Lurking ordinance harmful

The Minneapolis City Council should have voted down the century-old ordinance Friday

You’re homeless. It’s night and the cold wind is cutting through your patched jacket. You take shelter in an alley near a store just before closing time. By a police officer’s account, you look suspicious. You’ve been lurking.

By letting Minneapolis’ lurking ordinance remain on the books Friday – originally created in the late 19th century to keep people off trains – the Minneapolis City Council gave police unbridled power to legalize potentially criminal activity. Thus, Minneapolis remains one of the only cities in the nation to criminalize looking criminal – even if you don’t have a weapon.

If you’ve been cited for lurking in Minneapolis, there’s more than a 75 percent chance you’re a minority. Chances are also good that you’re poor. But whether or not you’re a poor minority influenced the cop’s decision to arrest you can rarely be proved .

We’re not implicating Minneapolis or University police officers with overt discrimination while enforcing the law. University police Lt. Chuck Miner said his department cites roughly a dozen people for lurking annually – and rarely college students. A University officer typically uses the ordinance for people hanging around bike racks with tools, Miner said. University officers likely aren’t abusing the law, as bike theft remains one of the most frequent campus crimes.

Still, the ordinance opens the door to individual and systematic discrimination. Furthermore, as City Councilman Cam Gordon noted in a Star Tribune guest column Friday, the ordinance is grossly overbroad. It says, “No person, in any public or private place, shall lurk, lie in wait or be concealed with intent to commit any crime or unlawful act.”

The ordinance, moreover, is ineffective. By Gordon’s account, the conviction rate for a lurking is about 25 percent – a large gap from the city’s goal of a 65 percent conviction rate for livability crimes. Furthermore, the ordinance burdens taxpayers and a justice system that’s already suffering from cuts in its public defender program.

The Minneapolis City Council made a poor decision Friday in not repealing the lurking ordinance. We hope that Minneapolis and University police officers enforce it with prudence.