By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
At an Oct. 14 meeting, dozens of attendees were charged with considering: How could Seattle take a page from Minneapolis’ book in terms of public safety? What would it look like?
The Neighborhood Public Safety Forum,organized by the Chinatown-ID BIA, Alliance for Pioneer Square, Ballard Alliance, Downtown Seattle Association, SODO BIA, U District Partnership, and Visit Seattle, was held at Axis Pioneer Square. The forum was centered around the release of a report earlier in the year, “System Failure: Report on Prolific Offenders in Seattle’s Criminal Justice System,” which detailed the relatively high rate of recidivism—the tendency and likelihood of convicted criminals to reoffend.
“[The report] demonstrated that high criminal activity in Seattle neighborhoods was brought on by repeat offenders,” said Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square Executive Director. “[When we] presented the report in a forum in May, [community members] heard from us—and [conveyed to us] that the situation was untenable and unsafe.”
Howard said that in the months that convened, groups came together to start a dialogue on the report’s findings and the systems in place that do not hold prolific offenders accountable.
“Since the initial report in February, 88 of the original 100 offenders [we tracked] have been rearrested 241 times,” said Howard.
The Oct. 14 forum, the third of this series, featured panelists from Minneapolis. More than a decade ago, its downtown area used to be informally called “Murderapolis.” However, with its Downtown 100 initiative, which started April 2020, crimes committed by top offenders saw a 70–78 percent reduction year after year, with the first year seeing a staggering 75 percent decrease. This initiative has been recognized as one of the top criminal justice programs in the country.
The panelists from Minneapolis’ Downtown 100 included Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s Joseph Desenclos, Downtown Improvement District’s Shane Zahn, Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney Heidi Johnston, Probation Officer Ron Cunningham, and Minneapolis Police Assistant Chief Mike Kjos.
As for how Downtown 100 has accomplished its impressive feat, Johnston said, “The hallmark of our program is that we bring a team approach to chronic offenders.”
Repeatedly over the course of the forum, the panelists talked about how teamwork and cross-sector collaboration was imperative to the initiative’s success, a process of trust-building that wasn’t without its hiccups over the years, but one that has yielded significant results over the last decade.
“This isn’t a cookie cutter approach,” said Zahn. “Think about how relationships are built, how they are built over time. It’s earned and it requires trust.”
“[Those of us in] human service programs have a bias [against] law enforcement,” said Desenclos. “But it’s about coming together and boiling it down to—we’re all here for the same reason. When there are rough patches, and there are challenging cases, when it feels like human services are on one side of the panel as opposed to the criminal justice world—we just go back to the fact that we all have the same goals.”
“It doesn’t shock me that when you put officers in the room with social workers and outreach people, they would have different perspectives on what the solution to different criminal acts is,” said Kjos. “I’ve said that people tend to think that being a police officer is a really fun job, but when you spend weeks, months, years dealing with the same issues, day to day—that beat officer writing the same citation to the same individual, week after week, and you don’t see any change happening—or you see that individual and pick them up from the ground and put them into the ambulance or into detox and tomorrow you’re picking up the same person—it’s less than glamorous at times.”
“But what if all of a sudden the person they picked up every day is not standing on that corner doing whatever issue it was that they were dealing with—eventually cops go, ‘Where did that guy go?’” added Kjos. “Someone like Joseph can say, ‘We got them sober; we got them housing somewhere.’
Overtime, [when you continue to see this]—I think [our officers] have enjoyed working with this group. I think every person who’s been on this committee can personally name every single officer who has ever worked with this committee.”
“I think the approach is, honestly, not being so dogmatic,” said Johnston.
“Change happens at the speed of trust,” Desenclos.
WIth Downtown 100, the Minneapolis Police Department provides lists of top offenders based on crime statistics. Partners and committee members of Downtown 100 then work together to reduce recidivism through various efforts, such as having a steady presence of Probation Officer Cunningham oversee and track offenders. Other efforts include holding a Downtown Court Watch, a monthly meeting of representatives from all neighborhoods in the Downtown 100 precinct, to share information and make recommendations, as well as building up social services and housing support and programs in tandem—as many repeat offenders benefit greatly with support on things like chemical dependency, mental health, and employment.
After panelists spoke, audience members were able to ask questions of them. Among the questions were how city council and law enforcement can better work together when they currently have a fraught relationship, how to curb open-air drug dealing, whether human services attract or increase homelessness, and more.
Panelists acknowledged that the two cities are not the same, and that they are not advocating any sort of cookie cutter approach to public safety.
Panelists also said they are using the trip to Seattle to learn and bring back new ideas to Minneapolis. They said that Seattle is already doing a lot of things that they have done with Downtown 100 in addition to other things.
Panelists also acknowledged that they contend with a lot of the same complexities and conflicts that Seattle experiences—such as a mixed relationship between city council and law enforcement.
“Each community needs to define what culpability means to them,” said Desenclos. “We’re dealing with similar issues with our city council, where law enforcement don’t have the resources to do what they need to do.”
Kjos pointed out that when it comes to concentrations of criminal activity,
law enforcement (arresting offenders) alone doesn’t alleviate the hot spot. It requires an approach with multiple touch points.
“The police have been used as a Band-Aid for everything,” said Kjos. “But in over 30 years [on the job, I’ve learned that] the solution wasn’t just enforcement because I could put up a map from 1995 and 2015, and the hot spots are in the same spot. And you can put up enforcement maps and they’re in the same spot. … So very rarely has just enforcement moved that hot spot somewhere else because there are other elements that create those areas. There are things that brought them there. So what we’ve tried to do is figure out what’s the attraction. Why is this spot attraction drawing that bad behavior? And [we] come up with ways that makes it not comfortable for [the criminal activity to occur]. There are a lot of creative solutions.”
The panelists suggest taking deep dives into marginalization—into disinvestment, redlining, and similar factors to see why criminal activity happens in the areas that they do—is a better approach than enforcement alone.
Stacy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.