'Safe' Minneapolis Alarmed Over Jump in Murder Rate

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S being called "Moneyapolis."

Drawn by the promise of big profits in an upscale market, drug dealers from Los Angeles to Chicago are converging on this city in search of new areas to ply their trade.

The result is a surge in gang activity and a jump in crime for a city more often thought of as Comet clean. Moreover, the problems come at a time when many major urban areas are seeing homicide rates drop.

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"I believe very strongly that the majority of the crime that we are experiencing not only in Minneapolis but across our country is directly related to drugs," says Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton (D).

True, Minneapolis's murder count so far this year - 82 - is one many big cities would consider enviable. It is also no worse than other cities of similar size, such as Charlotte, N.C., and Denver.

But the city long ago broke its own record for homicides, 63 set in 1991, and people here take pride in having built a "city that works."

Analysts say the city's prosperity is precisely what attracted the gangs to begin with: "It's the same reason we have one of the largest shopping malls in the world [the Mall of America]," says David Lillehaug, the US Attorney in Minnesota.

Drug dealers "can get a better dollar value for the quantity of the product they are selling" here, adds Ms. Sayles Belton. "In Detroit, a hit of crack sells for $5, and in Minneapolis it sells for $20."

Al Berryman, president of the Police Federation, compares Minneapolis with neighboring St. Paul, Minnesota's capital, which hasn't seen a corresponding rise in crime. He attributes the difference to a sense of community: Minneapolis employs far more people than those who live in the city, and more people live in suburbs where they have less of a vested interested in helping the city thrive.

"We went industrial, they stayed the way they are," he says. In St. Paul, "communities are much stronger. It's more of a residential town."

The crime wave is worrying many residents. At an intersection near the Penn. Ave Dairy in northern Minneapolis, manager Cal Alsayed describes how someone was shot two blocks away from his store one recent night.

He was able to shelter the victim until help came. A Palestinian originally from Israel, he says life here is still better than many other places in America. "People get crazy in the summer," he says. "The sooner it snows, the better."

To crack down on crime, the city this summer launched Operation Safe Streets, a zero-tolerance approach to crimefighting where police use minor offenses to repeatedly arrest those suspected of wrongdoing. The hope is to find people who hold guns illegally or who have outstanding warrants.

SAYLES BELTON says it is still too early to tell whether the program has had an impact on crime, though she thinks it has helped get more guns off the streets. She also advocates maintaining preventative programs that help children before they get in trouble with the law, and she would like to see the federal government take a stronger role against drugs.

"We ought not to be losing drugs at the border and then have millions and millions of dollars in cocaine and other illegal substances just flood our market," she says. "We want more people guarding our borders and preventing drugs from coming into our country."

Mr. Berryman of the police union, one of the mayor's harshest critics, does acknowledge that she is "not too far off being right" in advocating both education and enforcement to combat crime. But he says the in-your-face nature of Operation Safe Streets opens the police up to criticism of harassment. He insists that the approach is "smoke and mirrors" to make the public feel better, and adds that the homicide rate is the real indicator of safety in the city, not gun seizure statistics.

ONE person who works at a beauty supply shop just steps from a Minneapolis police station does not feel any safer. Sam, who preferred not to give his last name, was distressed about violence but equally upset that the police are taking what he sees as a heavy hand in the area. "I've seem them stop people and throw them around for no reason at all," he says. "They've got a job to do just like everyone else.... [but] it's never OK for anyone to be beat up."

US Attorney Lillehaug says the gang problem has been on the horizon for a while. "Some serious mistakes were made some years ago that allowed gangs to gain a foothold in Minneapolis," he says.

He cites the case of Sharif Willis, a Vice Lords gang leader who was sentenced in June to almost 27 years in federal prison.

Before that, he had cofounded a gang coalition to stop violence. That someone with a previous conviction for murder "was not only still on the streets but perceived by some as a legitimate community leader, absolutely baffles me," Lillehaug says.

Mr. Alsayed's experience indicates that city residents are rising to the challenge of crime, but that it is a struggle.

Not long ago, some kids slashed the tires on a customer's car. The customer caught the kids and brought them back to the dairy mart, where Alsayed called the police. They never came - and he had to let the kids go. "If there is no dead body, they don't come. That's the feeling from here," he says.

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