Code for Safe Streets

Minneapolis killed its last zero-tolerance policing program when it sparked too many citizen complaints for cops' comfort. This time around they've simply eliminated the complaint process.

"It's like South Africa," laments Sandra Battle, a four-year resident of Bossen Terrace. "We all stay in the house. We tell our neighbors not to go out after 10 p.m. It's like South Africa because they [black South Africans] used to have to carry an ID card to walk around. It's like that here."

The residents of this low-income apartment complex in South Minneapolis have had more than their share of problems with police ("Bossen Plantation," 12/17/97). But Battle says that lately the Minneapolis Police Department has renewed its efforts to pursue even the smallest alleged infractions in the area. The extra attention has grown intolerable, says the 50-year-old mother of three.

Police have begun towing residents' cars from the complex parking lot late at night, Battle and her neighbors claim. The MPD is also ticketing people in the neighborhood for littering and for jaywalking, sparking fines of up to $300. And then there's what they say is the police practice of repeatedly stopping the same neighborhood residents, each time interrogating them about who they are, where they're going, and why.

Dawn Villella

Things recently became so heated that Battle and a number of other South Minneapolis residents began meeting at Trinity Lutheran Church to discuss what they feel sure are the effects of the MPD's newest anti-crime strategy, CODEFOR. They're convinced police are targeting them and that their civil rights are being violated.

Modeled on a similar initiative created by former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, CODEFOR is based on the premise that crimes don't always occur in the same place. Robberies and shootings might first plague one neighborhood and then another as criminals move on. CODEFOR, which stands for Computer Optimized Deployment--Focus On Results, uses computers to track 911 calls and other crime reports. Police are then positioned in anticipated hot spots and told to find as many opportunities as possible to stop people and question them in the hope of ferreting out criminals--stop motorists who have items hanging from their rearview mirrors, for instance, and then question or search them. In cities where similar programs have been implemented crime has indeed gone down. But complaints like Battle's have skyrocketed.

Any first-year cadet could tell you that CODEFOR looks an awful lot like a computer-assisted version of its controversial predecessor, Operation Safe Streets. The basic idea is to snare as many people as possible, no matter how small the infraction, more often than not in neighborhoods populated by people of color and poor people. Safe Streets was begun in 1995 but phased out last year after local attorneys proved it was racially biased.

Before New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani forced his resignation in 1996, "Big" Bill Bratton was known to critics as a braggart and a hardnose with persistent visions of grandeur. His marriage of zero-tolerance philosophy with computer technology--called COMSTAT in New York--was considered revolutionary. It landed him not only a six-figure book deal and job offers from South Africa to New England, but the adulation of thousands of cops across the country.

"I guarantee in your city the reason the people are not here after 5 o'clock at night is that they're fearful," Bratton said last year in an interview published in the Hartford Courant. "They are fearful of the changing look of the city, the changing racial complexion of the city, the changing age of the kids on the street, who dress today to intimidate. They have to--that is the irony of it--because they are scared to death."

Petty-crime bookings skyrocketed after COMSTAT's implementation, but so did complaints against the NYPD. Policy makers and police alike defended the increased complaints as a necessary evil. New Orleans, Houston, and a host of other large urban centers rushed to increase their own versions of the program. Last year Deputy Police Chief William Jones, Sgt. Lee Fields, and Sgt. Rob Allen traveled to New York to study COMSTAT as a possible solution to crime in Minneapolis.

CODEFOR was implemented in Minneapolis in February. And so far police say officially no one's complaining about it. "The results have been pretty good. We haven't seen any complaints go up," says Allen, who was eventually tapped to coordinate CODEFOR. "There's not a specific community that it is being used in. Where it is being used is where felony crime is being used at that time. To those people claiming to be caught up in it, people aren't being arrested who haven't broken a law. So the only thing they're being caught up in is lowering felonies." The biggest problem caused by the program so far, he says, is a lack of jail space: "They need to address that issue."

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson says that being vigilant about minor offenses cuts down on larger crimes by giving criminals the impression that no transgression will go unpunished. "You know I say to someone who was stopped for stuff hanging from their mirror, I say, quit hanging things over your mirror and be aware that there's a higher police presence in the neighborhoods." he recently told City Pages. "You know, I get a complaint from a guy who says, 'Hey, the police pulled me over because my taillight was out and gave me a ticket.' I say, 'Hey, what's your beef?'

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