A student walking in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota campus.

DAVID JOLES • Star Tribune,

Time to talk

Law enforcement and University of Minnesota officials urge parents and students to discuss personal safety over the holiday break. Stowing electronic devices while walking between classes or activities can help reduce risk. And students should avoid being out late and alone. Call a cab or an escort, or check out transportation options, such as Gopher Chauffeur at the U.

A troubling wave of crime near the University of Minnesota

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • December 12, 2013 - 6:20 PM

The field of Minneapolis mayoral contenders this fall was large and diverse. Still, there was strong consensus that population growth and mass transit are two keys to prosperity. In November, voters swept into office a candidate who strongly championed both: Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges.

The path Minneapolis is charting for future growth is a critical reason why mounting concerns about safety at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities’ campus are a challenge for the entire city, not just for the U’s administration and 50-member police force.

In many ways, the future the city seeks is already well underway near the U. Sleek new high-rise apartments around campus — 7,000 units have been added, with another 7,000 soon to be complete — are creating denser neighborhoods that are more transit- and pedestrian-friendly. The Central Corridor light-rail line will start whisking people in and out of the university district in 2014. Rapid conversion of single-family homes to student rentals in nearby off-campus neighborhoods has also changed the area’s character.

Two university-area sexual assaults and an uptick in armed robberies certainly put a spotlight on student safety and understandably alarmed parents. But troubling crime raises broader questions about the public services, such as increased police patrols and better lighting, that denser and more-mobile neighborhoods will need.

A welcome legislative hearing on campus safety this week briefly touched on the role the area’s changing character may have played in the campus-area crime wave — for example, had street lighting kept up with an increasingly urbanized community’s needs? But the hearing really only scratched the surface of this issue.

As the next generation of Minneapolis leaders take office, among the pressing questions they need to grapple with is whether neighborhoods of the future will require different public safety solutions. Higher-profile leadership from the mayor’s office and the city’s Police Department is needed not only to help control crime near the U but to gain insights into public safety needs in years to come.

A closer look at recent crime statistics underscores the need for a stronger town-gown public safety partnership, particularly with so many of the U’s approximately 51,000 Twin Cities students living off campus,

Most of the fall 2013 crimes have taken place off-campus, including the sexual assaults and 22 of the 25 personal robberies, though one of the most brazen robbery attempts took place during the day in the U’s Anderson Hall. Forty-nine percent of the robbery victims were students, with many targeted for their cellphones, laptops and tablets.

While every fall brings a spike in robberies, according to U officials, the five-year average for the campus area is 18.2. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek’s testimony this week at the legislative hearing suggested that other areas in the metro and nationally are also experiencing more of this type of crime. The term “Apple picking” is used to describe thieves targeting iPhone users. The U, because of its vulnerable younger population, merits special attention after the robbery uptick, even though officials point out that serious crime is down 38 percent over the past decade.

U officials have invested more than $16 million in campus security since 2004, adding security cameras and door card readers and improving lighting. Enhancing public safety off-campus through better lighting or more permanent ramped-up police presence will take city cooperation.

A look at Craigslist suggests another course of action for local and national policymakers. This week, there were more than 2,700 used iPhones listed for sale in the Twin Cities. While many are legitimate sellers, law enforcement officials say that it’s far too easy to turn stolen phones and other devices into quick cash. During his testimony, Stanek said congressional action is needed to permanently disable service to cellphones and other stolen devices — which would help dry up the black market.

Minnesota’s congressional delegation should be at the forefront on this issue. The change would not only enhance student safety across the nation, but also help protect others who rely on these must-have devices of the modern age.

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