If African-Americans are disproportionately arrested for so-called livability offenses, as apparently they are, then that might be good reason for Minneapolis authorities to re-examine enforcement procedures for loitering, lurking, spitting, disorderly conduct and similar minor misdeeds. But it’s not reason enough to scale back the livability laws themselves, especially in light of last week’s flash-mob violence that disrupted the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Two City Council members, Cam Gordon and Blong Yang, want to eliminate lurking and spitting from the city’s list of livability crimes. They claim that police use those laws as pretext to harass and arrest blacks. The council members, backed by increasingly vocal advocacy groups, including Black Lives Matter, cite statistics showing that — over a six-year period — three-fifths of those arrested for lurking were black, while only one quarter were white, and that nearly 70 percent of lurking complaints came from whites. (Blacks make up nearly 20 percent of the city’s population; non-Hispanic whites about 60 percent.)
Those arrest proportions are troubling, but shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the notorious income and educational disparities that separate blacks and whites in Minneapolis. The fact that police rarely charge anyone with lurking — defined as lying “in wait” to commit a criminal act — adds fuel to the suspicion that police use the law as pretext for investigating more serious criminal possibilities. It gives police “too much discretion,” Yang says. Still, it’s a big leap to assume discrimination.
In the broader sense, now is not the time to lighten up on livability enforcement or to toss away livability laws. The city’s downtown is in the midst of an important transformation that includes a new emphasis on residential population and public spaces. The state and city are investing more than $40 million in a new Nicollet Mall and several downtown parks. For that investment to pay off, it’s imperative that a broad range of pedestrians feels comfortable, confident and safe on downtown sidewalks.
It’s not “crime” that deters confidence on downtown streets, but rather the perception that something uncivil may happen — aggressive panhandling or loud cursing or other disorderly or threatening behavior that violates the middling sensibilities of most people, no matter their race or income level. The St. Patrick’s Day outbreak was probably an aberration. Only a few instigators may have planned (and failed) to incite police overreaction. Still, the incident adds to an already-problematic sense of distrust.
“It’s the behavior of a few, not the diversity of people that’s the problem,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council. “This is not about sanitizing downtown; we love the urban vibe that we have. We celebrate the rich and diverse tapestry that we have; it’s a competitive advantage for us.” The problem, he said, is that a tiny few ruin the experience for the many.
For police and the courts, the dilemma is how to navigate the need to enforce livability laws against a growing perception that race — not behavior — is being used to target offenders. City Attorney Susan Segal said she doubts that police are unfairly targeting blacks, yet acknowledged that a plural society faces huge challenges in trying to define a single livability standard. Repealing laws against lurking and spitting wouldn’t seriously harm the public order, she said, although she would oppose any wider attempt to undermine livability statutes. She supports continued attempts to address root causes of homelessness as well as youth outreach programs. And she applauds the Downtown Improvement District’s plan to use some of its ambassadors to monitor and issue warnings to livability offenders. We agree on all counts.
It’s vital that police continue to emphasize behavior — not race — in enforcing livability ordinances. In the grand scheme of things, these small crimes seem trivial. In fact, their cumulative effect spells the difference between an attractive, appealing city and one that you’d rather avoid.