A SAFE exit?

Police-civilian crime-prevention teams could be an early casualty of city budget cuts; reformers say there are other ways to help neighbors prevent and combat crime

This year, State Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-61) has introducing legislation to increase communication between the police department and the community — just as several city officials, including the mayor, are talking about cutting the city police unit that most often reaches out to neighborhoods.

Berglin said her bill, introduced in January, would require police and prosecutors to give communities timely information regarding criminal incidents and the outcomes of investigations and prosecutions. That job is now handled in Minneapolis by Community Crime Prevention/SAFE teams — a civilian Crime Prevention Specialist and a sworn officer who work together in a small group of neighborhoods.

CCP/SAFE teams, a unit of the police department, focus on preventing and reducing crime by building community relationships and disseminating crime statistics and information in selected neighborhoods.

CCP/SAFE history and functionsIn the early 1980s, Deputy Police Chief Lucy Gerold was department director of community crime prevention, then a separate entity from the police department. Then, Gerold said, her group organized the community to work with police, mostly to reduce property crimes. However, in the mid-’80s, crack cocaine became a big problem and the need for community involvement grew. In 1987, CCP/SAFE teams were organized; a sworn officer was paired with each community crime-prevention worker.

Gerold, who led the program until 1997, said the goal was to organize neighbors, reducing and preventing crime. Gerold said the CCP/SAFE teams have built a bridge between the police and the community, translating to a demonstrated drop in crime rates since the ’80s. "SAFE has a proven track record and I think the world of them," she said.

Officer Scott Shepard and Crime Prevention Specialist Jennifer Nesemeier are the SAFE team for the Cedar-Isles-Dean, Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East (Wedge), Linden Hills, West Calhoun and East Isles neighborhoods. Nesemeier said educating neighbors about area crimes is the most important part of their jobs. "If neighbors look out for each other, crime will drop," she said. "We make them informed, so they can make better judgment."

Nesemeier said she and Shepard flyer neighborhoods with crime alert information, frequently attend neighborhood meetings and help to organize block clubs. Shepard said he and Nesemeier also hold 911 emergency workshops, finance and forgery workshops, business and home-security workshops — and even conduct free security checks for homes and businesses. Shepard says his team works with other entities, such as the city inspections department, county probation offices and other law enforcement agencies to spread the word about pressing issues and solving long-term problems.

Shepard said their tactics work; he points to a burglar caught in the Lowry Hill neighborhood this summer. There had been a high rate of home burglaries, so Shepard and Nesemeier contacted block leaders and distributed information about the suspect and crimes. Not long after that, Shepard said, the suspect was apprehended, thanks to a 911 call from a block leader the pair had trained.

Before coming to SAFE in September 2001, Shepard said, he had been a street cop for over 10 years. He said he gets satisfaction being part of the SAFE unit, since he can focus on long-term problems and see results — something he says street cops don’t have the time to do.

City officials analyze SAFE Despite the SAFE unit’s effectiveness, however, many city officials claim the 66 SAFE officers and civilians perform duties that overlap with other programs. They say the functions could be incorporated into other city offices, separate from the police department, and accomplish the same goals.

At a January budget meeting discussing five-year spending-growth cuts, Mayor R.T. Rybak said he thought police services, which make up 33 percent of the city budget, could be maintained despite $12 million less in spending — but SAFE would have to go.

"Dollars don’t equal results. I think there is fat in the police budget and I am going to go after that hard," Rybak said. "Number one, I don’t think we need SAFE. We have SAFE over here [in the police department] doing community engagement, NRP doing community engagement. The real work needs to be done together."

However, Deputy Chief Rick Schultz, Bureau Chief of Central Services, said he wants to strike a balance, rather than eliminating SAFE. "No one wants to cut SAFE. It’s crime-prevention. How we define that service may change. No one wants to see SAFE disappear in its entirety," he said.

Schultz said changes such as reduced workload, staff reductions or SAFE reorganization may be a better way to go. "Maybe the Crime Prevention Specialists work with officers assigned to squads, rather than having an assigned patrol officer," he said.

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) was a SAFE Civilian Crime Prevention specialist for the East Calhoun, East Harriet, Lyndale and CARAG neighborhoods for eight years. Now, he is chair of the council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which oversees policing issues. He said SAFE’s community organizing components could be accomplished by melding it into other city offices.

"In a way [getting SAFE out of the police department] might level the playing field — it would build a certain capacity in neighborhoods," Niziolek said. "Right now, some neighborhoods have safety committees, problem property committees. But if we bring them all together, with inspections, and the function landed in Neighborhood and Community Planning [in a new department that incorporates development, planning and possibly the Neighborhood Revitalization Program], then neighbors would become more involved."

Niziolek said taking civilian crime-prevention out of the police department will cost access to some police information, but the prevention will still happen.

"I believe we can do it more efficiently," he said.

Resident involvementLinden Hills resident Madalyn Cioci is her neighborhood’s SAFE coordinator, recruiting and maintaining block club leaders for the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council. She said she sympathizes with the city’s budget problems, but SAFE functions must remain intact to keep neighborhoods safe. "It’s one thing to have police on the street to help when things happen, but CCP/SAFE deals with prevention, to keep the community safe before it gets to that point," she said.

Cioci said the SAFE team has been invaluable in her neighborhood, providing a point person for safety and crime questions and issues. She said SAFE’s community information — such as during a neighborhood child-luring attempt — is critical. "I would want to see the functions continue somehow," Cioci said. "If taken out of the police department, communication would still have to remain strong."

Dave Delvoye, who lives in Fulton and works with SAFE units as safety coordinator for the Stevens Square neighborhood, said, "It’s important that [SAFE] remain in the police department, because of the enforcement authority that the police department has regarding problem properties and the information the SAFE team provides. We need the information and resources that they provide as much as any other unit of the police department."

Delvoye said he started out as a block club volunteer in 1989 and has continued to be involved with SAFE teams because they make a difference. For example, he said, there was a prostitution and narcotics problem developing on Franklin Avenue between Nicollet Avenue and 4th Avenue early this winter, prompting resident complaints. Because SAFE teams, the neighborhood group and block clubs walked the neighborhood, Delvoye said the problem has diminished.

Despite his calls for reform, Niziolek acknowledges SAFE’s contribution. "The functions that SAFE has provided are a main reason the city has moved forward," Niziolek said.