Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman remembers when a rash of violent crime, including record homicides, earned Minneapolis the unfortunate nickname "Murderapolis" back in the 1990s.
Now, nearly 30 years later, a steep wave of violent crime — including hundreds of carjackings, often at gunpoint — is again threatening not just Minneapolis, but St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. In Minneapolis alone police recorded more than 640 carjackings and attempted carjackings last year, a rate of almost two per day. That's up from 170 recorded in 2020. Before that, the numbers were so small that they were not broken out separately.
Freeman told an editorial writer that there is a misperception that his office is not aggressively prosecuting such cases. "We charge 85% of the carjacking cases brought to us," he said. However, Freeman remains deeply troubled by the steep rise in violent crime and is proposing to resurrect and improve a solution he said worked last time, a program from the '90s known as Minnesota Hope, Education, and Law and Safety, or MN HEALS.
"What we need now is MN HEALS 2.0," Freeman said. First launched in 1997, MN HEALS promoted partnerships among police, probation officers, community leaders, the faith and business communities, and youth employment programs. The result, Freeman said, was a 62% decline in violent crime in the following decade.
Freeman said he wants to improve that version, and is already building a coalition around it. "We want it to be even more broad-based, comprehensive," he said. In a recent meeting with Hennepin County mayors and law enforcement officials, Freeman said the focus should expand to include violent crime in the suburbs, which have suffered particularly from a spate of violent carjackings.
Whether the new wave of crime is the result of societal fraying from the pandemic or lingering effects of last year's unrest that fostered a short-lived "defund the police" movement, it requires just such a wholesale evaluation of how we target our resources to combat it.
Paul Schnell, Minnesota commissioner of corrections and a former police chief, said he values resurrecting and improving MN HEALS in part because it can serve as a neutral forum for engaging a broad variety of viewpoints on next steps. One of the most troubling aspects that sets this crime wave apart from earlier ones is the way it has divided the criminal justice community, Schnell told an editorial writer, turning police chiefs against prosecutors and prosecutors against judges.
"Right now the system is turning on itself," he said. "We're eating our own. Everyone is blaming everyone else. That's not something we've really seen before. We have to start coming together on this and figure out how the system itself responds to this threat."
The Hennepin County Chiefs of Police Association recently sought major revisions in the handling of violent juvenile offenders after arrest. As noted in a previous editorial, the chiefs are seeking stricter prosecution, bail reform, the ability to arrest and take into custody those who have missed court dates and changes that would enable them to detain repeat juvenile offenders rather than release them.
That was followed by a Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association letter that accused county attorneys of sometimes being unwilling to pursue felony cases. The association is seeking state legislation that would require counties to track felony-level cases that go uncharged. The criminal justice system was under massive stress even before the pandemic. As with so many things, the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems even as it diminishes our ability to tackle them.
That makes it all the more important to find a way to listen to all sides and bring all sides together. Earlier this week the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission put a sensible pause on a proposal to reduce sentences for repeat offenders. The topic, Schnell said in an interview, is one that warrants renewed scrutiny, if only to avoid sending the wrong message.
Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who is running for governor, said in a news conference Friday that he will introduce bills in this legislative session to impose minimum sentences for carjacking, ranging from two to six years, depending on whether a weapon was used or bodily harm committed, along with a ban on judges waiving mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders who use a gun. He also wants legislation for signing bonuses for new police officers, an incentive that has become common in other industries experiencing labor shortages.
All these ideas, along with whatever comes out of MN HEALS 2.0, are worthy of consideration, hopefully with a minimum of partisan bickering. Schnell noted in talking to an editorial writer that the situation in Minneapolis is particularly dire, that police staffing levels have fallen so low there aren't enough officers to follow through on investigations, resulting in abysmally low clearance rates for crimes.
"I don't want to be Pollyannaish about this," Schell said. "We have to do more aggressive and very targeted enforcement. But that's not all of what we need to do. This surge in violent crime is happening in urban areas around the country."
No single individual or entity will have all the answers needed to combat this latest wave. Efforts like the relaunch of MN HEALS are needed to keep key leaders and agencies working together to make our communities safer.