In my last two columns, I took up the difficult subject of lethal violence by and against the police. Here, I round out my discussion of this topic with some thoughts about a consequence of police violence that is far too often overlooked. When an officer kills or is killed, it has the potential to overwhelm a department. Worse, it widens the chasm between community and cop, as each side eyes the other with renewed and intensified suspicion. Hands that were just beginning to reach across the divide are hastily snatched back. In these moments, the thought that police and the community can be partners in crime-prevention seems ridiculous.
And that is why it can be useful to recall a different time, when the police and the community were partners, and to recount the success they had when they worked together to solve crime problems the right way.
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The Minneapolis Police Department has been much in the news lately, and for all the wrong reasons. As all the world seems to know, Justine Damond called the Minneapolis police to report what she believed was a sexual assault in progress in the alley behind her home. A responding officer shot and killed her. Her death vividly illustrates what many in the black community have long maintained: Calling the police is not only futile, it can be dangerous. It might even be life-threatening. Whether this is true, of course, is not nearly as important as whether people earnestly believe it to be true and act on that belief. If you lived in Minneapolis, ask yourself whether you would pause before calling the police to report a crime that didn’t involve you.
As in many cities, relations in Minneapolis between the police and communities of color have long been fraught. Lately, they have grown even worse. If it is necessary to qualify this statement, I freely accept that the community does not speak with a single voice. So perhaps it is more precise to say this: Far too many in the community do not trust the police. A long history of over-policing and under-protection has left them suspicious. They do not believe the police act in the community’s interest. They suspect instead that the police are hostile toward the people they are sworn to serve and indifferent to the law they are sworn to uphold. And like in many cities, the number who believe this in Minneapolis is not a negligible few, especially after the death of Justine Damond.
All of which makes this a particularly good time to recall another moment, not too long ago. Not to lecture—the people of Minneapolis do not need to be lectured. Merely to encourage the belief that change is possible.
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Phillips is a community immediately south of downtown Minneapolis. Named for the venerated abolitionist Wendell Phillips, it is one of the oldest communities in the city, with the first residents arriving in the last quarter of the 19th century. But by the last quarter of 20th century, Phillips had become a center of concentrated distress. The middle and working classes that once lived there had long since left the neighborhood; the businesses that served them had shuttered. By 1975, a longtime activist in Phillips recalled that Franklin Avenue, once the main commercial thoroughfare in Phillips, “was just bar, bar, bar, porn, porn, porn.” By the 80s, people in Phillips were selling their blood to survive. At the end of the 20th century, unemployment was twice—and median income half—the city average. One in three residents, and four in ten children, lived below the poverty line. Renters outnumbered owners four to one. Just under twenty thousand people crowded into a bit more than one-and-a-half square miles. At the millennium, Phillips was the largest, poorest, and most diverse community in Minneapolis. Chronically under-served, it did not have a single full-service, high-quality grocery store. Or an ATM. It didn’t even have a bank.
But there is one thing Phillips had in abundance. There was more crime reported in Phillips than any other part of Minneapolis. In 1995, violence in Phillips helped propel the murder rate to an all-time high as the city acquired the infamous sobriquet, “Murderapolis.” In 1997 and 98, there were 28 murders in Phillips alone. By the late 1990s, crime had become so bad in Phillips that some residents considered asking President Clinton to declare it a federal disaster area. A journalist likened a walk through the neighborhood as “crossing the urban equivalent of a war zone.” Mansions on Park Avenue, once among the most beautiful homes in the city, sat empty or half-gutted. “A steady procession of drug deals” took place on the front stoop of one Park Avenue home, all day long, “three or four an hour, even in the dead of winter.” And the summer was worse, when parts of Park Avenue became “a 24-hour bazaar of open-air prostitution, curbside drug dealing and drive-by shootings.” By 2002, one in twenty Minneapolis residents lived in Phillips. But the neighborhood provided the city with one in four of the city’s drug arrests, and nearly half its prostitution arrests. Thirteen percent of all calls for police service in the entire city came from the 1.6 square miles in Phillips, an area that represents less than 3% of the city.
Crime seemed especially drawn to some parts of Phillips. Year after year, for instance, the police responded to more calls for service at the intersection of Franklin and 11th Avenue than anywhere else in the city. During a particularly bad stretch, the police were called to a single business at this intersection—a combination gas station and market—517 times in a single year. Across the street from the market was Mr. Arthur’s legendary—some said notorious—tavern. A block away was a shopping center; just in the six-block radius around the center, there were 434 narcotics arrests in 1999 alone. Across the street from the center was a pornography store. In an age before widespread use of cell phones, when drug dealers used pay phones to arrange their transactions, the busiest pay phone in Minneapolis history was nearby.
Yet paradoxically, though the police were literally a daily presence throughout Phillips, it seemed—at least to many of those who lived there—that they had given up on the neighborhood. The seemingly endless string of men and women arrested for buying or selling drugs or sex seemed to make no difference at all. And as crime worsened, people who lived in the area came to believe the city treated their neighborhood as “an undeclared containment zone.” “I don’t know if the police literally chase criminals back into the neighborhood,” one resident reported. “I do know that they hassle them right outside the neighborhood. And I know that they frequently warn regular citizens that this is a dangerous area. So the effect is that they’re telling the bad people to stay in Phillips and the good people to get out.”
For many, Phillips at the end of the century was nothing but a festering urban wound. Like a gangrenous limb, they’d cut it off if only they could. But Phillips did not just emerge fully formed. It is the product of a long history, a history of deliberate choices and identifiable policies that in turn isolated, contained, and impoverished the poor and people of color, ultimately creating a segregated pocket of intense despair. I used to work in Phillips. It is not and never was a gangrenous limb. It is a community with distinct assets and challenges, and the past emphatically does not rob its residents of their capacity to forge a unique future. For those who imagine it otherwise, it no doubt came as a surprise when Phillips began to change.
Between 1998 and 2009, the crime rate in Phillips dropped 62%. In just the half decade between 2002 and 2006, felony narcotics arrests fell by more than 40%. Arrests for loitering with intent to purchase narcotics dropped by more than half. Calls for service regarding any narcotics violation fell by nearly 40%. Over a slightly longer period—from 2001 to 2007—the area around Franklin and 11th Avenue was completely transformed. Arrests for narcotics violations declined 84%; arrests for loitering with intent to purchase narcotics, as well as calls to the police complaining about a narcotics violation, fell by 98%. Robberies in the area fell by nearly a fifth. We don’t have comparable data for prostitution arrests, but we know that during 2006—the one year for which we have complete records—there was not a single prostitution arrest in the entire area around Franklin and 11th Avenue. To be sure, no one confuses Phillips with a wealthy white suburb. It is still a poor community, with many of the problems that too often accompany that condition. But crime is simply not the problem it once was; to deny this simply blinks reality.
And far more importantly, the few blocks that once accounted for more calls for police service than any other in the city now employs hundreds of people in legitimate, thriving businesses. The corner gas station is gone. So is Mr. Arthur’s. And the pornography store. And the pay phone. The abandoned buildings and boarded storefronts are gone. In their place is a wholesale bakery. A florist. An award-winning restaurant. A well-lit and much loved pedestrian mall, along with about four-dozen other new businesses. In 2004, Phillips got its first grocery store; in 2009, its first bank. In his State of the City address in 2009, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak boasted that Phillips was creating more jobs than anywhere else in the state.
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How did it happen? The change in Phillips took years. There were a lot of moving parts, and a great many important players. Indeed, it remains a work in progress. But the outlines are clear enough. A community development organization with deep ties to the local neighborhood began, finally, to recognize the importance of place-based crime prevention, about which I have written many times. They saw that crime prevention was not a job for the police alone, and that no number of arrests would fix the problems that beset Phillips. They began to exercise better stewardship over the properties they owned, including the shopping center where prostitution and drug dealing thrived. They brought in better tenants. They changed the physical layout, including the lighting and sightlines, to allow for better natural surveillance.
As those changes began to bear fruit and the neighborhood slowly changed, they and other community groups bought additional problem properties. Local ownership gave them control, and with control came the power to effect change. They closed down the gin joints and the pornographers. Gradually, the changes accumulated and began to build on themselves, creating the virtuous cycle that every city wants. Legitimate businesses brought good jobs and more customers; more customers encouraged other businesses to take a chance on a neighborhood that they once scorned; more businesses meant more jobs. At the same time, a police substation moved into the redesigned shopping center, giving the police a visible presence, which reassured hesitant businesses even without the need for arrests. The city blocked off traffic and created a pedestrian walk, soon lined with shops and restaurants.
I have written again and again about the right way to deploy the police. Shrink rather than enlarge the blue footprint. Use them less rather than more, and only for the problems that the city and community cannot solve on their own. The police have a role in creating safe, thriving neighborhoods, but they emphatically cannot do it alone. In Phillips, change came because the community took responsibility for their own safety, enlisting the police only as needed to facilitate the local ownership and stewardship that gradually changed the face of what had been one of the worst parts of the city.
What worked in Phillips will not work everywhere. It may not even work in other parts of Minneapolis. Place-based problem-solving scoffs at one-size-fits-all solutions. But there was a time, not too long ago, when the community and the Minneapolis Police Department joined hands. They can do it again, if they have the will.