Reno applauds local crime- fighting plan

Jesse Weisbeck

A program that started out of concern for the Twin Cities’ rise in violent crimes has piqued the interest of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Reno commended recent crime-fighting victories Monday when she visited Minneapolis, hailing a program that brought together local and federal law enforcement officials, including University Police Chief Joy Rikala.
The program, which began in early 1997, is called Minnesota for Hope, Education, And Law and Safety, or HEALS. One of the main goals is reducing drug- and gang-related crimes.
During her visit to the Abbot-Northwestern Hospital in the Phillips neighborhood, Reno spoke before a group of about 100 law enforcement, business and community leaders who participate in the program. She called the program “true community justice.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 58 murders occurred in Minneapolis last year, which was down 28 percent from 1996. Violent offenses, such as rapes and robberies, decreased 4 percent.
Reno said the reductions are due, at least in part, to the program.
“You have proven that it can be done, and I can take this message to other parts of the country: ‘This is a community that pulled itself together,'” she said.
Rikala has participated in the program since its inception and said that it has accomplished much of what it was designed to do.
“HEALS takes a community approach to crime,” she said. “It’s making certain that whatever happens has a positive effect on the University.”
Rikala said that during the program’s first few meetings, tensions ran high between local and federal law enforcement officials.
“Law enforcement on both sides of the river weren’t talking,” she said, adding that some people viewed crime as a city problem rather than a problem facing the entire metro area.
U.S. attorney David Lillehaug also noted the early tension in the meetings. He said the “in-your-face” attitude of Chuck Wexler, mediator of the program’s meetings, created some stress.
“Minnesota Nice wasn’t the way to deal with gangs. We were behind the curve with them,” Lillehaug said. “We should’ve responded a lot earlier, but with Chuck Wexler we started to make a lot of progress.”
In reaction to the high murder total in 1995, Minneapolis police Inspector Sharon Lubinski conducted a homicide study in conjunction with David Kennedy, a professor from Harvard University.
“We decided to pull apart that problem and look at it in depth,” Lubinski said.
The analysis was geared toward what police needed in order to reduce the number of homicides in the summer of 1997.
The analysis found, among other things, that victims and offenders tended to have an “astonishing number of prior convictions.”
“We then looked for common denominators to find (criminal) patterns and we found a relatively small group of people active in tremendous amounts of violent crime,” said Minneapolis police official Randy Johnson at the panel discussion.
Rikala said the program is especially important to the University because of the Community University Health Care Center, a medical clinic the University owns and operates in the Phillips neighborhood.
University employees and staff are potentially at risk in the Phillips neighborhood, Rikala said, and University officials have a responsibility for their safety.
One aspect of the program involves bringing more drug and gun crime cases into federal courts, which carry higher mandatory sentences than at the state level.
Another part of the program involves identifying common offenders and having probation officers and police officers visit them on a routine basis.
“There are 26,000 convicts on probation on any one day,” Rikala said. “So there was no way for probation officers to keep in touch with their cases, but through HEALS we got the probation officers riding with officers to visit offenders.”
Other strategies included coordinating probation officers with police officers and putting Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents on the streets with cops.
What makes the Minnesota program stand out from other law enforcement programs around the country, Reno said, is that it’s one of the few in the nation that receive major corporate support.
Some of the major sponsors include Honeywell, Inc., 3M and General Mills.
“In this state we spend $200 million on health care for crime-related violence,” said Mike Christiansen, executive director of the Allina Foundation. “So these preventative measures we are taking with HEALS also represent a business interest for us.”
Christiansen stressed that violent crime is not only a law enforcement issue, but a health care issue as well. He said the amount of resources used to treat victims of violence can be better used in other areas of health care.
“That’s why we paid to have national crime experts brought in. We are striking at the root of crime,” Christiansen said.
Reno said that while the program has started off well, she still sees more work that needs to be done in the area of drug-related crimes.
“When I come back, I don’t want to hear the word ‘crack.’ And based on what I’ve seen, that can be done,” Reno said.