A push to add security outside Scott County courtrooms sparks discussion of growing crime numbers in the city.
A sudden move to reverse years of resistance to installing costly courtroom security in Shakopee is raising once again the question: Is Scott County quietly becoming a scarier place?
The move to lock down the courtrooms is happening just six months after Mayor Brad Tabke based his success in ousting a longtime mayor of Shakopee in part on an appeal to gangs-and-crime anxieties.
Crime statistics seem to offer both a yes and a no answer to the question. Broadly speaking, crime is tapering off, as it is across the state. But in Shakopee itself, the numbers reflecting the most serious crimes have risen.
"We're a safe community," said Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate -- but one whose crime rate on paper gets artificially elevated by the number of entertainment attractions bringing thousands of outsiders into town.
"If you look at a crime rate based on our own population, what you in fact are seeing is what happens on a nice Thursday or Friday or Saturday night when there are crowds at Mystic Lake, at Canterbury, at Valleyfair, and things get a little crazy sometimes," he said.
"The other thing is, when you do have a homicide in town across the street from you that is gang-related, holy cow, you'd think we were South Central L.A. Think about a city like Grand Marais," a gorgeous vacation city on the North Shore that did, however, become the site of a courthouse shooting in December. "If you're not safe there, then you know there's a risk level in everything we do."
Courthouse discussion on the security issue centers on activity within the county seat of Shakopee, at a time when Shakopee's demographics are changing rapidly. Some civic leaders have drawn a link between the two.
The chief, however, declines -- for the most part -- to tie crime to race or ethnicity.
"We don't have any really good data on that," he said. "From the narcotics side of things we do have data, and we do know that well over 90 percent of the cocaine, meth, heroin and a very significant percentage of marijuana come from Mexico. That's just reality. Aside from that, there's a lot of white kids we deal with.
"The graffiti you see in town, that's Hispanic gangs -- but we haven't had any for a while. That might lead to a perception" about who's responsible for crime.
Compared to candidate Tabke, Mayor Tabke speaks in less edgy tones today about the crime issue, allowing as how it's a combustible mélange of anxiety and reality.
"There are fact-based things involved and a lot of emotion-based things involved," Tabke said. "People have been afraid and scared, and it was partly emotion, based on things like tagging, visible things people see. We need to have a strategy and Jeff [Tate] has a good one, and Shakopee is in a really good place compared to other towns, and we need to keep it that way."
Nothing has been done so far, he said, to work on staffing up police in the way he urged as a candidate.
"Over the winter, there were no major things, no gang-related crimes at the city level, so it hasn't been a problem yet, but it's something we need to look at as a long-term strategy."
Push for screening
Sheriff Kevin Studnicka spoke of mayhem both on the streets of Shakopee and in government center offices.
"There are constantly reports of unruly parties at court administration, at the county attorney's office," he told commissioners during a recent informal workshop. "Courthouse fights have resulted in drive-by shootings in Shakopee. Who's to say they couldn't have taken place at the courthouse?"
It might have been OK to forgo courtroom security in the past, he said, "but there've been a number of things in the past four, five, six years that lead us to think we should seriously consider [courtroom screening], along with most other metro counties."
County Attorney Pat Ciliberto agreed.
"We've had gang fights in this building, on the courts side," he told board members. "People have been so brazen, sitting in courtrooms photographing people, including prosecutors and judges. It's a serious security issue."
In the county as a whole, he said, "There's been an uptick in gang-related juvenile crime of a kind we didn't see years ago. Last week we reviewed a gang initiation in which a 17-year-old was required to beat someone up on the street. This happened in Shakopee. When Dave [Menden, now a commissioner] was sheriff, we never saw that random beating. It's different, what we're facing now vs. 10 years ago."
As the accompanying chart shows, the state's calculations of crime rates reflect a broad decrease for the county as a whole and for its big cities.
Savage reports that the raw number of so-called Part 1 crimes has fallen in each of the past four years, from 929 in 2007 to 663 in 2011.
Those same figures have increased in Shakopee during that same period, from fewer than 1,000 to nearly 1,120 in 2011. There was a slight dip though from 2010 to 2011, Shakopee police report.
Ciliberto said: "We should be proud that overall crime numbers are down, but some of the most serious are up. One significant crime that is up is first-degree felony domestic assault, which is what led to the Grand Marais incident. These are volatile situations. We know we have weapons coming into this building. It's not a question of 'if' but 'when,' if we don't try to stop it."
If the two top county law enforcement officials sound worried about a changing Shakopee, however, Shakopee's chief depicts the change in sentiment on mandatory courtroom screening as arising mainly from the world of the courtroom itself.
"An individual with ties to drug cartels and sitting in a courtroom videotaping is what got this going, from my perspective," he said. "Coupled with what happened up north, in Grand Marais. Those two events seem to have got this going. I know that [enhanced courtroom security] is very important to the judges."
The county already has numerous security measures in place, said County Administrator Gary Shelton. They include secure passageways for prisoners and judges, armed personnel in courtrooms, video surveillance, metal detectors for high-profile cases and strategically located panic devices.
"But it probably isn't enough today. " he said.
Capital costs for new equipment would run around $50,000 at the most, he said, with the biggest potential cost being staffing. But the courts are amenable, at least at first, to reducing staffing in courtrooms themselves as long as screening improves. That should make staffing costs a wash.
"Carver and Scott counties are the only ones in the metro not doing this," Shelton said, "but Carver is moving to it. There are two satellites in Dakota that don't have it, but there is discussion there, too. ... We are getting close to being the only ones without it."
Menden called a move to screening a good idea but added, "If someone wants to get someone, they will; everyone leaves the courtroom sooner or later."
In Shakopee, meanwhile, Tabke from the beginning has coupled his crime concerns with an eagerness to reach out to the city's rapidly growing immigrant community. And he is moving faster on that promise than on attacking crime.
"We probably had 70 to 90 people of color at our diversity summit" last month, he said. "A lot of Latinos, Asians, people from everywhere, a couple of Russians, quite a few Somalis.
"This morning I meet with three Somali folks to talk about how we as a city can help them have a gathering place. They don't have enough population to afford a mosque here, but how can they use community resources?
"There was a lot of discussion this morning about why Somalis are moving to Shakopee. What's bringing them in from where they've been? They said they know of 60 families in Shakopee now -- greatly increased over the last two years. Why Shakopee? Why here?
"And a lot of it was, they feel safe here. It's quiet, homey, peaceful. It was great to hear."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285