The stats have dropped significantly, but police worry that economic woes could make success short-lived.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak lauded the Police Department on Monday for achieving a second consecutive year of double-digit reductions in violent crime, but he cautioned that tough times are around the corner with the sagging economy and mounting state budget deficit.
Thus far, violent crime has dropped 13 percent in 2008 compared with 2007, and 24 percent compared with 2006. The mayor attributed the decline to proactive policing, community outreach and the city's youth violence prevention efforts. The crime statistics, compiled by the department, also showed a decrease in burglaries, last year's most troublesome crime trend. And all of this happened even as most of the department's officers were spending months training for and providing security during the Republican National Convention in September.
Minneapolis' success appears to be an anomaly compared with similar-size cities on the West Coast and in Texas, as well as to larger cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. St. Paul also is seeing an overall decline in violent crime, police spokesman Peter Panos said. But while St. Paul police had also hoped to see a decline in homicides, a recent surge has put the city on about the same pace as in 2007, when it recorded 14 homicides, Panos said.
Duane Reed, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said the police are doing what they need to do to fight crime, but residents in some parts of the city don't feel any safer because of a few less murders or lower percentages on a stat sheet.
"You ask people at the Cub store on West Broadway in north Minneapolis if they feel safer because of these crime numbers, and they would look at you as if you were insane," he said. "They see it or experience it all the time."
Reed is concerned that the city hasn't adequately addressed the problem of black-on-black crime involving youth and high crime in neighborhoods with a higher black demographic.
In general, Rybak and Police Chief Tim Dolan have made youth violence a priority and have received national recognition for their prevention and enforcement strategies.
This year's opening of the juvenile supervision center in City Hall, which works with families to assess a youth's needs, has shown immediate results. More than 80 percent of the teens brought to the center for truancy or curfew violations don't return after they and their family receive counseling, Rybak said. During the same time, a juvenile criminal apprehension team arrested more than 950 of the city's most violent youth offenders.
Minneapolis police also are again working as liaison officers in the middle and high schools and collaborating with the school board to patrol routes to schools in areas most challenged by crime. And the city received a two-year, $200,000 federal grant to fund a full-time youth gang prevention coordinator.
Crime among youth does appear to be on the wane. In 2006, people 10 to 24 years old were responsible for nearly half of the violent crime in Minneapolis. This year, fewer than 20 percent of all arrests involved juveniles. But 11 of the 36 homicides in Minneapolis this year have involved victims under age 24.
Citywide, the four categories that make up violent crime dropped significantly this year -- homicide down 22 percent, aggravated assault down 8 percent, robbery down 18 percent and rape down 17 percent. Each of the department's five police precincts had double-digit decreases, with the Second Precinct in the northeast falling 21 percent. The collapse of the I-35 bridge in August 2007, reducing access to the area by people from outside, had no impact in the Second Precinct's crime reduction, police said.
There have been nine fewer homicides in Minneapolis -- 36 compared with 45 in 2007 -- but police were alarmed that six of the 2008 slayings involved Somali men. Outreach to the Somali community has improved relationships with the police and helped solve the two most recent deaths, Dolan said.
People within a community have to want change or any policing strategies will fail, said Bill Ziegler, president of Little Earth of United Tribes in south Minneapolis. People no longer fear walking day or night through the Native American housing complex, home to more than 1,000 people, he said.
"People used to run away scared from Little Earth several years ago, but now they run to it because it's a safe haven and they are looking for assistance," he said.
There were no major crime-fighting initiatives started in 2008, but the police department did add a substation downtown on Block E and improved the area's safety collaboration with businesses. They continued to sign up more block club leaders, monitor foreclosed properties and shut down problem neighborhood stores that had become a source of non-stop 911 calls. Dolan said a new central location also is in the works for officers to watch the various surveillance cameras placed throughout the city.
The department hired 52 officers this year, but Dolan said he already is planning to reduce next year's first recruitment class by 20 officers because of expected budget cuts. He said he would also consider reducing the number of officers in the traffic unit, violent offender task force or the metro gang strike force to get more feet on the street.
The NAACP's Reed said the city has a long way to go in dealing with violent crime. Its efforts won't be helped in the next year as unemployment skyrockets, more foreclosures hit families, and funding slows for nonprofits in poorer neighborhoods, he said.
"Even with President-elect Obama coming into office, people of color arrested in the city can't call the White House for help," he said.
Rybak recalled that the huge 2003 state aid cuts, which led to 100 officers taken off the streets, were followed by a sharp increase in crime.
But, he added, the city's more recent programs to reduce crime and get officers back on the street have been done mostly without help from the state. He hopes the city can sustain that effort.
"When the economy is bad, people do desperate things they wouldn't otherwise do," he said. "That's why we have to keep doing crime prevention, but also offer job training, prison reentry programs and work on other issues to reach people who need help."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465