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Lawmakers spar over crime in, and reputation of, the Twin Cities

Some Republican lawmakers say their constituents are worried about going to the Twin Cities area because of a recent surge in carjackings and shootings, though Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz criticize that as election year fear mongering.

Crime scene
An investigator with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime scene team photographs the interior of a garage on the property where Cristyna Watson of Floodwood was discovered Oct. 4. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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ST. PAUL — A seeming rise in carjackings and shootings in the Twin Cities has made crime a key debate this session in the Legislature and in the upcoming election.

Some Republican lawmakers say their constituents are worried about going to the Twin Cities area because of crime reports.

“I can tell you as I talk to people in my communities, they’re not afraid to come to Minneapolis and St. Paul because of COVID, they’re afraid to come to Minneapolis and St. Paul because they’re afraid they’re going to get shot,” Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said at a February news conference on a GOP public safety bill. “They’re afraid of the violence, the carjackings, the robberies, and it needs to stop. And part of that is getting more law enforcement folks on the street and uplifting this profession again.”

But Gov. Tim Walz and state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, the main author of their party’s $100 million House public safety agenda, say Republicans are casting a negative light on certain areas of the state for political gain in an election year.

"What you hear from our Republican colleagues is what they believe is a winning political message,” Frazier said. “It's fear mongering, it's divisive, that's what it is. It's demonizing the metro.”

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Frazier said any plan to address public safety will direct resources based on data showing where there's an uptick in crime. Walz in a January news conference with Greater Minnesota news media said the GOP is disparaging the Twin Cities in its crime messaging.

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope
Minnesota Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL- New Hope, spoke to reporters at a news conference in at the Minnesota Capitol in October of 2021.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

“A crime in any part of the state, whether we have a criminal homicide in Cloquet or we have a carjacking in Minneapolis, all are unacceptable,” Walz said. “Our responsibility is to make sure that we’re providing resources so each of those communities have the opportunity to police in the best possible way.”

There is limited data on whether people in Greater Minnesota are calling off trips to the state's main metropolitan area because of crime. Further muddying the picture is that the pandemic contributed to the shuttering of many businesses already.

The Twin Cities region typically reports a higher rate of violent crime than Greater Minnesota, uniform crime reports from 2016 to 2020 show. Though anecdotal reports from the past year indicate a rise of violent crime in all urban areas across the state, according to Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts. Starting in late 2020, police departments in urban areas across the state, including Duluth, Rochester and Moorhead, have reported an increase in violent crime, he said.

“It was an overall increase from years past, but by far Minneapolis and St. Paul saw the biggest increases,” Potts said. “But areas around the metropolitan area and throughout Greater Minnesota, the homicide numbers were up from the previous year.”

Late last year and early this year the carjackings started to appear in Twin Cities suburbs.

“What was really probably the most alarming was the carjacking number which really seemed to explode last year,” Potts said, explaining that "first and second ring suburbs" around the Twin Cities are seeing instances of carjackings on the rise.

While information from 2021 is not final, police chiefs in the state’s rural areas have not reported similar trends, according to Potts.

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In 2020 the state saw a record 185 criminal homicides, a 58% increase from 117 in 2019, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's annual uniform crime reports. Thirty-two of the 2020  criminal homicides were in St. Paul and 82 were in Minneapolis, accounting for more than 60% of the state’s total. More than 90% were in counties considered metropolitan by the public safety department — including Greater Minnesota counties such as St. Louis, Olmsted, Clay and Polk. Statewide there was a 17% increase in overall violent crime from the year before.

There were a record 36 killed in homicides in St. Paul in 2021, according to a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press , while Minneapolis reported a near-record 96. While those numbers might not reflect the final figures for last year, they suggest a continued upward trend. Carjackings have also risen in the state's urban areas, with Minneapolis reporting more than 600 in 2021 — up from 388 the year before.

Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, is a former law enforcement officer. He said he’s hearing from constituents in his exurban district northwest of Minneapolis with concerns about safety in the city center. Many in that district commute to downtown or visit for sporting events and concerts.

paul novotny.gif
Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River

Novotny disputed Democrats’ criticism of GOP rhetoric on the metro area. He said he jokingly took his daughter’s 10-year-old car, with 150,000 miles, to a Vikings game this fall in case he was carjacked.

“If you’re just stating a fact you’re not demonizing, you’re just stating a fact. If it's an uncomfortable fact I’m sorry, but it is what it is,” he said. “It’s not something we’re trying to do for political points, it’s the nature of what I did for 33 years was to take care of people and we don’t care where you live. It’s just unfortunate that this is being ignored and swept under the rug by the people in the cities with tall buildings that don’t want to acknowledge that there’s a problem.” 

Safety proposals

GOP lawmakers and candidates have seized on the trend to advance their public safety agenda, and place blame on DFL politicians for not doing enough on crime. Their proposals include a $65 million law enforcement recruitment plan, boosting funding for police departments and stiffening penalties for carjackers.

Republicans also say the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission and Twin Cities prosecutors aren’t following sentences outlined in state law. They’ve introduced bills to push prosecutors to pursue felony charges and to limit the sentencing commission’s authority.

In contrast, the $100 million House DFL public safety package emphasizes a “community” approach to violent crime, including programs to target the root causes of violent crime such as diversion programs for juvenile offenders. Under the proposal, $40 million in proposed spending could be used for community safety grants to fund programs ranging from substance abuse and mental health treatment to counseling and educational support for juvenile offenders. It also calls for $22 million each for grants to support local community policing and expanding crime investigation resources. Walz and Senate Democrats have been pitching a plan that would allocate $300 million over the next three years to local law enforcement agencies across the state.

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Other items include $10 million in grants for opioid addiction epidemic response, $2.5 million for body camera grants and $450,000 to add four new investigators to the state board that investigates officer misconduct. DFL House members also propose $50,000 in funding for a task board to help address the growth in unfilled law enforcement positions by exploring new pathways into the profession.

In the meantime, it’s unclear just how much of an effect crime has had on tourism in the Twin Cities, as the COVID-19 pandemic had already dealt a major blow to the hospitality industry. Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention bureau, attributes much of the decline to the cancellation of events. Crime and safety concerns are not at the top of the list of questions event planners ask, said Melvin Tennant, the group’s president and CEO. Instead, they’re most interested in what’s open and available downtown.

As the region's commerce and entertainment center, the "vast majority" of Minneapolis' visitors come from Greater Minnesota and the surrounding states, Tennant said. Before the pandemic people typically visited two or three times a year.

Tennant said issues bigger cities face like traffic or crime might lead some visitors to hesitate, but he has not seen any data to indicate the 2021 crime wave has stopped anyone from hosting events or coming to Minneapolis.

“It’s not new that perhaps Greater Minnesota friends of ours might have general concerns about coming to a big city," he said. "But again, the evidence suggests that there is not really any hesitancy to doing that, because most of our leisure visitors come from Greater Minnesota and contiguous states.”

This story was updated at 12:38 p.m.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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