The Marcy-Holmes safety and livability committee’s standing Saturday morning meeting was quite a bit more interesting today with the addition of Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa and three of his assistants, all wearing the group’s trademark red berets.
Paula Buchta, a member of the committee, contacted Sliwa, who is in town to speak to city officials about Minneapolis’s crime problem, and she invited him to attend the meeting, which he agreed to do.
The group met at the home of Buchta and her husband Brian Muldoon, who live on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifth Street SE. Sliwa was very sympathetic with the committee members’ concerns about the crime that Marcy-Holmes is now experiencing. “Your situation is not unique,” he said. “I’ve seen it all over the world.”
Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin, he said, are extremely attractive cities for gangs and gang activities because residents are open-minded and naive, and the elected officials in those cities are not focused on crime and not prepared to respond to it. “Places like this are Leave-It-to-Beaverland,” Sliwa said. “People want to come here and take over.”
He said that gangs also prefer neighborhods like those in Southeast, which are not stereotypically “tough” neighborhoods. In more threatening areas, he said, it would be dangerous for new gangs to move into territory that has already been claimed. But in neighborhoods like Marcy-Holmes, gangs can colonize the area. “They’re like Lewis and Clark,” Sliwa said.
When gang members move into a new area, Sliwa said, they will “set up shop” and go through a “testing” phase, watching to see how much they can get away with. Sarah Murphy, a committee member, said that was exactly her sense of what’s going on in Marcy-Holmes now, as people seem to be behaving more blatantly, conducting drug deals more openly on the streets.
What neighborhoods like Marcy-Holmes need to do, Sliwa said, is to take the energy and concern that residents have shown and translate them into action. There needs to be a coordinator, he said, to collect information and communicate it to residents, the police, and elected officials. Even police, he said, need to be told what to do. They need to know what the problems are, where they are, and who’s creating them. Otherwise, Sliwa said, they often behave indifferently because it’s not their neighborhood and they feel like the problems are someone else’s responsibility, such as the narcotics officers.
Sliwa’s advice involved two steps: the first is to organize house watches, where residents will keep an eye on specific assigned areas and report problems they see to a central location. He said it is important to get strong, complete, persuasive information and to send regular e-mails reporting criminal activities to the police. It is also important, Sliwa said, to report what the actions of the police were, if any, “Blast as many people as possible,” Sliwa said. “You become a force that can’t be ignored. Let the police know you’re doing your job, being the eyes and ears in the neighborhood, and then make sure they do theirs.”
If observation and reporting do not generate a satisfactory response from the police, Sliwa said, then “you have to take it up a notch or you’ll lose the momentum. That’s when you organize a patrol.” If the Marcy neighborhood decides it has to do that, he said, the Guardian Angels would work with neighborhood to help it form an effective patrol system.
Having spent the last couple days in Minneapolis, Sliwa had mixed feelings about the crime-fighting efforts of local officials. “City Hall is not focused on public safety,” he said. “It’s not their forte.” In terms of responding to crime, he said, city officials usually “are going to be a day late and a dollar short.” He was impressed with Interim Police Chief Tim Dolan, who he said is more interested in fighting crime than most police chiefs he’s met with. He was less impressed with Mayor Rybak’s efforts, however. “He sent an assistant to meet with us,” Sliwa said, adding that the assistant didn’t ask a single question. Sliwa said that elected officials’ most common response to crime is to argue that they don’t have enough public funding for police, but he insists that not having as much money has you’d like doesn’t mean a city can’t do anything to fight crime.
Sliwa said that it was good that the committee had attracted 100 people to its recent meeting on crime, but that the most important thing now is to follow up, to keep working, and to give interested people work to do, such as watching out for and reporting crimes. “No one wants to admit that there’s a crime problem,” he said, “but it won’t cause your property values to plummet. You’re getting ahead of the curve now.”