Paying for Crime

The Minneapolis City Council proved itself to be more politically adept than the Minneapolis Library Board in early December when it warded off the pleas for permanent funding of the Minneapolis Library system. Instead of the hoped-for permanent budget increases that had been dangled before the Library Board, the Council instead gave them one year’s worth of funding to keep open three libraries that had been proposed for closing—that and the promise from Mayor Rybak to lobby the Legislature for more. 

Given the previous record of Rybak at the Legislature, I wouldn’t hold my breath. If I were on the Library Board, (disclosure: I am on the Friends of the Library Board) I wouldn’t give the Council the political cover they seek, either. Keeping those libraries open for a year while Rybak begs for state money just lets the Council off the hook. They, not the Library Board, determine the library budget. If the Council wanted to find permanent funding for libraries, they could. Instead, we get funding for more liquor license inspectors (to speed approval of licenses for Council candidate donors,) and an aide for education policy for Mayor Rybak, although the Mayor’s office has nothing to do with the schools.

The most maddening component of the debate was the Council’s concerted positioning of permanent library funding against funds for additional police officers. To paraphrase the Council’s argument: do you want three more libraries, or forty-three more police officers? Putting it more vividly, Council Member Don Samuels, representative of Minneapolis’s most-likely-to-be-murdered-in ward, said this: “When you are a person at the other end of a gun … the only use for a book is to throw it at them, or block a bullet with it.”

Is the choice really books or cops? Perhaps the Minneapolis Council could call their counterparts in St. Paul, who, in their budget passed in early December, somehow found funding both to hire more police officers and to expand Library hours. Of course, St. Paul has a strong mayor system, and Minneapolis has a weak mayor system. Given that context, Chris Coleman and R.T. Rybak both seem to be ideally suited to their roles. Coleman gives St. Paul open libraries; Rybak gives Minneapolis Bonnie Bleskachek.

In June 2005, Rybak made the following statement about how he was addressing increasing crime: “We need to remember that these recent murders have been driven by people living high-risk lifestyles: kids buying and selling drugs and guns. Minneapolis is a safe city for people who are not engaged in buying and selling drugs and guns.” Minneapolis didn’t become an “unsafe” city until a few other things happened. First, Rybak’s opponent in the 2005 mayoral race, Peter McLaughlin, started making points by calling for more cops. Then, Michael Zebuhr was murdered in Uptown while walking with his mother, and Alan Reitter was killed in Downtown while walking with his fiancée. So, as long as the “high-risk lifestyle” meant “African American high-risk lifestyle,” we didn’t need more cops—but when white people walking on the street get killed, we’re just going to have to close some libraries and address the crime problem head-on.

Minneapolis needs both more cops and more library hours. It’s particularly unfair to the police and disingenuous in the extreme to make it an either/or question. The Minneapolis Police Department, just like the Library Board, has been handed an impossible task since the city began to lose Local Government Aid funding from the state in 2002. Police staff levels declined just as precipitously as library hours. After a decade-low number of forty-three homicides and 1732 aggravated assaults in 2001 (when there were over 900 Minneapolis cops), the numbers of both crimes have ticked up to the point where, as of this writing, we have had fifty-nine murders and over 2700 aggravated assaults in 2006. When the forty-three cops authorized this year are added to the force, on top of the seventy added as a result of last year’s campaign promises, Minneapolis will be back up to 893.

According to Deputy Chief Rob Allen, the restoration of the force will allow more “proactive and preventative” police work. For example, he expects that the Juvenile Crime Unit, which had been disbanded for lack of manpower, will be restored. He also hopes that the investigative squad will restore the ten detectives who had been cut. “Case loads are overwhelming,” he said.

Without being asked, Allen volunteered, “We’re conscious that the city has made the sacrifice to bring back the police department [staffing levels]. It’s critically important that we’re putting our officers where they’re needed, and that we’re efficiently using our people, otherwise that sacrifice is in vain. I don’t like being pitted against library hours, and it’s important for people to know that our officers are aware of that.”

We do know that. And we also know that no sentient person thinks we need fewer cops in Minneapolis. What we do need is less cynical manipulation of budget priorities by the Mayor and City Council. Don’t hold your breath for that, either.






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