Downtown's banned

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

City attorneys and police are working to ban chronic offenders from Downtown neighborhoods. Can that work? Is it legal?

In an effort to stymie so-called "nuisance" crime, police and city attorneys are working to ban offenders Downtown neighborhoods.

The 1st Precinct SAFE crime-prevention team is mapping arrests of people police repeatedly ticket and pick up for public urination, public drinking and begging. According to civilian crime- prevention specialist Luther Krueger, "We will be using this mapping for individual offenders who will be prosecuted with the goal of establishing geographic restrictions."

Some offenders have been banned from entire neighborhoods such as Downtown West, which encompasses most of the central business and the Hennepin Avenue entertainment districts. Others have been banned from specific city blocks such as Hennepin Avenue between 6th and 8th streets, or specific locations, such as the City Center, 615 Hennepin Ave. S.

If police catch chronic offenders in court-prohibited areas, the offender is sent back to jail or a workhouse for violating terms of their sentences.

To make bans more effective, the SAFE team has begun circulating the mug shots of 11 people who police say account for the lion's share of Downtown "livability" crime. Police are asking Downtown security guards -- who outnumber cops 10 to 1 --to make "citizen's arrests" that could return the banned offender to jail.

At least one Downtown leader has gotten a chronic offender to flee an area from which the offender was banned.

Tom Hoch, chair of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) and head of the Historic Theatre Group, which manages the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters, recognized at least one "banned" offender posted by the SAFE Team.

"The particular individual I confronted had been panhandling a lot around Hennepin Avenue, and I'd asked him to leave many, many times before," Hoch said. "So when I saw him a few days later and confronted him. It was perfect because he then knew that I knew and he left. I have not seen him since. In this case, I think the system worked."

There are doubters, however. Skeptics question whether such bans are effective, or merely shuffling criminals from one part of town to another. Critics argue that banning so-called "nuisance" criminals from certain areas violates civil liberties.

Michael O'Connor, an assistant professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School, 1000 LaSalle Ave., said "banning" raises "serious questions, both legal and moral." This is particularly true if the crimes are nonviolent, petty offenses that are tied to economic status. Freedom of movement, travel and association are considered some of our most cherished rights and liberties."

The theory

Krueger said bans are worth trying because of the "80-20" rule.

"It always seems like 80 percent of crimes are committed by 20 percent of the criminals. So to really impact crime, the most effective way is to figure out how to stop or catch those 20 percent," he said. "This is borne out by often-seen phenomena where a burglary pattern will erupt in a neighborhood, and then some guy is caught, and then there are virtually no more burglaries."

Krueger e-mails computer-generated maps to Downtown groups such as property owners and security officers. At the very least, he wants people to file victim impact statements that can be used against the offenders in court.

Judges have banned chronic offenders from specific areas for years, but this is the first time the Downtown SAFE team has publicized these orders and maps via e-mail.

Krueger's partner, Police Officer Craig Williams, said Downtown private security officers have started looking for chronic offenders.

"What's nice is that even the security guards are starting to love this. They're saying, 'Oh, hey, Johnny is banned,'" he said.

The security guards have the authority to place a "banned" offender under a citizen's arrest and alert police to the individual's whereabouts.

Who offends

Deputy City Attorney Dana Banwer said the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office is working on securing a new case-management system to better track offenders and spot trends in neighborhoods. Downtown, she noted, has high rates of "livability" crimes compared to other areas of the city. But more serious crime, such as prostitution, drug dealing and car theft, isn't as common.

The people listed as Downtown's top "nuisance" offenders have lengthy rap sheets studded with mostly low-level misdemeanor offenses. Most have been arrested around 50 times. One man on the SAFE team's "chronic offender" list had 153 arrests on his criminal record.

Many of the arrests are for consuming in public, trespassing and begging.

The SAFE team tracks chronic offenders' arrests, not criminal charges or convictions.

"An arrest does not mean they are guilty, but it does mean we think they have committed the crime," Krueger said.

As for demographics, seven of the people listed on the Downtown's chronic offender list are black, two are American Indian and two are white. There are two women on the list. Ages range from 35 to 51.

According to one of Krueger's most recent maps, which tracks misdemeanor-arrest locations Downtown between Dec. 1, 2003 and Jan. 30, 2004, most "nuisance" offenders were ticketed along Hennepin Avenue's entertainment district.

Just moving the problem?

Does banning people from Downtown neighborhoods shift behavior to other communities?

"I don't care where they go, but they're not coming Downtown," replied Williams. "Let the next SAFE team deal with that person. If you remove somebody from their known areas of dealing with stuff, we hope that shakes them up enough to say, 'You know what? I'm done.'"

Krueger believes stepped-up enforcement of "banning" orders will cut down on overall offenses.

"If a significant number of the offenders take the geographic restrictions seriously, that will mean they will stay out of Downtown, and at least 10 or 20 or 50 incidents for which we have arrested them in the past won't happen [again]," he said. "If they take the restrictions seriously, then not only will our officers not have to ferret them out, but visitors to Downtown won't see them loitering or urinating either."

SAFE Officer Williams said bans are a targeted approach to such offenders.

"It's not like someone is twice arrested Downtown and we can start saying you're banned. This person has been on our top offender list, is a chronic and just doesn't get it," Williams said. "They come and go. They pretty much live in prison, or at least jail. A lot of them aren't homeless. They're just here to do chronic offenses. We have one person who has a bank account Downtown because of his begging."

Hoch said the "banned" man he spotted has panhandled on Hennepin for years.

"Watching him stop person, after person, after person is just not tolerable for me or most of the businesses on Hennepin Avenue. This is a livelihood for this person," he said.

Cracking down on frequent offenders might also undermine criminal rings, Krueger suggested.

"Many of the repeat offenders we deal with hang out with other frequent offenders. They are birds of a feather, so to speak, and hopefully the buddy system will stay in place and their friends won't find it as fun to offend alone," he said.

Treating a symptom, not the disease?

Begging and consuming in public might be seen as crimes of the poor and chemically dependent; some ask if police should be singling out such offenders.

Jodi Pfarr, a board member of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) who oversees transitional housing for Catholic Charities and advises police on poverty issues, said she is in favor of banning so-called "nuisance" offenders from neighborhoods when they have consistently caused problems in the area.

"I'm big on accountability," Pfarr said.

However, Pfarr said the criminal justice system must do more for people who repeatedly run afoul of the law for minor offenses. For many chronic "livability" offenders, their criminal behavior is symptomatic of more serious problems.

"A lot of them are mentally ill and have housing, financial and spiritual needs that need to be addressed," Pfarr said.

Sam Magavern, a public policy advocate for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, 430 1st Ave. N., said relying on a "purely punitive approach" is "neither fair nor effective."

Magavern is a member of a joint city-county advisory board on homelessness working on drafting recommendations on ways to "decriminalize" homelessness.

The committee is gathering information about conditions in Minneapolis and examining alternative practices in other cities. He said the group would like to work with police officers to offer more training on ways to interact with the city's homeless.

"Legal Aid feels that an approach to 'livability' or 'nuisance' crimes needs to recognize that some of the offenses arise not from irresponsible or criminal-minded intentions, but from homelessness, often combined with mental illness or chemical dependency," he said.

New 1st Precinct Community Prosecutor Lois Conroy, a city attorney, says the courts are doing just that, assigning offenders probation officers to help them sort through the roots of their criminal behavior.

"This is just one piece of a larger picture," she said. "When we go to court, we're also trying to address those things that may be contributing to their crime to begin with. We'd like them to be assigned a specific probation officer where they can receive an assessment regarding their drug or alcohol use, also maybe whether they need housing or job training."

But even if bans are accompanied by more social services -- an intention harder to achieve in an era of funding cuts -- some argue that restricting anyone's freedom of movement is flatly unconstitutional.

St. Thomas Law Professor O'Connor, a former public defender, said, "Banning undesirable people whom we deem a nuisance because of their convictions for panhandling, or urinating in public, directly and adversely affects a number of basic constitutional rights," he said, adding the rules tend to segregate people based on economic status.

Although judges have wide discretion in fashioning conditions of probation, he said "the lawfulness of such a sentence for a minor offense is highly questionable.

"A sweeping rule banning someone from Downtown would certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. Even more limited bans would be treated as highly suspect by the courts," he said.

Besides questioning the constitutionality of banning people for livability crimes, O'Connor said the practice allows judges to "segregate society based upon economic status."

"There is no question that the overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed by the poor, and not infrequently, by those with mental illness. We may wish to look the other way at times, but we have no right to segregate those who make us feel uncomfortable."