The great Southwest Minneapolis crime drop

The media, justifiably, reports crime spikes. In late July, the Strib pronounced south Minneapolis break-ins east of 35W “soaring” because burglary was up 16 percent from 2013.

But are you aware you’re living through the Great Southwest Crime Drop?

The stats from the first half of 2014 are startling. Robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, vandalism and motor vehicle theft reports in Southwest’s Fifth Precinct are the lowest since at least 2000. Homicide, rape, larceny and narcotics reports are all down from 2013. The previous record-low January through June —2011 — saw about 4,200 reports of so-called “Part I” and “Part II” crimes. This year, it’s about 3,600. As recently as 2006, it was 6,300.

So what’s going on?

Crime numbers must always be considered with caveats. Not all crimes are reported; MPD estimates as many as 50 percent might not be. But at least until researchers dig in, there’s no reason to believe this percentage is any higher or lower than recent years. The city has made filing reports easy, via the web and apps; insurance still requires a filed report.

There’s been lots of publicity about Minneapolis police staffing falling to its lowest level in decades, due mostly to a big retirement-rule change. Still, Fifth Precinct Inspector Todd Loining says he has about the same number of police on the streets as in recent years, and cops are not refusing to take reports due to staffing issues. Small crime categories, like prostitution, may be affected as investigators shift to beats, but shouldn’t move the overall numbers.

Could rampant gentrification be reducing crime? This would also be a good topic for research, but Loining notes that hot-hot areas like Uptown and Lyn-Lake are also crime magnets, since robbers prey on the intoxicated.

Technology is a two-edged sword. Better home and car tech may reduce burglary and motor vehicle theft; Loining says the MPD’s tools for mapping crime hot spots, monitoring career criminals and sharing public information are vastly better in recent years. At the same time, many of us now walk around with the equivalent of a $600 Rolex in our pocket — our mobile phones, a magnet for opportunistic thieves.

There appears to be one clear factor (though it doesn’t explain the entire drop): the Polar Vortex.

Robbery reports were down 54 percent in January from 2013, and a whopping 73 percent in February; burglary dropped 28 percent and 33 percent, respectively; larceny (theft that doesn’t involve breaking in or person-on-person stealing; think shoplifting) fell 23 percent and 18 percent.

Yet in June, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and larceny were all up over a year earlier — burglary by 40 percent, after a 25 percent rise in May. Loining says most involve unlocked garages, and people need to take basic precautions, including adding lighting.

Still, June was the first month in 2014 where Part I crime reports (homicide, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, arson) rose over a year earlier — and it was a single-digit rise (7 percent). May was down 3 percent; April down 15 percent; March down 12 percent. Part II crime reports (simple assault, vandalism, weapons, prostitution, sex offenses, narcotics, DWI, and others) have fallen by double digits each of the past six months.

It’s tempting to credit a recovering economy, but truthfully, Southwest’s crime fell most precipitously during the Great Recession; 2009 was the first year of the millennium that Part I crime reports slipped below 2,000 and Part II crimes dropped below 5,000. After hitting bottom in 2011 (just as the economy began picking up steam), numbers ticked up in 2012 and 2013 — though still near historic lows.

Whatever the circumstances, we should still tip our caps to the cops and civilian crime prevention specialists, since they get blamed when crime rises, fairly or not. Loining says Fifth Precinct staff is working hard, and smart, and can deploy multiple squads quickly to many incidents. There will always be 911 horror stories, and who knows what a pleasant summer will do to the gains, but on balance, we should at least acknowledge the trends are good.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.