Public Enemies

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

On the evening of March 11, police officers cruising by the intersection of Franklin and Nicollet avenues in south Minneapolis observed a man sitting on a bus bench, holding a cardboard sign that read "Homeless Please Help Hungry." According to their report on the incident, they recognized him straight away: He was Wayne Arnold Greer, a local man with a history of substance abuse and a lengthy rap sheet that had earned him a place on an internal police list of chronic misdemeanor offenders. "This party is known to officers as one of the 5th [Precinct's] top ten," the report reads. "Officers stopped this party and placed him under arrest for begging."

When Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty drew Greer's case, she realized that her client was no Boy Scout. In the last two months, Greer has been picked up for trespassing and begging in two separate incidents, and his criminal history includes dozens of misdemeanor charges dating back to 1992. Still, Moriarty says, she was tempted to ask a judge to throw out the begging charge on constitutional grounds. The applicable law, she reasoned, didn't justify arresting someone for holding a sign.

Moriarty soon realized, however, that the assistant city attorney on the case, Gretchen Zettler, didn't consider the offense a minor one: "She was arguing that you shouldn't have to be exposed to that in a city," Moriarty recalls. "There are jobs out there. If he's not going to work, he should go to jail." And not just for a couple of weeks, either, Zettler argued: She requested that Greer be sentenced to the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor offense, 90 days in jail--an unusually stiff penalty for a nuisance crime that normally draws only a fine and a few days of confinement.

Zettler, who did not return a call for comment, has a particular interest in cases like Greer's: She's one of two city prosecutors assigned to work primarily on charges against chronic low-level offenders. The effort, known as Special Top Offender Prosecution (STOP), is one of several city initiatives targeted at "quality of life" crimes--a concept that since the mid-1990s has become a focus of the city's law-enforcement agenda.

In her 2000 State of the City address this past February, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton asserted that Minneapolis must improve "how we prosecute 'livability crimes' such as vandalism, prostitution, and loitering. To help deter serious crime, we have made the enforcement of these lower-level offenses a priority.

"As a result," the mayor continued, "lower-level offenders are flooding the criminal justice system, requiring new thinking about managing these crimes....Livability crimes create serious problems. We must stop the revolving door!"

And, it seems, prosecutors and police are resolved to do just that. Since 1998, administrators at each of the Minneapolis Police Department's five precincts have been compiling Top 10 lists of chronic low-level offenders. The lists of those who regularly cross paths with police are intended to alert prosecutors and judges to a suspect's history, prompting harsher sentences. MPD representatives did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment on the department's top-offender policy. When one of the MPD's top offenders is charged with a crime, the case is handled by a STOP prosecutor. "The effort is aimed at people who are causing chronic problems," says Joan Peterson, deputy city attorney. "We're trying to make sure that chronic offenders aren't lost in the volume of cases we process. We're trying to look at people more as a whole, rather than looking at each complaint as an isolated incident."

In a study presented to the Minneapolis City Council on March 24, the STOP team reported that it had identified 96 chronic miscreants, who together had been arrested some 460 times--or an average of 4.8 times each--for misdemeanor or gross-misdemeanor offenses, making for what the report called "a significant drain on police resources." Through STOP's efforts, the document continued, these offenders had received an average of 67 days in jail--substantially more than the standard misdemeanor sentence.

Still, some wonder whether city resources should be expended on comparatively minor nuisance crimes. According to Moriarty, those who make the MPD's Top 10 lists are generally homeless people picked up on loitering, disorderly conduct, or public-consumption charges. The STOP initiative, she argues, is "a political statement by the MPD and the city to focus resources on people they put in this category....They're being warehoused in jail because the city doesn't have the resources to deal with people with chemical-dependency or mental-health issues."

For public defenders, Moriarty adds, fighting such cases adds to an already heavy caseload. "We're spending more time on cases we shouldn't have to spend time on," she says. "I mean, really--a begging case?"

Like the police department's CODEFOR program, an effort to focus police attention on areas where misdemeanor crimes are concentrated, STOP takes its cue from the "broken windows" theory of crime reduction, which postulates that if police crack down heavily on minor offenses, the overall rate of lawlessness will decrease. Supporters credit police hypervigilance with dramatic reductions in crime, including a 21-year low in serious offenses, according to Minneapolis police statistics for 1999.

The city's attempt to impose "meaningful consequences" on chronic offenders, says Ninth Ward City Council member Kathy Thurber, is analogous to "nuisance statutes" allowing municipal officials to temporarily shut down businesses that generate an inordinate number of complaints. "We shut down six saunas in my ward," recalls Thurber, who also chairs a criminal-justice supervisory committee that includes city, county, and police representatives. "People were telling us, 'It's the oldest profession. You'll just have to live with it.' We don't have to live with it. We don't live with it anymore."

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."

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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