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‘A safer city’: Mayor Rybak, police chief hail progress in crime stats

Usually when a police chief and a mayor sit down to meet the press, the reason is grim: a particularly gruesome murder, or an inter-department controversy. But Monday afternoon at City Hall, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan expressed cautious optimism. Crime, they said, is going down citywide.

“Especially North Minneapolis,” Rybak said, adding that the city is “headed in the right direction.”

In fact, according to numbers released from Rybak’s office, it’s the second year in a row crime rates have fallen, making the numbers, the mayor and the chief said, all the more compelling. To wit:

• Through June of this year, citywide violent crime fell 14 percent, compared with 2007, on top of a 13 percent decrease from 2006. According to the city’s numbers, that’s a 27 percent decrease over a two-year period.

• Through June 2008, there were 18 murders in Minneapolis, compared with 26 during the same period last year and 32 homicides in the first half of 2006.

• Other crimes categorized as “violent” in law enforcement lingo — rape, robbery, aggravated assaults — are down 13 percent, according to the news release from the mayor’s office.

“We’ve always kept an open book on what the numbers are,” Rybak said. “It’s a safer city than it was last year, a safer city than it was the year before — we hope it will be a safer city next year.”

Why the drop? The main reason is likely Dolan’s main accomplishment as chief — reviving the juvenile crime unit. Three years ago, police identified youth crime as one of the leading components of violent crime. Since then, the MPD and city, along with Hennepin County, have undertaken a number of prevention and recidivism measures when it comes to youth.

According to the news release, “the MPD Juvenile Unit has handled more than 2,000 cases concerning missing and runaway youth, robbery and assault this year, meaning a significant number of youth are getting connected to supportive services at the first signs of risky behavior.”

Other factors

Dolan was quick to point out that there are more cops on the street, with 32 sworn officers added this year, bringing the total to 879, according to the news release’s figures  – actually closer to 890, according to Dolan—to its highest since 2000. (And up from a low point of 740 three years ago.)

Another factor is the use of technology. While Dolan said that ShotSpotter, which detects gunshots in certain neighborhoods, is “growing,” he sounded a note of disappointment. More effective, though the civil libertarian in you may cringe, is the fact that, according to the news release, “there are more than 135 public safety cameras in strategic areas across Minneapolis, many of which are also connected to gun-shot sensors.”

Smile! You’re on criminal camera!

Also, the MPD has stepped up traffic enforcement, which theoretically deters crime, or so goes the conventional wisdom. The Traffic Unit made more than 17,300 stops and issued 18,000 moving violations in the first half of 2008.

But other factors the police can’t control always figure in. Dolan acknowledged that an especially tough winter might have played a role. And the mortgage crisis came up: Some foreclosed homes on the North Side housed some bad apples who are gone now.

Both men were loath to welcome that bit of news, though. “It is an effect,” Dolan said before Rybak jumped in.

“Foreclosed and vacant property does not make a safer neighborhood,” the mayor offered quickly.

“We do believe with the vacant homes we’re at a critical time for us,” the chief clarified.

What about the RNC?

The, uh, elephant in the room, so to speak, was the Republican National Convention. Will crime spike when the Grand Old Party comes to town?

“We don’t anticipate them bringing in criminals for delegates,” Rybak, the DFL partisan, quipped, “but you can’t be sure.”

The MPD is prepared, Dolan assured. (Though perhaps too prepared, in the minds of some protesters anticipating bad police behavior.)

“As far as the police department goes, we’ve been ready for some time. We kinda just want to get it over with,” Dolan said. “During the RNC is the wrong time to commit a crime. … There will be so many cops you wouldn’t want to commit a crime.”

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