Homicides in Minneapolis have fallen sharply in 2009 amid an extraordinary trend of less violent crime nationwide, a ray of good news at the end of a year darkened by crippling recession and high unemployment.
Following a pattern seen from New York City to Los Angeles, the city has logged only 19 homicides so far this year. Should that number hold through Thursday, it will mark a whopping 50 percent reduction from the previous year and the city's lowest number of homicides in a quarter century.
It would be far less than the 10-year average of 48 homicides and a mere slice of the city's record of 97, set in 1995.
"It's absolutely amazing," said Sondra Samuels, the president of the Peace Foundation, a group formed several years ago to combat violence on the city's North Side.
A few years ago, members of the group were so busy holding candlelight vigils at murder scenes that they had little time for anything else. This year, with only seven killings on the North Side, they have had time to launch an aggressive effort to help the neighborhood's families get their kids through school and into college.
No one seems to have a ready explanation for the steep decline, with credit going to everything from better police work to better security technology to a better job of clearing alleys of garbage and graffiti.
Even as people spoke this week of a sense of calm in formerly battle-scarred neighborhoods, others said any celebrations should be tempered by the reality that crime still degrades far too many lives.
"Crime is a very personal thing, and if your house has been burglarized, then the fact that our homicide statistics are low probably doesn't mean much to you," said Larry Hiscock, executive director of the Harrison Neighborhood Association.
Still, the statistics signal a remarkable change, and not just in Minnesota. New York City police reported this week that the city is on pace to finish the year with fewer murders than in any year going back at least to 1963.
Nationwide, law enforcement deaths dropped this year to a 50-year low, with 124 officers killed so far. That caps a trend that made the past decade among the safest for officers, despite the deadliest single day for police on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported midway through this year that violent crime had fallen sharply in most cities and that homicides had fallen 10 percent.
Neither Police Chief Tim Dolan nor Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was available Tuesday to discuss the falling rate; spokesmen for both said they planned a joint news conference next week. The timing is particularly significant for Dolan, who learns next month whether the City Council will reappoint him to a second three-year term.
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said his city's focus on gang violence and domestic abusers helped lower that city's rate of violent crime, including homicides, which stand at 12 so far this year, down from 18 in 2008.
He said one successful strategy the city employed was examining domestic disputes more closely to identify those with the potential to turn deadly. The result has been a drop from eight or nine domestic-violence-related fatalities a year to one in the past three years, Harrington said. The city targeted two of its more violent gangs this year with a program to help members find work and to help them get driver's licenses if they pledged to go crime free.
"We talked to the gangsters to put down their guns and stop the drama," Harrington said. One group mostly worked with the police and got jobs; many of the others ended up in prison, "so we've had very little violence out of them, too," he said.
Assistant Minneapolis Police Chief Sharon Lubinski, who last week was appointed the U.S. marshal for the District of Minnesota, said the Minneapolis department also had success battling juvenile crime. A few years ago investigators found that about 40 percent of robberies were committed by juveniles.
"At that time we reconstituted our juvenile unit," she said. They took a more holistic approach to juvenile offenders rather than send all of them to lockup, pulling aside the ones that seemed more confused than criminal.
"The bedrock of any sort of crime reduction is done with good relationships with the cops and the neighborhoods," she said. "People in the neighborhoods, they need to feel like they can trust their officers."
A different feeling
The crime decline has emboldened block clubs and whole neighborhoods, said Hiscock.
"In the community there's a very different feel in the air right now," he said. His neighborhood just west of downtown Minneapolis went from three block clubs two years ago to 15 today, he said.
Some of the most dramatic changes have been in North Side neighborhoods such as Jordan and Hawthorne, which together had 13 murders in 2007. Last year that number fell to seven, this year to three.
"It has significantly shifted the way people perceive their own community," said Michelle Martin, executive director of the Peace Foundation. She said police respond faster to 911 calls today, pay more attention to her neighborhood and have done gang interventions to stem the violence.
"The calm has allowed people to say, 'What comes next?'" said Martin, who created the Peace Foundation six years ago with City Council Member Don Samuels. With more time to plan and less devoted to candlelight vigils, they've created the Northside Achievement Zone, the program designed to get more kids to college.
"A lot of times when people learn about being gang members and drug dealers and pimps and prostitutes, they've never been taught that they could go to college," said V.J. Smith, a founder of the Minneapolis chapter of MAD DADS, which works with troubled kids. "They've never been told that they could be a leader."
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747