with a reputation for pleasing pols and infuriating cops. And he's surpassed himself on both counts.

That didn't provide much comfort to those who were to bear the brunt of Safe Streets. Though Olson and Sayles Belton both insisted that the project was colorblind, its "target neighborhoods" were all heavily minority-populated districts on the north and south sides. And attorneys who challenged the program in court say their research suggests that the stops overwhelmingly affected people of color.

Right now it's not clear whether Safe Streets will return for a third summer; instead, gang task forces are the new hot idea among police and political executives. But, says Joe Margulies of the nonprofit Legal Rights Center, the program set a clear direction. "There's so much pressure in Minneapolis right now to erase the taint of the label 'Murderapolis'--you can't overestimate the pressure that the police department and the mayor's office feel to change that picture. They're going to use any initiative they can devise to make the problem go away, or at least make the appearance of a problem appear to go away. This week they'll call it Safe Streets, and next week it's Operation No Gangs. But it's still a vehicle to allow the police to sweep up young black men that they think are troublemakers."

Interestingly, a lot of cops are just as hostile to Safe Streets as Margulies--though not for the same reasons. "A lot of people selected this department because they wanted a Starsky & Hutch-type existence," says the Fourth Precinct's Morris. "They want to be out there chasing the bad guys. It's not as much fun for officers to arrest people urinating and drinking in public as it is to pick up a guy with a gun or a wad of dope in his pocket. But arresting the drunken urinators is what really helps the aggravation in the neighborhoods."

Not everyone is so sure. "Right now, there's a real desire to get rid of the bad elements in a neighborhood," says the police federation's Al Berryman. "And of course, what you end up doing is you push them around from one neighborhood to the other, so people think something is being done.

"I believe in community policing, but I don't think it means going to conferences and coming home with glitzy programs that people will look at and go, wow. I think it means that every cop has time to get to know the people in the area. And right now, there's no time for doing that because we're answering way more calls for service than we should."

There have been complaints for a while now that all the focus on neighborhood cops and traffic stops has left the MPD short-handed on what remains among its core duties--showing up when people call 911. City Council member Walt Dziedzic, a former cop, has pointed out that Minneapolis right now has fewer straight-up patrol officers than at any time in recent history. Of an official sworn force of 912 (853 if you don't count those still in training), 365 are assigned to patrol. That's barely up from 1980, when the total force numbered only 735, and there were 358 patrol cops.

Olson disputes those numbers, saying they don't factor in special-project officers, neighborhood cops, and school liaisons who are "out on the streets all the time." His entire administration, he says, has been about putting cops into the precincts and out on the streets. Dziedzic is, "with all due respect, not reading the data right. He thinks it's like in the old days. This is a new philosophy."

But philosophy doesn't always count on the streets. Take the log sheet a squad recently compiled on the Lake Street night shift. Within eight hours, the two officers handled 24 calls ranging from domestic disputes to shootings, many resulting in arrests. Spot checks around the precincts indicate that kind of caseload is common. Police training manuals suggest that anything above 15 calls in a shift is too much--especially for the mostly young, inexperienced officers typically charged with patrol duty.

"These kids are running ragged," says one department supervisor. "They come in here expecting that it's going to be tough, but not like this. One night I was out, there was a call about gunfire. I got there, the squad was already there, this kid came running toward them, it looked like he was holding a gun--turns out he had a piece of pipe, he was running away from the gunfire. They yelled at him to stop, he didn't--that kid could have been dead if they'd lost it. I looked at their log. They had been on for five hours and they had 30 calls."

And it's not just the patrol cops who are starting to lose it. Witness the situation in the ERU. Its members are volunteers from other units in the department; they carry beepers that go off when they're needed for a "high-risk warrant." That usually involves breaking into a house with a battering ram, yelling "Police! Get down on the floor!" and handcuffing everyone.

In 1987, when the unit was formed, it served 35 warrants. By 1991, the number had risen to 391; in 1996, it was more than 600. In one 13-day rotation period last year, says ERU sergeant Bob Kroll, his team did 50 warrants--almost as many as the corresponding unit in St. Paul does in an entire year. Minneapolis, it turns out, has its SWAT cops serve more warrants than Los Angeles.

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