John Swee likes to hang out in downtown Minneapolis, but if it's after dark you'll probably find him in the company of several friends.
They just feel safer in a group. Some of his female friends have told him stories of being harassed by loitering men, and he's had to walk cautiously through poorly lit street corners.
Although the 27-year-old from Golden Valley hasn't been assaulted or robbed during his downtown excursions, the perception of lurking danger he shares with other potential downtown visitors has taken on its own reality.
A survey by the Downtown Council last spring of 6,500 people mirrored Swee's concerns, and those negative impressions continue to be a driving force in Janee Harteau's efforts to clean up the downtown business district.
Harteau, head of the downtown police precinct, decided the best way to get tangible results was to implement a sophisticated business plan created by police, city officials, community members and several of downtown's biggest tenants.
The breadth of communities represented by the partners of the SafeZone Collaborative makes it unlike any urban crime-fighting strategy in the United States, Harteau said.
This year's plan calls for a beefing up the number of beat officers on foot and horseback, adding a substation on Block E and developing a more visible working relationship with dozens of downtown security guards.
You may even see officers patrolling Hennepin Avenue or the skyways on three-wheel electric "motion mobile units" donated to the city.
An 'astounding' effort
"I think an effort of this magnitude and the level of cooperation between private and public stakeholders to move it along is astounding," said Jon Kohagen, vice president and chief security officer for Ameriprise Financial and a SafeZone board member. "We have a strong downtown presence, and I want to contribute to making it a safe and welcoming environment."
That's good news to Steve Galvin. He's worked downtown for six months and said he feels safer during the day. He described the atmosphere on weekends as a "kind of carnival," when he sees police on horses and people selling CDs.
"I know alcohol is a factor on how people act," he said. "More police downtown wouldn't hurt. It never hurts."
While reports of serious crime in the precinct are down 13 percent compared with last year, theft from vehicles is on the upswing. Concern about downtown crime skyrocketed, however, in 2006 when Alan Reitter, 31, a Minnetonka resident, was the unintended victim of a fatal gunshot wound as he walked with friends after leaving a bar near Block E.
But it's usually livability crimes such as loitering, drug dealing, aggressive panhandling and urinating in public that contribute to the perception of an unsafe downtown, Harteau said.
"When I ask people if they call 911 when witnessing a crime, they respond, 'Well, that is downtown,'" she said. "My response is if you wouldn't tolerate someone urinating in your own back yard, don't tolerate it downtown."
The SafeZone cuts across the heart of downtown, from the Mississippi River to S. 12th Street and 4th Avenue S. to Hawthorne Avenue. Informal crime prevention initiatives were started in the area in 2005, but this is the first time a plan with specific goals guided by a full-time executive director were put in place. The SafeZone collaborative was also approved to operate as a nonprofit organization, allowing it to receive donations as well as grants from companies and foundations.
Shane Zahn was a Target Corp. executive for nearly seven years, working in assets protection, before he was encouraged to join the SafeZone initiative. Target is funding his job, but his appointment had to be approved by SafeZone's board. He helped board members set the plan's priorities, but "all of the ideas came from them," he said.
What is planned
The board didn't have to reinvent the wheel. SafeZone already has 30 surveillance cameras in place, a radio link network operating between police and security guards, joint beats with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and Metro Transit police and a nuisance crime prosecution program.
This year, people will notice more mounted horse patrols clopping through downtown in late afternoons throughout the week, not just on weekends after bar-closing time. Twelve new officers will be assigned to the SafeZone. Security guards will be provided with vests that light up when they are asked by police to step out of buildings and be a presence on the street.
A new substation next to GameWorks in the space formerly occupied by Snyder's will change the face of Block E on Hennepin Avenue, Harteau said. Any police or security guards can use the space, which was donated by Block E owner Dan McCaffery. "SafeZone" signs will appear throughout the area.
Dana Banwer, deputy city attorney, said her office is "an important piece to the whole puzzle" to keep downtown safe. Her staff will continue to prosecute low-level offenses and target chronic offenders, who can be ordered by a judge to stay away from specific areas of downtown.
Judith Kalfon, general manager of the Radisson Plaza Hotel, said downtowns that are safe have a high degree of people watching out for one another. SafeZone's expanded plans for 2008 will go a long way to make that happen, she said.
"It's very important to our visitors that we provide safety and security within our hotel, but they also need to feel comfortable around the neighborhood," she said.
A key measure to determine if SafeZone is working will come from frequent surveys of downtown visitors, workers and residents, Harteau said. If you are going to make true change, you have to know the real issues, she said.
"If it is perception, we need to change it," she said. "Just because a cop is on a corner doesn't mean it isn't safe."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465