Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Andy Luger is back as Minnesota's U.S. attorney, and not a moment too soon. Seldom has there been greater need for a calm, veteran prosecutor to help stem the tide of violent crime that has erupted in the Twin Cities metro area.
Luger, who led the office from 2014 to 2017, said in a visit with the Star Tribune Editorial Board that "the urgency to this problem is like nothing I've ever seen." Categories of crimes such as those committed with "ghost guns" and carjackings barely registered in Minnesota during Luger's previous tenure and that of his immediate predecessor, Erica MacDonald, who left the office in February 2021.
Today, Luger said, ghost guns, typically assembled from kits and available without a background check, are used in many crimes statewide. Carjackings, which numbered 177 in 2020, soared to 655 in Minneapolis alone. Additionally, Luger's also will focus on shootings involving a gun modification known as a "switch" that illegally transforms handguns into automatic weapons.
With that backdrop, Luger said every prosecutor in his office, whether their specialty is violent crime, white-collar fraud, drugs, child crimes, postal thefts or national security, will take on violent crime that violates federal law. He is starting with himself. "I've already assigned myself a violent carjacking case," he told the Editorial Board.
"What I'm hearing from law enforcement officers, community leaders and others is that we were not able to handle all the important violent crime work coming our way with just a violent crime section," he said.
Few crimes have terrorized Minnesotans recently as much as the surge in violent carjackings in home garages, mall parking lots, gas stations and elsewhere. Luger's emphasis is the correct one.
Luger said his office believes about 1 in 5 carjackings is committed or engineered by adults. These are not, he said emphatically, just joy rides. "These are people engaging in violent, organized, premeditated behavior," he said. In some cases, victims are beaten, held at gunpoint, forced to open apps and send money or give PINs for ATMs.
Other cities have seen upticks in violent crime, he said, but Minneapolis, with its hobbled, understaffed Police Department, is more vulnerable than most.
It is undeniable that the last two years have wreaked havoc on the department. The pandemic, the unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis officer and the growing number of vacancies that the city is hard-pressed to fill have all taken a severe toll on what is arguably one of the most critical police departments in the state.
The U.S. Justice Department is still investigating wrongdoing at the MPD. At the same time, the state Human Rights Department recently concluded a two-year probe into the Police Department's failings and culture of racist policing. There is the distinct possibility that the city soon may be acting under not one but two consent decrees based on state and federal findings.
From a pre-pandemic peak of well over 800 officers, MPD now has about 544 to police a city of more than 400,000. Little surprise then, that crime, especially violent crime, has spiked and spilled over into surrounding areas.
Lugar's decision to marshal more resources in his office is part of a broader effort. Law enforcement officials announced earlier this month that state troopers would begin patrolling streets three nights a week in certain parts of Minneapolis, while the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will assist with local investigations.
BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said at that time that "Minneapolis is seeing a significant rise in violent crime, while at the same time its Police Department is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of officers and investigators. The BCA is bringing resources and expertise to help these communities meet this urgent need."
Luger's effort fits in well with this all-hands-on-deck strategy. He knows other leaders, knows community groups and is widely respected. He is not without his detractors. Some were critical of his efforts on the program known as Countering Violent Extremism, which aimed at rooting out would-be foreign terrorists. The Editorial Board supported that effort.
Then as now, Luger said he remains open to other approaches. "But what is the alternative?" he said. Unlike during the 1980s and '90s, "this isn't about low-level drug traffickers or nonviolent crime. These are focused, intentional violent offenders, often repeat offenders. … When people are beaten, bloodied, dragged, their lives altered, how do you say no to that case?"
There is, he said, a legitimate lane for criminal prosecution. "If you don't think we should be prosecuting people who commit violent crimes, then say that. Defend it," he said. Luger said others could and should address the root causes of crime — and his office supports several anti-crime programs — but he noted that his priority is prosecuting criminals.
"What we're not going to do," he said of working with other agencies and prosecutors, "is fight among ourselves. There's too much work to do."
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.