Hennepin County commissioners voted to spend $750,000 to re-fund the Minneapolis Downtown Safety Zone Initiative in June. The initiative, first piloted between April 2000 and August 2005, was a collaboration between the Minneapolis Police Department, Metro Transit Police, Hennepin County Sherriff’s Department, and private downtown security firms designed to “address the real and perceived public safety issues affecting business in downtown Minneapolis,” according to a report by the Hennepin County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. Hennepin County deputies are patrolling downtown streets, along with Minneapolis Police.
Last year’s initiative saw additional police foot patrols, private security training by police, and the implementation of a common radio channel for Safety Zone members. Legal changes included coordinated prosecution of chronic offenders and increased penalties for misdemeanor crimes. Public urination and possession of drug paraphernalia were added to the list of court-required offenses and a bail schedule was implemented to ensure misdemeanor offenders are no longer released automatically without bail required.
A concern raised by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee in their report was the small group of individuals, most of whom suffer chronic mental health problems and substance addiction, that made up 20% of the law enforcement interactions during last year’s initiative. Critics say the safety zone further criminalizes homelessness for these people and is an ineffective way of dealing with the problem.
“There are better ways than arresting these same people over and over again,” says Guy Gambill of the Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice. “The city needs to fully fund its shelter system and provide more drug and alcohol counseling. …This [safety zone initiative] was never meant to be a permanent thing.”