Southwest’s crime spike: Real or Not?

Judging a rising crime depends on how you look at it

Dean Alnizami, owner of the Bryant Avenue Market, 3200 Bryant Ave. S., has owned the building for more than 15 years but said his recent crime experience was out of the ordinary.

In early May a masked man entered the market at approximately 8:20 p.m. and demanded money from Alnizami, who was talking with a friend in the store. "First he said, ‘Give me the money.’ We thought he was joking," he said.

It was then, Alnizami said, that he caught a glimpse of the robber’s shotgun and handed over between $400 and $500 from the store register. The robber fled the scene with the money and took with him a sense of safety from Alnizami and others in the neighborhood.

"Nobody wants to come to my store anymore in my family," he said, adding that the neighborhood has always been friendly. "I’ve been thinking about selling the place and after this happened I’ve been thinking even more."

Although just one incident, experiences like Alnizami’s – coupled with police staffing cuts in recent years – fuel some residents’ concerns of a Southwest crime increase.

Although data from Southwest’s 5th Precinct show a double-digit rise in serious crime from 2004 to 2005, police say there’s actually been a drop, if you take a slightly longer-term view.

The stats

Part One crimes are what people generally fear the most. You can break such crimes into two categorices: crimes against people (homicide, rape and aggravated assault) and crimes against property (robbery, burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson).

According to 5th Precinct police reports, 2005 Part One crimes against people are up 16 percent through June 28, compared to the same 2004 period. Crimes against property are up 18 percent.

However, if you compare 2005 to an average of 2002 through 2004, Part One crimes are down 2 percent. Crimes against people are up 1 percent and crimes against property have fallen 2 percent.

In other words, 2005’s crime rate is essentially flat compared in the past three years.

Individual crime rates are a mixed bag (see chart).

From 2004 to 2005, the biggest percentage jump is for homicides – up 100 percent, or double. However, that alarming figure masks another data point: actual incidents rose from one to two.

Fifth Precinct Sector Lt. Marie Przynski said stats such as this cause confusion and misperception of a crime rise.

Some serious crimes are unquestionably up. For example, aggravated assaults have risen 25 percent from 2004, and are up 8 percent versus 2002-2004 averages. This year, there have been 114 such reports through June 28.

On the other hand, rape in 2005 is down 17 percent from 2004, and down 23 percent versus the three-year average.

Police reports do not perfectly measure actual crimes committed; there’s no accounting for unreported incidents in any year.

Neighborhood perspective

The clear rise in aggravated assaults and weapons-based crimes such as the one on Alnizami have fueled neighborhood chatter and make area crime feel more troubling no matter what the numbers.

Keith Luckritz, a CARAG resident, said he’s was upset by the Bryant Market robbery, and it’s made him and other residents more vigilant about attending neighborhood Crime and Safety Committee meetings. "That kind of juiced me up a bit," he said. "I’m concerned people don’t know about it."

Scott Engel, CARAG staffer and committee facilitator, said fear has been noticeable. "People seem to be talking about it a lot," he said. "The series of robberies in the area really freaked people out."

Stevens Square Community Organization Safety Coordinator Dave Delvoye said he had seen more "livability" crimes such as drugs, prostitution and narcotics activity in his area since December.

Meanwhile, arrests are down.

Arrests are down 18 percent from 2004 for Part One crimes against person, a mirror of the 16 percent rise in reports.

To some, the arrest drop for serious crimes shows the city needs more cops. Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), who chairs the City Council’s public safety committee, said the Police Department recently had 970 sworn officers; now the number sits at 787.

"We don’t have enough resources going into law enforcement right now," he said.

As further proof of a staff shortage, Niziolek noted that police response times are down. Assistant Police Chief Tim Dolan told city officials that 2005 police response times averaged 13 seconds slower for Priority One calls for the first five months compared to 2004. Priority Two responses were 23 seconds slower and Priority Three responses averaged 39 seconds slower.

Police are the biggest component of the city budget, which has taken tens of millions of dollars in hits from state-aid cuts and state property-tax changes. The public safety budget has risen, but not enough to offset rising health-care and pension costs.

Niziolek, a former civilian Crime-Prevention Specialist for the Minneapolis police, sees other reasons for rising crimes. He claims that there’s been a spike in the population ages 14 to 24, the group most likely to commit crime. Also, he said, offenders are being released from prison in "record numbers," and there’s been a reduction of officers on the street.

According to state Department of Corrections records, inmate releases have been on the rise. In 2002, there were 3,930 inmates arrested, but in 2003 and 2004, the annual release numbers topped 6,000.

Perception or reality

The 5th Precinct’s Przynski acknowledges that sometimes it’s not the numbers, but the perception of more crime that whips residents into a frenzy.

She said sometimes her precinct gets flooded with calls about an isolated incident, and people get the perception there’s more crime than there actually is.

Przynski also said in instances where there’s gang activity on Lake Street, on the Whittier-Lyndale neighborhood border, just the word "gang" can inflame a relatively minor issue. "People start internalizing gang perceptions," she said.

Of increases in certain incidents and locales, she said, "We’re going to have spikes, it’s like the stock market."

However, she added that police map crime hot spots so they can saturate problem areas, and the tactic has worked.

Fifth precinct Inspector Kris Arneson she said burglary was a big Southwest problem earlier in the year, but key arrests have improved things recently. "We’ve arrested at least four serial burglars in the past four months, which has helped us decrease that," Arneson said.

As for higher-crime Southwest neighborhoods between I-94, Lake Street, I-35W and Hennepin Avenue, Arneson said, "We’ve been focusing our resources on Stevens Square because of the loitering and all the crime going on here. We’ve made a tremendous amount of misdemeanor arrests. The first week, Part One crime [in the area] went down 70 percent."

Delvoye said results were visible by July. "We’ve seen a significant drop in street crime," he said. "We have had some problems and they’ve responded exceptionally."

Delvoye pulls crime reports weekly and keeps records of arrests for Stevens Square and part of Whittier. As of June 19 this year, he said there were 382 arrests for offenses involving alcohol, narcotics and prostitution, compared to 159 all last year.

Arneson said they’ve been able to respond to crime in the Wedge and Whittier, too. "We saturated that area when it was happening," she said.

Uptown summer beats have also started, with foot and bike patrols.

It’s not just the police who are being proactive. Delvoye said the SSCO block patrol is 24 members strong, and growing.

Engel, facilitator of CARAG’s crime-fighting committee, said the increase in crime activity has produced full attendance at committee meetings, something that wasn’t the norm in the past.