As victims of cellphone thieves, former Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew and several University of Minnesota students know this trend personally: Aggressive thefts of smartphones and other personal electronics contributed to an uptick in violent crime in Minneapolis last year.
During a news conference this week, Police Chief Janeé Harteau and newly installed Mayor Betsy Hodges reported that although overall crime remained at record lows, the city still saw a 4 percent increase in violent criminal activity.
The chief said there were encouraging trends from the city's 2013 crime statistics, including fewer burglaries, auto thefts, homicides and rapes. But there were more robberies and aggravated assaults — nearly 8 percent citywide and 39 percent in north Minneapolis — in part driven by the growing market for stolen electronics.
To address those concerns, Harteau said she has assigned more officers to the robbery and assault units. And the chief and mayor talked about increasing the number of sworn officers to 850 from the current 812. In addition, the department will move forward with the use of body cameras for officers in 2014, starting with a pilot program.
Beyond a larger force and new technology, the chief is smartly emphasizing building stronger police-community relationships — including more involvement with the city's young people. As part of her MPD 2.0 culture change, she already has required more officers to get out of their squad cars and get to know neighbors on the North Side. In the future, she's hoping to have more cops walk beats throughout the city.
That's crucial for this department — especially given its difficult history of payouts for alleged police misconduct and questionable community relations.
As evidence of the focus on relationship building, Harteau invited several dozen of her precinct leaders, neighborhood activists and business owners to participate in this week's news conference. Many spoke briefly about how they are interacting with cops and doing a better job of sharing information to prevent crime.
The news conference came one day after the mayor and seven new City Council members were installed and held their first meeting of the year. During that meeting, activists seeking an end to racial disparities chanted "Let the people speak!" but were not allowed to address the council.
In contrast, Harteau invited several speakers to the news conference, including representatives from the city's Youth Coordinating Board who support the chief's strategy of including more young people in crime prevention efforts. Harteau said the department and the YCB did more work with teens in 2013, which may have contributed to a 4.6 percent drop in juvenile crime.
Last summer, the YCB and the Downtown Youth Street Outreach Project had representatives on Nicollet Mall every day to talk with young people and make them aware of events at the library, the downtown YMCA and elsewhere.
This year, MPD will start a program called Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) to help officers in schools connect with youth and help them build the life skills they need to be successful. Harteau is planning a youth leadership summit for later this year, primarily for African-American and East African youths. And she will convene a youth "Chief's Advisory Council" to listen to their concerns.
"I'd really like to see our next line of community leaders come from this group," Harteau said at the news conference. "They've got the solutions. We need to bring them to the table."
Harteau and Hodges are certainly not the first city officials to talk about building better police-community relations. Here's hoping that one day they'll be known as the police chief and mayor who were able to sustainably follow through.