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"Minnesotans don't really get crime."
So I was told, several months ago, during an off-the-record, post-election lunch with a well-placed observer of the local criminal justice scene. My confidential informant merely meant that our state's historical experience with violent street crime has been relatively mild, producing a less hard-nosed community mind-set than one finds in, say, Chicago or New Orleans.
The point was not to deny the need for police reform hereabouts, especially in Minneapolis. But real law enforcement culture change only becomes achievable, I was told, when a police force is confident that its community and political leadership understands what cops face on the street.
To be sure, my lunch mate allowed, the "Murderapolis" crime wave of the 1990s and today's ongoing post-George Floyd, post-defund-the-police surge of violence have sobered many a Minnesotan on crime issues.
"But we don't get it yet," I was cautioned.
Recent events have tended to confirm that warning.
Around the country, there are definite signs that the public mood, and political calculations, have stiffened some on crime. President Joe Biden, long a reliable instrument for measuring the direction and velocity of political winds, startled many Democrats earlier this month by announcing that he would not block a Republican-led effort in Congress to overrule a reputedly soft-on-crime overhaul passed unanimously by the Washington, D.C., City Council (among other things, it would have reduced the penalty for carjacking). Of little practical significance beyond the beltway, the repositioning gesture sends a clear political message.
Despite Democrats' comparatively good results in last fall's midterms, it's clear that crime surges in cities around the country, though historically moderate, are unsettling to Americans who had watched crime rates plummet for a generation until the last few years. And it's clear the issue works against Democrats. So Biden, whose most famous achievement as a U.S. senator was shepherding to passage the tough 1990s "Clinton crime bill" is fighting crime once more.
This despite the fact that Biden had to apologize for his misguided contributions to "mass incarceration" on his way to winning the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
The return of "Lock 'em up Joe" isn't the only reminder that crime doesn't pay politically. On Feb. 28, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was humiliated in a re-election bid, missing the cut in a primary with just 17% of the vote. No less a sage on Democratic politicking than David Axelrod wrote that Lightfoot, the near-perfect embodiment of pugnacious inclusivity, was ousted for the simple reason that "crime is ... far and away the top concern of Chicago voters" and "Lightfoot was widely considered a failure on the critical issue of public safety."
Way out west in San Francisco, a solid majority of voters last June ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall election, mainly because of his soft crime policies. Back east in New York, in November, Republicans running on the crime issue nearly won the governorship and did pick up three U.S. House seats, helping the GOP regain a narrow majority. That followed the 2021 election of Eric Adams, the no-nonsense-on-crime candidate, as mayor of New York City.
Until recently one might even have added Minnesota itself to the list of places in America seeming to have run out of patience with crime. In 2021, Minneapolis voters soundly rejected a charter amendment embodying the original "defund the police" crusade and gave Mayor Jacob Frey, an opponent of defunding, both new powers and new allies on the City Council. He's appointed a new police chief, Brian O'Hara, from Newark, N.J., presumably a place where people "get crime."
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger, reappointed by Biden about a year ago, has come out swinging, implementing a special focus on bringing federal prosecutions where possible against violent criminals, especially carjackers and gang members. Last fall, calling violent crime the "paramount issue" in Minneapolis, Frey and new public safety commissioner Cedric Alexander announced a coordinated, multi-jurisdictional "Operation Endeavor" to combat it.
These efforts seem to have had some early, if mixed, success. The Minneapolis crime dashboard shows that in 2023 to date, robberies, car jackings and gunplay are all reduced from last year, though they're running closer to the previous three-year average. Meantime, homicide numbers are unchanged, sex offenses are up and auto theft is epidemic, as it is nationwide.
The year has also gotten off to a violent start in St. Paul, with particularly disturbing incidents at rec centers, schools and memorial services.
But for some, including my off-the-record lunch partner, last November's election delivered a reminder that Minnesotans still don't quite "get it" where crime is concerned. Riding the abortion issue hard, DFLers across the board withstood GOP campaigns (of at best uneven quality, to be sure) that hit the crime issue equally hard. In addition to their sweep of the Legislature and the governorship, DFLers re-elected Attorney General Keith Ellison and installed former embattled chief public defender Mary Moriarty, an unabashed criminal justice progressive, as head prosecutor in the state's largest and most crime-challenged county.
The results have been striking and swift. As incessantly noted, DFL lawmakers at the Capitol have been setting a frenzied pace enacting a bold agenda. But about the only policy breakthroughs they've hastened to enact related to public safety (the "paramount issue" in Minnesota's largest city) have been 1) bestowing driver's licenses on illegal immigrants and 2) restoring voting rights to paroled felons.
To be sure, Gov. Tim Walz's supplemental budget proposal announced last week directs more state money to local "public safety" efforts. And more substantial, tough-minded anti-crime policy may yet emerge.
But legalization of recreational pot seems a safer bet.
Moriarty, for her part, has also wasted no time making news as Hennepin County Attorney. In January she voluntarily dismissed a rape case after misconduct by a prosecutor that did not appear to undermine the defendant's rights. Last month she reversed her predecessor's decision to charge two teenage killers as adults, instead offering them modest stints in juvenile correction, despite the objections of the prosecutor on the case and the outraged protests of the victim's family.
In fairness, this decision to "treat kids like kids" (rather than treating criminals like criminals?) is fully in keeping with views Moriarty made no secret of during her campaign and prior career. It's less clear whether her approach is what most Hennepin County voters genuinely desired when they elected Moriarty handily over a tougher-talking opponent.
A remorseful March 9 letter writer on these pages may have spoken for many when she accepted the "blame" for the "grave mistake of voting for" Moriarty, adding plaintively, "I thought she was fully vetted by the DFL ... ."
Minnesotans, as noted, are a trusting people.