Southwest sacrifices officers to summer anticrime initiative

Three redeployed to higher-crime precincts; Southwest Councilmembers, neighborhood staffers complain

From a North Minneapolis street corner, Mayor R.T. Rybak and Police Chief William McManus presented a summer crime initiative that will reverberate to Southwest: temporarily reassigning Community Crime-Prevention officers to higher-crime areas.

The SAFE redeployment means Southwest’s 5th Precinct will temporarity lose three officers, on top of the 27 it has already lost since 2002.

In their May 11 announcement, Rybak and McManus said redeploying Southwest officers (and three from two other precincts) would help the city focus on youth activities, strategic reduction of violent crime and targeting problem properties.

Uniformed SAFE officers work with civilian partners to do block club training, home and business safety workshops, answer questions about recent incidents and police problem properties. These "SAFE teams" are often residents’ primary Police Department contacts.

"I’m worried," said CARAG neighborhood staffer Scott Engel.

Engel said the move would take away the most solid communication channel between neighborhood residents and their police force.

Only the uniformed officers will move; their civilian partners will remain in the neighborhoods. The officers are scheduled to return to their SAFE units this fall.

However, 5th Precinct police personnel say the redeployment is a sign of things to come — SAFE will be phased out in early 2005. Police officials say nothing has been decided.

A SAFE summer?

Starting June 13, SAFE officers from Downtown, Northeast and Southwest Minneapolis will be redirected to North and South side precincts. They will cover crime "hot spots" in the active summer months.

Fifth Precinct Sgt. Barry Nelson said the city paid for state patrol officers to handle problem areas last year, but "with all the budget cuts and less money we can’t afford it and [redeployment] is the only way."

McManus said the Department paid $50,000 last year to buy extra help from outside agencies.

McManus said the reassignment would spread community policing throughout the department, instead of isolating it to SAFE. "Right now, SAFE is the only unit doing community policing," he said, but the redeployment "will expand it" to all officers.

However, SAFE personnel and neighborhood residents say it can’t be done. Fifth Precinct staffers said officers couldn’t work intensely on SAFE efforts with their additional patrol duties.

Still, 5th Precinct Inspector Don Harris agrees with McManus about the need to spread out community policing. He added that the Department has more people focused on community policing efforts than on narcotics, gangs and homeland security combined.

Harris said with SAFE cuts from last year and the projected belt-tightening, McManus is making the tough, but necessary decision to broaden community policing. "Everyone should be doing something to interact in a community policing way," Harris said.

Harris said officers’ responsibilities have shifted considerably in recent years, as the 5th has gone from 110 officer

positions in 2002 to 83 heading into the redeployment.

Harris said the cuts would keep coming; according the city’s five-year plan, McManus will either have to cut 32 police positions or find $2.5 million to retain them by January 2005. While 5th Precinct sources say SAFE will be eliminated then, Harris said no decision has been made.

Council reaction

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), a former civilian Crime-Prevention Specialist, says he adamantly opposes cutting SAFE, even temporarily.

He said the city cut SAFE in half last year — and from five to three teams in Southwest — but also decided to restrict further community-policing cuts.

Niziolek criticized McManus for not informing the Council committee he chairs, Public Safety and Regulatory Services, of the redeployment. Niziolek said less then a week before the redeployment was announced, he’d asked McManus to come before the committee to give a presentation about the summer initiative.

Niziolek said McManus sent a substitute who did not mention a SAFE

redeployment.

Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) also expressed frustration at being left in the dark. "It doesn’t seem like a very cooperative way to do anything,"

Lilligren said.

Niziolek, who represents the Wedge, CARAG, East Calhoun, Lyndale and Kingfield neighborhoods, and Lilligren, who represents Lyndale and Kingfield as well as areas east of I-35W, voted against McManus’s confirmation as chief earlier this year.

Although his ward will gain officers in the redistribution, Lilligren said he opposes the temporary fix. He said taking crime-prevention resources would leave neighborhoods such as Whittier — or higher-crime areas in relatively safe precincts — wide open.

Such neighborhoods are "very vulnerable to this kind of infiltration," he said. "I don’t know if going by precinct was the best way to handle this effort."

SW neighborhoods concerned

Engel said after Southwest SAFE teams were cut last year, neighborhoods struggled. "They’ve cut SAFE in half and added neighborhoods. They’re overwhelmed," Engel said. "They do an excellent job, but they’re spread too thin."

The CARAG board’s Crime and Safety Committee is writing a letter to the city opposing SAFE officers’ reassignment. The neighborhood lies between Hennepin and Lyndale avenues and Lake and West 36th streets.

Kristine Danzinger, community organizer with Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said SAFE plays an integral part in their community initiatives and dealing with problem properties that yield crime activity. "They’re such a good connection," she said.

Danzinger said Lyndale also feels it is losing police when it needs them the most, pointing to a recent rise in neighborhood muggings. "Our crime goes up in the summer also," she said.

Lyndale — which is between I-35W, Lake and West 36th streets, I-35W and Lyndale Avenue — sits just south of Whittier, which has a majority of the 5th Precinct’s crime. Danzinger said Lyndale residents are also worried about recent crimes, such as a rash of robberies, seeping into their neighborhood.

Department san SAFE

SAFE Officer Jabra Kawas, who covers Southwest south of 46th Street and west of I-35W, worries about leaving the work he’s planned with community members. "During our busiest months of the year, we won’t be there," he said.

Kawas said the crime-prevention measures will be sorely missed once they are gone, for example, the extra neighborhood patrols his SAFE team performs. Kawas said his team would be less able to answer community questions.

A SAFE source said teams have had to cancel safety workshops in the wake of the redeployment, adding that SAFE will be less able to deal with problem properties, too.

Nelson, who’s helped Southwest SAFE officers overcome staff cuts before, said he will meet with his staff on how to best replace the three missing Southwest officers and handle the area’s community policing.

Lilligren and Niziolek said that the city would be better served to revisit its five-year budget plan and seek funds for more officers, a gap the SAFE shuffling is trying to fill.