Public Enemies

Getting tough on Minneapolis's least wanted

But not everyone is convinced that shutting out johns and arresting beggars has any effect on the crime rate as a whole. "If you look at the statistics," notes Michael Cromett, a Hennepin County public defender and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law, "you can see a reduction in crime. But there's been a dramatic drop in crime across the country. So the question is whether it's a natural phenomenon or the effect of police presence."

Like many skeptics, Cromett also warns that nuisance-crime strategies may disproportionately affect people of color. A recent study by the nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice found that African Americans are arrested for property crimes at 13 times the rate of Caucasians in Minnesota--a disparity 2.5 times greater than the national average.

"If police were doing to white people what they do to minorities, no one would put up with it," Crommet maintains. "If they were stopping people in Linden Hills for littering and loitering, there'd be a hue and cry."

The city has directed two prosecutors to work full time on cases involving "top offenders"
The city has directed two prosecutors to work full time on cases involving "top offenders"

Critics also contend that singling out chronic loiterers or panhandlers could invite abuses of police authority. "Police know these people and pick them up all the time," agrees Moriarty. "Police are out there looking for them. If you or I were out on a street corner and a police officer told us to move along, we'd have options. For these people, there's no remedy. So there's no incentive for the police not to stop and harass them."

As for Moriarty's latest Top 10 client, the city's get-tough approach has yielded relatively mild punishment. Greer reached a plea agreement and ultimately spent only a few nights in jail. "He said he was sick and tired of all this," Moriarty recalls. "He was even talking about changing his life around.

"But," she sighs, "I suppose he'll get picked up again soon."

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