Candidates offer fixes for local crime problem

Cati Vanden Breul

PEDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a five-part series about Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections. It will lead toward the general election Nov. 8.

Public safety is a key issue for many politicians, and the candidates running for city office this year in Minneapolis and St. Paul are no exception.

Most of the mayoral and city council candidates cite public safety as one of their top priorities, but they disagree on who has the best leadership skills to make the Cities safer.

Violent crime is up in the Twin Cities since Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly – both DFL Party members – took office in 2002.

In St. Paul, violent crime – including homicide, rape and aggravated assault – increased 11 percent from 2001 to 2004, according to the St. Paul Police Department. But overall crime in the city decreased by more than 18 percent.

In Minneapolis, reports of violent crime increased by almost 16 percent from 2001 to 2004, according to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Rybak said during a previous interview he has been committed to the safety of the city’s residents since he took office.

Rybak’s current budget proposal would add 71 officers to the Minneapolis police force. He’s also increased funding for the police and fire departments by $22 million during his four-year term.

But Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Rybak’s opponent, said the mayor is all talk and no action.

“It’s not just about pretty words and being for things. It’s about being for things and getting the job done,” McLaughlin said.

The crime rate is up because there aren’t enough police officers in Minneapolis, he said. According to reports from the Minneapolis Police Department, the number of sworn police officers decreased from 871 in 2001 to 790 in 2004.

“We have to get back to preventing crime and not just reacting to it,” McLaughlin said. “That’s going to require additional officers on the street.”

But Rybak spokesman Jeremy Hanson said the mayor kept public safety a top priority despite inheriting significant debt from the previous administration, massive budget cuts from the state and a weakened post-Sept. 11, 2001, economy.

“The mayor has had to lead and govern the city through some of the toughest times,” Hanson said. “And he’s kept public safety a priority since day one.”

Now that Rybak has reduced the debt, and the state is restoring some of its local aid to Minneapolis, the mayor has more money to devote to additional police officers, Hanson said. Rybak will devote all of the restored state aid to public safety, Hanson said.

“He’s the only candidate who actually has a plan to put officers on the street and a way to pay for them,” Hanson said.

McLaughlin said Rybak has failed at diversifying the police force. He said Minneapolis needs more officers who speak Spanish, and more Somali, African-American and Asian officers to be effective.

“This mayor has failed miserably in efforts to diversify the police department,” McLaughlin said.

Yet the most recent data from the Minneapolis Police Department shows the percentage of sworn minorities in the force – 17 percent – is the highest it’s ever been.

Rybak is still out of touch with crime in Minneapolis communities, McLaughlin said.

“(Rybak) is a mayor who said ‘Minneapolis is a safe city for those not involved in high-risk lifestyles,’ and that is just out of touch,” he said.

Minneapolis City Council candidates are also weighing in on how to make Minneapolis safer.

Cam Gordon, Green Party candidate in Ward 2, said ensuring safe cities, streets, homes and neighborhoods is crucial.

It’s important police are out in the community working with residents and businesses in their neighborhoods, he said.

Gordon said he would like to see more police officers live in Minneapolis instead of the suburbs, he said. To accomplish this, he advocates rewarding officers who live in the city by subsidizing their housing.

Gordon’s DFL opponent, Cara Letofsky, agreed that policing needs to be more community-oriented.

She said she’d like to see renewed resources devoted to the Community Crime Prevention/SAFE program, a unit of the Minneapolis Police Department that has received reduced funding because of budget cuts. The program puts police officers in neighborhoods to help businesses, residents and police work together.

There’s also hot debate in St. Paul about staffing its police and fire departments.

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly has a five-year plan to add 100 police officers to the city by 2010.

Kelly has also proposed raising property taxes 3 percent – the first increase in 13 years – and would use the revenue for public safety, according to his campaign Web site.

David Titus, St. Paul Police Federation president, said Kelly played a role in the decrease of overall crime by not laying off any police officers or firefighters during his term despite receiving less state funding.

But Bob Hume, communications director for Chris Coleman – Kelly’s opponent – said there are fewer police officers and firefighters in the city now than before Sept. 11, 2001. He also said crime is on the rise.

Coleman will restore adequate funding for police officers and firefighters and fight for more state aid, which he said Kelly hasn’t been doing.