One evening in May, 1992 Chris M. was walking home down Nicollet Avenue, and somewhere between Lake and 34th streets, as witnesses later described, an individual he passed on the sidewalk grabbed a stick and clubbed Chris in the face and he fell into the street unconscious. His assailant’s companions threw in a punch and kick or two, and then fled across a bridge over 35W to their homes.
With good witnesses coming forward almost immediately, including a 911 caller picking up the phone as soon as the situation was obvious, a suspect was identified, later arrested and ultimately convicted of a felony assault. Chris laid in a coma, unconscious through the arrest, arraignment, trial, conviction and sentencing, and then eight years later, died in a nursing home. He never came out of it. Having already been convicted of a felony assault, his attacker couldn’t be tried again for murder, although the crime could then be reclassified as a homicide.
I don’t remember any of the news reports of the incident but I don’t doubt that more than one referred to it as a “random act of violence.”
But if any crimes were truly random, there’d be no point in doing what I do for a living, and certainly no point in encouraging people to organize a neighborhood watch. Even a lightning strike isn’t completely random.
A robber doesn’t get up in the morning (or for that matter, at sunset), take a dart, throw it at a map of the Twin Cities, hop on his Vespa, and rob the first person he encounters on the corner where his dart lands. The car break-in artist doesn’t enter a surface parking lot blindfolded, smash every third window, and reach in with the hopes of grabbing the Cracker-Jack prize. And drug dealers don’t wander through well-kept properties or adequately staffed and lit convenience store lots to ply their trade.
Fortunately, we have learned enough by now that we can anticipate what crimes can happen, and where, based on the conditions in the area; and since we can anticipate it, we can prevent it. Knowing this, I cringe whenever I hear the expression, “It was just a random act of violence.”
Ask the bars in the Warehouse District if crime in that area is random. At the First Precinct, we meet with those bars every month because we know that most robbery victims are three sheets to the wind. We urge bars’ strict adherence to one simple condition of their license: that they don’t serve people to the point of obvious intoxication. We say, in so many words, “Don’t create victims.” With adequate server training, it would be extremely rare for one of their patrons to end up as easy prey for robbers.
The bars who are on board with our crime-reduction partnership also know that other acts of violence in and around their clubs are not random. Ask your average nightclub owner how many fights his or her door staff need to quell on nights they enforce a dress code, compared with nights where anything goes. The fear of lawsuits from victims in bar fights thus drives most nightclubs these days to enact restrictive dress codes.
Ask the 50-odd owners of Minneapolis rental property whose licenses have been revoked due to criminal activity in their properties over the past 15 years, and if they are honest, they will admit that many of the people they’d rented to have indeed had significant criminal histories. If they’d rented to a truly random sampling of people in Minneapolis, very few career criminals would have wreaked havoc with their property and victimized the surrounding neighborhood. The crooks showing up to fill out an application hardly appeared at random — they’d probably just been rejected by the owner next door or kicked out by another owner across town. Now ask the other 8,000 owners — if you have the time — what they’ve done to keep their licenses, and you’ll find most create the very nonrandom conditions of significant background checks and a thorough lease with explicit rules of behavior. Whereas the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) practices “directed patrol” with squads, these owners direct their patrol through information technology.
Ask Joel Sisson, another Lyndale hero, who, way back when, put some unruly kids to work building 1,000 green Adirondack chairs, and put 100 of them in the front yards of previously disenchanted residents’ homes on Pleasant Avenue. It was a win-win.
Chris M. may not have known his attacker before that evening in 1992. But from witness statements we know that words were exchanged. A volley of rocks ensued, and eventually some scrap wood lying about was used as a weapon, with the tragic result memorialized in a police report and court records.
In no way does this lay the blame on Chris, but it is clear that an adversarial relationship quickly developed, and the circumstances were ripe for violence. This circumstance we remember to our shame — was the decidedly unrandom situation wherein so few neighbors were out and about and otherwise could have, by their presence, given notice to the thugs that their predatory lying about wouldn’t be tolerated.
A month after the attack, Lyndale’s door-knocking for block leaders was launched to get more eyes on each particular street corner. The Lyndale Walkers formed to “put safe activities in an unsafe place,” to quote a principle of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Owners of Lyndale property who lived elsewhere were invited to neighborhood meetings and tapped on the shoulder to help out with our organizing. After a decade of giving in to the myth of random acts of violence, we turned things around. Now such violence is met with even more organizing rather than a shrug. And even this organizing wasn’t random. It’d been on the verge of happening as the result of years of planning.
So the next time you hear about a so-called random crime, take it with a grain of salt. And use it to get yourself or your neighbors off the dime to prevent another one from happening.
Luther Krueger is a 1st Precinct crime prevention specialist who lives in the Lyndale neighborhood.