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Walz encounters opportunities, perils in being the incumbent during a crime wave

Walz’s official press conference touting state help for metro law enforcement efforts came a day before alarming state crime stats were released.

Gov. Tim Walz speaking at a light rail station last week. Behind him, from left: Metro Transit Patrol Operations Captain Richard Raymond, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and State Patrol Commander Matt Langer.
Gov. Tim Walz speaking at a light rail station last week. Behind him, from left: Metro Transit Patrol Operations Captain Richard Raymond, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and State Patrol Commander Matt Langer.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Flanked by state troopers and Metro Transit police leaders, DFL Gov. Tim Walz declared at a press conference last week that increases in crime in Minnesota “are simply unacceptable.”

It was an official press conference, even if it looked and felt like a campaign event. As the incumbent, Walz gets to do incumbent things – official events that can also help your reelection campaign. In a close election, it’s the advantage Walz has.

But one of the disadvantages for incumbents – having your record out there – presented itself a day after the press conference: Just before 4 p.m. on Friday, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released a report showing year-over-year violent crime incidence had jumped nearly 22 percent in Minnesota.

Walz’s Republican challenger, Scott Jensen, responded quickly.

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“While we have all felt and seen lawlessness in our streets, today’s crime report data confirms Minnesota is experiencing a public safety crisis under Gov. Walz. Yet shockingly, Gov. Walz announced yesterday at a press conference he is going to maintain the status quo when it comes to public safety. Clearly, the status quo is not working,” Jensen said.

At the press conference, Walz had announced he would continue efforts to assist urban police departments with enforcement. Since spring the DFL governor has directed the Minnesota State Patrol to provide extra patrols around the Twin Cities and has partnered with local police to go after street racing. Twenty additional troopers plus helicopter and airplane patrols have been deployed. He also spent $7 million in federal America Rescue Plan money to pay for the extra state work.

“We’re here today to acknowledge to everyone in the metro area, statewide and nationwide that over the last several years the increases in crime are simply unacceptable,” Walz said over the chimes of light rail trains.

“We’re here to make it clear to Minnesotans that this presence is going to remain here, it’s going to remain strong while at the same time we haven’t reduced our core mission of trunk highway traffic safety,” Walz said. Residents should expect to see the increase in crime numbers to stop and start to come down, Walz said.

But the latest state crime statistics, called the Uniform Crime Report, are an example of a disadvantage of being the boss. The numbers aren’t pretty. Besides the nearly 22% increase in violent crime from 2020 to 2021, murders increased from 185 to 201 in that time. That compares to 104 murders statewide back in 2018. Aggravated assaults – defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as those  accompanied by the use of a weapon or by other means likely to produce death or great bodily harm – jumped from 6,693 in 2018 to 10,967 in 2021.

Last year was the first year carjackings were counted separately from motor vehicle thefts so there aren’t comparisons to previous years. Still, there were 779 carjackings, defined as car thefts that involved the use of force or threat of force.

Asked ahead of the crime stats release why he was holding a special announcement that he was going to continue state law enforcement support in the Twin Cities, Walz said: “Because this is not the norm. It’s an unprecedented surge in support,” he said, while again calling for more money from the Legislature for overtime and support for local police departments.

“This is not a long-term, sustainable plan,” he said. “This is not how it works in any city or any state but we are surging in support of that.” How much longer? “We’ll do it as long as it’s necessary to do it.” Both he and his top cop said it is working.

“They’re catching bad guys and they’re holding people accountable,” said state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington. “That’s the message I want everyone to understand. … If you commit a crime in Minnesota, you commit a gun crime in Minnesota, we’re coming after you.”

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Crime and public safety have already been at the top of the Republican campaign agenda with Walz and DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison being blamed for the surge that began in the summer of 2020. Some blame the pandemic, which left young people locked down and desperate. Some blame the reduction in commissioned officers following the police murder of George Floyd, the riots that followed and the criticism of police culture and tactics that followed that.

Whatever the cause, most departments around the state and country are reporting reduced forces from increased departures and difficulty in hiring. Wes Kooistra, the general manager of Metro Transit, said his police force is 60 officers below its budgeted deployment – 30 from unfilled departures and 30 from unfilled new positions paid for recently by the Met Council.

In June, Scott Jensen held his own press conference to talk about his plan for combating crime.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
In June, Scott Jensen held his own press conference to talk about his plan for combating crime.
It was just the latest high-profile event by Walz in an attempt to combat both crime and accusations from GOP candidates that he isn’t doing enough to fight it. In February, Walz and Lt Gov. Peggy Flanagan met with Minneapolis school officials following the murder of a student and the shooting of a bus driver. At the same event he announced the expansion of so-called HEAT patrols which are freeway emphasis efforts. In July, he displayed a table of illegal guns seized by law enforcement.

The first deployment of extra state troopers came in May. After the fireworks chaos in downtown Minneapolis on the Fourth of July, the state increased its anti-street racing presence in the city. During the following weekend, The patrol said it made 1,459 traffic stops across the metro the weekend of July 9, recovering six guns and making 45 DWI arrests.

But Republican critics say even this response has been slow. House Republicans first called for the State Patrol to be used to help the Minneapolis Police Department in June 2021. Public safety was central to the GOP agenda during the 2022 legislative session. A June MinnPost/Change Research poll of likely voters shows crime as a top issue with 63 percent saying they strongly disapproved or somewhat disapproved of Walz’s job performance on the issue.

Jensen has taken advantage of the incumbent’s disadvantage. Walz was in charge when riots and arson broke out following the murder of Floyd, and there were delays in the deployment of state police and National Guard forces. During the delay, blamed on a miscommunication between Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, some of the worst damage occurred, including the destruction of the Third Police Precinct. But the deployment, a curfew and the plea from community and church leaders to stay off the streets, quelled the unrest.

Walz has also been in office during the crime surge that has hit most cities in the U.S. A disagreement with legislative Republicans over a response bill has led to an impasse on his requests for increased funding for local police agencies.

In June, Jensen held his own press conference to talk about his plan for combating crime. It, too, was well covered by regional news media. Jensen called for tougher penalties on carjacking, a ban on non-profit groups paying bail for those arrested for major crimes, and new scrutiny on judge appointees who have practiced “catch and release” for repeat offenders. He also called for increased literacy and skills training for those in prison and said he would deploy the National Guard quickly – and preemptively – if intelligence gathered by law enforcement suggests it is needed. (Walz did deploy the guard several times ahead of jury decisions in the trials of the former officers charged in Floyd’s death.)

“It starts with one question,” Jensen said on June 9. “Do you feel safer today than you did four years ago?”

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The difference between a challenger’s plan and a governor’s announcement is that Jensen was announcing what he might do if elected, while Walz can talk about what he’s doing now.

When asked about Jensen’s plan, Walz said it has a significant gap.

“It has no funding,” Walz told MPR News the day after the primary.