Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger has a blunt message that too few leaders have been willing to acknowledge: Crime, particularly violent crime, is at near-record highs in larger cities in Minnesota, with emboldened criminals feeling freer than ever to wield even the deadliest weapons without regard for the law or human life.

At a recent news conference, flanked by leaders of local, state and national law enforcement agencies, Luger noted the progress made since he first brought together a coalition for his Violence Initiative. Working together, they have taken dozens of violent criminals off the street, along with hundreds of weapons and thousands of deadly fentanyl doses.

In an extended conversation with an editorial writer, Luger explained why today's surge of lawlessness is markedly more dangerous even than the violent crime epidemic of the 1990s that tagged Minneapolis with the unfortunate moniker "Murderapolis."

"The difference is twofold," Luger said. "First it's in mindset and attitude on the street. This is more violent, more militaristic and with less concern for life than what we saw in the '90s." Second, he said, is "the sheer level of weaponry." Body armor, laser scopes, high-capacity magazines and other militaristic accoutrements are not only much more widely available than back then, he said, "they're also cheaper." That "makes it more likely that [an offender is] looking to shoot has a Glock 19 transformed into a machine gun," he said. "So you put on body armor, and you get a Glock. It is becoming a bit of an arms race out there."

Those two trends have been exacerbated in the worst way possible by a confluence of events few could have predicted: a global pandemic that shut down much of the state for months and, amid that chaos, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. That triggered a wave of anti-police protests, resignations from the police force and an abiding and near-universal belief among criminals, Luger said, that "there simply won't be serious consequences."

It is a notion Luger intends to disabuse them of in short order. "Often these are people who have been through the state and local systems multiple times. They're thinking about five-, 10-year sentences with parole." He told of one arrestee who bragged even as he was being charged that he could do a short stint in prison, come out, get more guns and "I'll still be the king."

But there is no parole in the federal system, Luger said. And penalties for using fully automatic weapons and dealing fentanyl are harsh — up to 30 years. To get that word out, Luger's office has created two public-service announcements, both alarming, but worth watching. One is on the dangers of "auto-sears," a relatively new phenomenon in which a switch is used to transform a semi-automatic weapon to fully automatic. The other focuses on the violent crime surge itself and the powerful coalition of federal, state and local law enforcement that is coming together to root it out and send offenders to federal prison where, Luger assures viewers, "they will do real time."

As much force as Luger has managed to bring to this effort, there is far more that can and should be done, and it goes far beyond officers on the street.

"There is a whole lot of work" that goes into building the kind of cases that put criminals away from a long time, Luger said. It involves analysts and data specialists — people who can go through surveillance-camera footage, computer records and phone records. "We need more people in those chairs at every level," Luger said. The FBI has contributed, he said, as has the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Luger said his coalition is also working closely with community leaders and organizations, including violence interrupters. "This is an all-hands-on-deck job," he said.

Luger has set no end date on the coalition's efforts. "We'll do it as long as it takes," he said.

In the meantime, the Star Tribune Editorial Board urges state officials to revisit two critical issues whose resolution could aid in these efforts:

First, the state is sitting on a surplus of more than $9 billion because of the Legislature's inability to reach agreement on how to spend the extra funds. The DFL House passed a bill that would have infused $200 million into public safety, with funds for local law enforcement, community groups, juvenile justice, public defenders, mental health and other needed investments. A GOP Senate bill would have spent $100 million on incentives to attract and retain officers along with enhanced penalties for crimes such as carjacking.

That brings us to item two: an honest, unsparing revisiting of consequences for criminals. Minnesota has long prided itself on a lower incarceration rate than many states, and certainly incarceration is not the right response to all criminal offenses.

But even as we weigh the benefits of reducing penalties for the lowest-level offenders, with diversion or restorative justice, we must also ensure that violent offenders face penalties that serve as a true deterrent, and that we have a criminal justice system with sufficient resources to make those cases stick.

We are grateful for the efforts of federal agencies, but Minnesota has ample public safety resources of its own that it has not yet tapped.

Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.