Stevens Square seeks more police discretion to jail alcohol-related offenders

The Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) is asking Hennepin County’s Chief Judge to rethink a new policy that blocks police from jailing offenders for certain low-level crimes.

A court order last February prohibits police from booking someone in jail on “payable” misdemeanor offenses, which are offenses that don’t require a court appearance. They include consuming alcohol in public, noisy assembly and loitering with an open bottle, along with driving offenses like a lack of driver’s license or insurance.

Under the old rules, officers could book someone for a misdemeanor if they thought an offender would continue the criminal conduct, cause bodily harm or not respond to a citation. Under the new rules, the jail won’t accept them without a formal complaint from the city attorney’s office.

Stevens Square is taking issue with the change related to consuming alcohol in public and open bottle offenses. The neighborhood has dealt with alcohol-related crime for years. According to SSCO, many of the neighborhood’s 240 chronic offenders were repeatedly arrested for alcohol-related offenses.

“Those offenses actually have a big impact here,” said Dave Delvoye, SSCO safety coordinator. “The problem in the scheme of things seems relatively minor, but the impact in this neighborhood is huge.”

He said the neighborhood group has tracked alcohol-related arrests and citations between Lyndale, 4th Avenue, I-94 and 24th Street, and found that police made 2,950 arrests and citations in the area from 2005-2015.

“That’s insane,” Delvoye said. “If this were happening in downtown they’d call in the National Guard.”

In that time, Stevens Square started a block patrol, tracked chronic offenders through the system, and supported Restorative Justice Community Action to help first-time misdemeanor offenders understand their impact on the community.

“Through all of the efforts of the community, the numbers of arrests and citations have declined year to year,” Delvoye said.

Between 2005-07, he said the targeted area saw 350-400 alcohol-related arrests or citations per year, and this year there are 73 to-date.

“The numbers have plummeted, mostly because … this approach and this partnership is working,” he said. “Folks that need help are getting help. Folks who need to go to jail, they’re going to jail. … Any attempt to downgrade the offenses that cause problems here basically undercuts our efforts as a community to solve the problem.”

The neighborhood is asking for more flexibility for police to decide whether to book offenders in jail.

“It’s basically giving police discretion to do what they think is best,” Delvoye said.

The neighborhood submitted a “community impact statement” ahead of a meeting this week between Mayor Betsy Hodges and the Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge.

5th Precinct Community Attorney Matt Wilcox said the judge’s order likely came out of an initiative to reduce incarceration rates for what are deemed lower-level crimes.

“You see this across the country as well, trying to reduce incarceration rates, particularly crimes that at least in some circumstances tend to have a disproportionate number of minorities who are incarcerated based on some of these offenses,” he said. “…Hennepin County Jail obviously is a limited facility.”

He said the order was clearly well-intended, but may have unintended consequences for chronic offenders.

An “Adult Detention Initiative” underway is a partnership that includes the District Court, Minneapolis and County Attorneys, Community Corrections, Police and Sheriff and Public Defender’s offices. The guiding philosophy is that people who pose a danger to the public should be in jail, and people who aren’t dangerous should have alternatives. The national movement works under the assumption that arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents police from focusing resources on violent crime.

“This has been a very big change for the officers on the street,” Deputy City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng told a Council committee last spring.

When the change went into effect last winter, she said, officers were suddenly learning which in a long list of offenses were payable and which were not. Previously, they were primarily concerned with probable cause for an arrest, she said.

Offenses that require a court appearance are not affected by the court order, including assaults, disorderly conduct, fleeing on foot, public nuisance and trespassing. An officer who doesn’t think criminal activity would stop with a citation can still book an offender in jail for those and other “court-required” offenses.

“If I am trespassing — let’s say I’m at the University of Minnesota and I’m trespassing and this is the 10th time I’ve been told you can’t go to this building — the officer can cite Rule 6 and bring me down to the jail,” Heng said.

The neighborhood request comes at a time when Stevens Square and Whittier are focusing on ways to combat street harassment.

“There has always been some, but within the last six months I’ve heard more complaints than I’ve heard the last nine years,” said Steven Gallagher, SSCO executive director. “There are a lot of different things that might contribute to that, including police not being able to arrest as many people as they had before.”