Code for Safe Streets

Dawn Villella

"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.

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?'  

"We aren't changing the rules. Nobody's going to be treated any different or any worse," he adds. "The streets are safer now. I don't get the complaint calls. The calls I do get are the people saying that things are getting better and we're only in our seventh week now."

Even Olson concedes that CODEFOR isn't much different than Safe Streets but says the zero-tolerance program was integrated into CODEFOR. This time he says a special monitoring group has been created to keep an eye out for citizen complaints of overzealous policing. His critics, however, question whether the number of complaints logged by the MPD and the Civilian Police Review Authority will be a realistic gauge. Long criticized by civil libertarians as toothless, Civilian Review recently survived a potentially emasculating assault by the City Council. Some Council members had argued that it should be disbanded because the number of cases it handles has dropped. Others insisted that the agency hears fewer complaints because citizens see it as ineffective.

CPRA Executive Director Pat Hughes says it's too early to tell whether complaints to her office have gone up. More people might complain because they're being arrested for petty crimes, she says, but if police are doing their jobs right Civilian Review will have no reason to act on those complaints. "We're going to look at the cases as we've always done," says Hughes. "There are going to be people upset with that. You've got to look at the police department because they want to fight crime and the citizens want to end crime so there will be some people who will have to put up with this minor discomfort."

What neither Olson nor Hughes acknowledges is that an informational handout given to MPD cops about CODEFOR clearly states that the department's complaint process is being altered so that complaints specifically related to CODEFOR won't end up in officers' files. Because of the change in policy, individuals stopped or arrested for petty crimes such as jaywalking or a busted headlight while walking or driving in areas highlighted by the computer program won't be able to accuse the police department of targeting them. A category has been created on the department's internal "PPI" complaint forms allowing a citizen allegation to be tabled as having "no basis for complaint."

Citizen complaints were one of the reasons Operation Safe Streets was halted last year. Police rank and file say that without the department's backing they are reluctant to employ tactics that will spark complaints, according to Minneapolis Police Federation head Al Berryman.

Berryman, who admits to being a staunch critic of the chief, says that CODEFOR is nothing more than Safe Streets wrapped in PR candy. "They told [officers] to go down and book every minority you see and that's all it was," Berryman says of Safe Streets. "It was a bullshit program. But they keep on selling it and people keep on buying it.... Minorities ought to be fucking pissed." He adds that CODEFOR will only move criminals from neighborhood to neighborhood.

"This is an initiative of the city. This isn't an initiative of the cops. We got a four-legged stool and we only have three legs on the ground right now." Berryman says it would be more useful to speed up the booking process to allow cops to get back out on the street to actually police the areas with high crime. "Unless you have the resources--the bed space for people who are repeat offenders--then we can't close. We need a closer."

And CODEFOR might not cause crime statistics to drop, says Minneapolis lawyer and state House of Representatives candidate Keith Ellison Muhummad. "It's going to artificially drive up crime statistics in the inner city," predicts Ellison. "You are deploying more people who have the power to arrest in the inner city. So it makes sense that if you have one [cop] in Edina in the same geographic area then you're clearly going to have more arrests in the place [where] you have more cops. So it makes it appear that Minneapolis is more crime-ridden than perhaps it actually is.

"It's no secret that the police and communities of color have had a long history of antagonism," adds Ellison. "Now you just ensure that that antagonism continues with programs like CODEFOR. My point is that when you put a program together like CODEFOR you basically are pursuing a militaristic strategy that predictably is going to cause incidents where you're going to have police violence and police abuse that is going to spill over and cause more strife between police and citizens."  

Sandra Battle may not understand the intricacies of the policy debate surrounding CODEFOR. But she says she's profoundly aware of the way the program works on a neighborhood level.

"I'm scared of the police," says Battle. "I don't even look at them. I look at them but I don't because I feel like if I do they will come and ask me a bunch of questions. They seem like they're using their authority a lot more now. They really don't know you [except] by the computer so they're stopping and questioning everybody. I tell people to see 'em but don't look at 'em."

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