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CODE Red

Minneapolis Police lieutenant Jim Bender taps his hand on the mouse as he waits for his PC to load the MapInfo program. "I'm not that good with computers," he says, pausing to scribble a few numbers that he will later enter on the screen. A map of Minneapolis materializes. With a few mouse clicks, Bender causes 20 or so tiny icons to appear on various street corners.

"These little gold deals"--he stops and moves his head closer to the monitor--"I don't know what they are, shovels or something. We've only got a limited number of icons to use." He lets out a laugh. "Well, anyway, those shovels would be aggravated assaults." Each shovel, Bender explains, indicates an aggravated assault reported within the last week.

Bender centers the map and zooms in on a grid of intersections north of West Broadway in Minneapolis. "Here I'm seeing these two aggravated assaults, so let's add on robberies," he says; as he clicks a button, little red men dot the map. "Do we see anything?" Bender continues. "Well, I can tell you that we have a lot of activity through the Tangletown area. I can also tell you that this is a high-crack area. So could these"--he points to a cluster of shovels and red men--"be crack-related? If I was a betting man, I'd say they probably are. So I'd look into those cases and see if they were any similarities. Then I'd decide whether we need more officers in that area."

Bender heads the Minneapolis Police Department's year-old CODEFOR (Computer Optimized DEployment Focus On Results) unit; machines like his are at the heart of the heavily publicized strategy, which identifies crime hotspots and targets misdemeanor offenders. After a year of computer-guided policing, politicians and MPD officials are touting a 16 percent reduction in "part one" crime (offenses including murder, aggravated assault, robbery, and car theft), and Bender says cities in Minnesota and neighboring states are clamoring for advice on starting their own networks.

In March the MPD, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and the city attorney's office kicked off a series of community meetings designed to bolster support for the new strategy. "We have some wonderful news for you tonight," Sayles Belton announced at the first meeting, held March 23 at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis. "CODEFOR is definitely moving the city in the right direction."

What Sayles Belton did not mention was that CODEFOR may have moved several city and county agencies in the direction of budget shortfalls. In the first year of the program, narcotics arrests in the city jumped almost 50 percent while arrests for lesser offenses such as trespassing, gambling, fireworks violations, indecent conduct, and consuming alcohol in public increased by 40 percent. Those numbers have meant growing workloads for agencies throughout the law-enforcement system--including the adult and juvenile jails, prosecutors' and public defenders' offices, and even child-protection authorities, which, according to Hennepin County documents, have seen a 15 percent rise in the cost of sheltering kids whose parents are incarcerated.

Now those agencies have joined together in an unprecedented effort to seek additional money from the state. According to a memo drafted by acting county administrator Sandra Vargas in January, the request seeks to "address the impact of the city's CODEFOR law-enforcement strategy and [originally] called for an appropriation of approximately $11 million." That figure has since been revised to $5.3 million; a bill to that effect faces committee votes in the state House and Senate in the next two weeks.

"You have to look at it like a big balloon," explains the bill's author, Rep. Richard Stanek (R-Maple Grove), who is also a commander in the MPD. "The more people that get arrested, the more people you need in the county attorney's office, and then I need more judges to sit in the courtroom...If I'm going to put pressure on one part of the balloon, it's going to get bigger somewhere else."

 

Among the institutions getting bigger is the Hennepin County jail, whose inmate population jumped by almost one-third last year. Inspector of Support Services Richard Esensten says he can't be sure that new policing strategies caused the increase: "Offenders don't come with CODEFOR stamped on them," he notes. "All I can tell you is that our population has gone up." At one point last year, the inmate count reached 801 in a facility with only 509 beds, and Minneapolis police officers publicly complained about having to wait for as long as an hour before booking suspects. "It was like going to the fancy nightclub where you stand in line outside," Esensten recalls. "Two people out, two people in."

Esensten waits as a guard unlocks a thick steel door on the fourth floor of Minneapolis's City Hall. On the other side is a hallway that leads to a row of cell blocks. As Esensten approaches, inmates crowd the cell windows; one bends down and puts his mouth close to the slot used for meal trays. "Are you the sheriff?" "No, I'm not," Esensten replies and moves on to another cell. Inmates--some standing, some lying down--stare back at him as he counts the beds.

 

"This cell is meant to hold ten, and we're putting thirteen in there right now," Esensten says. "Sometimes we have to put people on the floor on what we call 'boats'"--he points to some metal cots between the permanent bunks--"because we don't have beds for everybody. This is a fairly typical housing unit. These people might be here for up to a year."

Space isn't the only thing the extra bodies have consumed. According to Esensten, visiting hours during the week have been eliminated. The kitchen, which is designed to produce 300,000 meals a year, now provides more than 700,000, according to Esensten. Inmates are no longer allowed to use the weight room, and instead of supervising half-court basketball games in the gym, the jail's three full-time recreational therapists bring exercise equipment into the cell blocks.

But even with those cuts, the jail's budget is falling short. Last June Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan asked the county board for four million dollars in emergency funds to rent beds in other counties. The board appropriated one million dollars, and the jail shaved $500,000 from its budget through a hiring freeze.

Esensten doesn't sound bitter as he explains that another $2.1 million is needed to balance the 1998 books. "I believe CODEFOR is a very good enforcement effort," he says. "It has driven down violent crime and felony crimes in Minneapolis.

"But," he pauses, searching for what he calls a "politically correct" way to make his point, "there is a lot of political mileage that is gained fighting crime at the front end, and that mileage [has] not gained funding in the middle of the system. In order to have a long-term corrective solution, you need funding everywhere."

A few blocks north of the jail, attorneys at the Hennepin County public defender's office heartily agree with Esensten. One of the strategies the county has used to relieve jail overcrowding has been to ship inmates to other facilities within a 120-mile radius. As a result, says public defender Dan Homstad, "I have had clients in five counties--Carver, Benton, Wright, Hennepin, Sibley. [There are] people that I'm incommunicado with for weeks at a time until I take the positive step of having them sent back downtown, or I go out and see them.

"Once I had a client who was charged with murder. He'd been in a fight and he got moved to another county without my knowledge. He had marks on him and evidence under his fingernails that could have disappeared had I not gone out there to talk with him and taken pictures of him myself."

Increased driving times aren't the only burden on his attorneys, says Chief Public Defender William McGee. Last year his office saw a ten percent increase in adult misdemeanor cases (adult felonies, by comparison, increased only two percent), for a total of 6,300 new adult clients. The number of juvenile misdemeanors jumped 41 percent, and "status offenses"--things like teenage smoking and drinking--climbed 30 percent.

McGee searches through a pile of papers, grabs a folder full of reports that track his rising caseload, then throws it back on a chair. "Too many files," he complains lightly. In 1989, he notes, a study commissioned by the state of Minnesota recommended that public defenders handle no more than 650 misdemeanor cases or 150 felonies each year. "Our caseload in this office is about 900 cases [combined] per year, per attorney," McGee says. "The effect [CODEFOR] has put on my office has been tremendous, and almost solely in the area of juvenile and misdemeanor defense." McGee is asking the Legislature for $1.5 million to contract for 15 outside attorneys and six legal assistants over the next two years.

Meanwhile, some public defenders say swelling caseloads are compromising the representation their clients receive. Attorneys, Homstad says, must practice "legal triage," devoting the most attention to felonies and leaving precious little time for the stream of misdemeanor defendants.

"Recently, I had a client come in who had been arrested under CODEFOR," says Homstad's colleague Mary Moriarty. "He'd had all kinds of paperwork to document where he was going, and what he was doing. He kept saying to me, 'Why does this happen to me? I was just walking down the street.'

"But I didn't have time to listen to all that. I finally had to say, 'I'd love to sympathize with you, but I've got 14 other cases, and I really need to get on with my other cases.'"

 

 

There's one key difference between the public defenders' attitude toward CODEFOR and Esensten's: While the jail inspector says the program's results are worth the extra strain on law-enforcement agencies, the public defenders aren't convinced it is working. "The police always say, 'Crime's going down because of this new program,'" says Babcock, "and I just think that's so simplistic. The fact is, crime is going down nationwide."

Discussions over whether programs like CODEFOR actually work have been around ever since the New York Police Department introduced computerized crime mapping and "zero tolerance" policing in the early 1990s. The strategy is based on what criminologists call the "broken windows" concept: If small-time offenders are left to break windows and drink on sidewalks, public urination and car break-ins will follow, in turn creating a suitable environment for drug-dealing, prostitution, and armed robbery. Targeting the petty offenses police call "quality of life" crimes, proponents of the theory argue, will lead to a reduction in violent crime.

Proving that things really work out that way is another story. "There are always problems when you're trying to establish causation," cautions Candace Kruttschnitt, a criminologist who chairs the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Showing that Minneapolis's drop in crime was caused by CODEFOR, she says, would require a lot of information: "You'd have to have a very controlled neighborhood, very similar demographics [for comparison], and very good control over the factors involved. If the police department has data like this, that's great."

But they don't. "I have to simply confess that we haven't asked the University of Minnesota to do a survey," Police Chief Robert Olson told the Woman's Club audience. "Maybe that's not a bad idea, maybe if some student wants to do a master's thesis. But we've had a lot of anecdotal information." Olson related a story about prostitutes who, to reduce their sentences, ride in MPD squad cars and serve as police informants. "There are many instances when the officers go to turn down a certain street and [the informant] would say, 'No, no, you've got to keep going, go five more blocks, you've got to get out of this CODEFOR area."

Lucy Gerold, director of the MPD's Central Services Bureau and director of the CODEFOR strategy, cites another episode: "We have a picture of graffiti on a building," Gerold says, "that reads: 'Fuck CODEFOR.' So I know that criminals are aware of the action the police are doing."

In fact, Gerold argues, would-be outlaws began reacting to CODEFOR even before the program was fully implemented. The biggest month-to-month drop in part-one crime took place from December 1997 to January 1998; the program's official start date was February 5, says Gerold, while January was devoted largely to training. Still, she insists, word was out on the street: "We attribute that decrease [in January] to the efforts that we had planned or had expected during CODEFOR."

In the end, just what caused the crime rate to fall may be a moot point: For policymakers, says Stanek, the MPD commander and state representative, what matters is that it fell. "I have a 70 percent decrease in rapes," he reports. "I have a 28 percent decrease in robberies. You can't argue with the numbers." Stanek says he's "optimistic" that fellow legislators will approve his $5.3 million appropriation for Hennepin County law-enforcement agencies.

"A lot of legislators have been talking about tougher law enforcement," concurs state Sen. Allan Spear (DFL-Minneapolis), chair of the Senate's Crime Prevention Committee. "Hennepin County has often been the focus of that criticism, and now that the city of Minneapolis is producing results, it's going to cost some money." Spear predicts the appropriation will pass the Senate, though he's not certain just how much money will be included: "Nobody's going to get everything they ask for."

Which leaves law-enforcement officials waiting, fretting, and speculating. Jail inspector Esensten says he is sure his facility will plug its budget hole eventually: If the state doesn't provide enough money, he explains, the county will pitch in with property tax funds. "We don't run debts in Hennepin County," Esensten says.

Public defender William McGee sounds more apprehensive. "If we don't get the money, we will ultimately make some very hard choices as to how many cases my office can take on," McGee says. "We might have to decide that there are some types of cases that we will not be able to represent."


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