Community Policing: It isnt what its cracked up to be
From Curt Milburns perspective as executive director of the Seward Neighborhood Group, community policing is a marvelous innovation in law-enforcement technique whose advantages far outweigh the detractions. From my perspective as a small-time landlord attempting to fight crime, it is a cop-out on the part of city government. Let me explain.
I own a nine-unit apartment building on Glenwood Avenue just west of downtown Minneapolis. My first community policing experience came just two weeks after I had closed on the property. On Saturday, August 13, 1993, I attended a special meeting of the Harrison Neighborhood Association crime and safety committee convened for the purpose of calling another property owner and me on the carpet for criminal activities taking place in or near our respective properties.
Having just bought the property, I could hardly be blamed for its mismanagement with respect to crime. However, a committee member ominously remarked: You should have known what you were getting into. Yes, I knew that there were problems with the building. Shortly after taking possession, I held a meeting with all the residents in the front hallway. I asked them what was wrong and took notes. Then I interviewed the residents separately in their apartment units. I thought I had a plan of action.
Now the crime and safety committee and the City Council member from my area, Jackie Cherryhomes, were demanding that I evict all the tenants immediately. They gave me no evidence of wrongdoing other than to suggest that the building itself was out of control. I resisted this suggestion because, having met the tenants, I thought some of them were good people. I also thought it would betray the trust we had established in our previous conversations. Cherryhomes expressed the opinion at this meeting that I was unfit to be a rental-property manager in the city. Presumably, I was too naive. I refused their demand but I did agree to evict tenants who had arrest records. The SAFE officer had such a list. Three tenants had arrest records and by the end of the afternoon I had notified all three that they had to leave. All were gone within two months.
This bought me about a year and a half of peace to manage the apartment as I saw fit. Admittedly, it was a difficult period. I made several mistakes in admitting tenants, but I evicted them as soon as I had evidence of wrongdoing. Here I was, a white man employed as an accountant at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, trying to deal with an all-black group of tenants in the building next door to my home. I was burglarized several times. Someone stole my keys. But I hung on, established some personal relationships, got married, and gradually regained control of my life.
During this time, the Harrison Neighborhood Association offered no help whatsoever. It did have a rental-property owners committee in whose activities I participated, but I found that this group was filled with snakes. The day of reckoning came in February, 1995, when I was hit by a triple whammy from the Minneapolis police department, two sets of city inspectors, and the neighborhood group enjoying behind-the-scenes support from Jackie Cherryhomes, now President of the City Council. Presumably, the building had health and safety problems. The remedy was to impose remedial costs upon me which, if I lacked sufficient credit, would force me out of business.
This building was condemned by the Minneapolis Health Department for cockroach infestation in mid February; the tenants were given two weeks to move. Then, in March, a Housing inspector did a full rental-license inspection, attended by two police officers and a representative from Cherryhomes office. His work orders required tens of thousands of dollars in maintenance work. This included adding an inch to the width of upstairs bedroom window and lowering the height of downstairs windows by an inch and a half to conform to current city code and installing a new parking lot behind the building.
Admittedly, there were some cockroaches in the building. There was also reason to suspect criminal activity in or near the building. Both of these problems were well on their way to solution at the time that the city intervened.
At the time of condemnation, the building had been under continuous treatment for cockroaches and other insects by a licensed pest-control firm. However, the roach population multiplied over a three-to-four month period as unsanitary conditions developed in a group of apartment units occupied by three related tenants, their extended family, and others. One of the tenants left garbage for long periods of time in the apartment. In another case, a relative who had been evicted from another place moved into a unit of my building without authorization, bringing clothing and furniture which harbored cockroaches.
I was meanwhile receiving reports from a private security firm under contract with me that drug dealing was probably taking place in some of my units. I evicted one of the three tenants in December 1994, persuaded a second to leave in January 1995, and filed for an Unlawful Detainer on February 1, 1995, having given her a 30-day eviction letter in December.
I was in New York City for a week in January attending the third prepcom for the UN Social Summit along with former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy. Upon my return, I learned that the rental property owners group of the Harrison Neighborhood Association wanted to meet with me and my wife to discuss problems in my building. When I tried to explain what I was doing to correct the problems, people at the meeting made it clear that they did not care about this; they wanted immediate results.
One called me a liar when I denied having received numerous phone calls from other landlords regarding crime in my building. (In fact, there had been only one such call.) They wanted me to appoint a replacement person to take over management of my building. They wanted me to tell them on the spot when I would appoint that manager. I told them to mind their own business. This meeting took place on February 7th. The health inspectors condemnation order was posted on February 10th.
Why such animosity? An insider later told me that one of my critics, the lead staff person at Harrison Neighborhood Association, hoped to parlay her success in defeating me to a high-level political position. Another, who managed the apartment building across the street, said that my neglect of criminal activity was spilling over into problems at her building. Another motive soon became clear when, shortly after the condemnation, the owner of the building which she managed called me up offering to buy my apartment building at a reduced price. I politely but firmly declined.
What was the role of the police in this matter? They were lurking in the shadows somewhere. While the health inspector and his supervisor refused to identify the person or persons who had called them into the building, I learned through the grapevine that it was the Minneapolis police. My wife told me that while I was out of town someone had called the police to report an incident in the building allegedly involving a gun. The investigating officer, in her presence, refused to search for the gun, commenting that there were too many cockroaches.
I tried to get to the bottom of these rumors by attending my neighborhood C.A.R.E. meeting. Such events are at the heart of community policing. Typically, neighborhood activists and the police sit down over coffee and discuss the various problem properties in the neighborhood. The idea is that these buildings cause crime and the solution to the crime problem is to go after their owners. In any event, I asked the four officers in attendance for an explanation of events leading up to condemnation of my building.
In the best tradition of the stereotypical southern Sheriff toying with powerless citizens, a mustached officer named Pielow led me on a bureaucratic wild-goose chase. I had to understand, he said, that there were two health departments - one is called health, and the other sanitation. I should contact the head of the sanitation department, Susan Young. When I did, I learned she was head of the garbage and recycling unit. She obviously was not the one with an answer to my question. Privately the officers must have had a good chuckle at my hapless condition.
Needless to say, relations between me and the police were not the best. The Housing inspector told me that the police considered me to be uncooperative. I found this strange considering that I had posted the yellow placard in my building that gave Minneapolis police officers the right to arrest trespassers on my property. I also visited the 4th precinct station attempting to give keys to my building to the officers; my offer was refused.
I once asked a Minneapolis policeman who was sitting in a patrol car parked outside my building if he would assist me in removing a group of teenagers who were playing dice in my hallway. He shrugged off the request, remarking that my apartment was nothing but a crack house.
I asked the inspector to pass along to the undisclosed officer who had complained of my attitude a request that he or she give me a call to mend relations. In several months time, no such calls have been made. All letters that I have directed to police officials in the course of two years have gone unanswered.
I think I know the source of this animosity: I have been vocal at community meetings in expressing my opinion that the city police, not just landlords, bear some measure of responsibility for the crime in neighborhoods. I have given personal testimony of slow police response to emergency calls, of police neglecting to write reports, and of poor follow-up to reports.
The officers have a tough job, to be sure, but a little criticism of this sort should not be unwelcome. All this, however, goes against the grain of community policing. At the meetings of police with neighborhood activists, the subject of evaluating police performance never comes up. Instead, the agenda is framed in terms of discussing problem properties and applying pressure against those properties and their owners who, presumably, are getting rich by renting to drug dealers, vandals, and thieves.
The focus is on the building rather than the criminal. If buildings are boarded up, the crime problem presumably will go away. The police are ready to assist in this process to the extent of issuing cash grants to organize block clubs to hound landlords to police their properties more energetically.
When I attended one of those police-community meetings, I discovered that a paper trail of reports was being created against me as evidence of my unfitness to manage a building. I was an elusive and uncaring property owner. A SAFE officer complained that she had been trying for many months to set up a meeting with me to discuss crime at my building but was always unsuccessful.
The fact of the matter was that this woman or her partner had called me four or five times to make an appointment. Each time, I had agreed to a meeting and we had set a date. Each time, one or the other officer called to cancel the appointment for such reasons as that she had a conflicting engagement or her child was sick. The last time, the officer told me that a face-to-face meeting was not necessary because we had already covered most of the topics over the telephone. Yet, the community-policing minutes showed me to be a person evading discussions with the police.
As a small-time apartment manager with a day job, I cannot police my building twenty-four hours a day. I must rely on the city police for services in this area. I myself am untrained in police work. I lack personal knowledge of drug use and may not be able to spot all drug dealers or users. I have promptly evicted tenants when I had evidence of wrong-doing. I have spent thousands of dollars in repairing damage to my building from vandals and in installing security equipment.
Shortly after my building was condemned, I wrote a letter to my representative to the City Council, Cherryhomes, asking how the city could hold landlords responsible for controlling drug-related activities in or near our buildings when drug selling occurs openly on Hennepin Avenue near City Center in easy view of the police. Such an impertinent question did not merit a response.
I did attend a public hearing of the Minneapolis City Council in April, 1995, on the subject of toughening the conduct on premises portion of the citys rental license. Referring to my own experience, I said that the city had other ways to close down buildings than the rental-license ordinance. For instance, they could use inspections to punish the owners. My view of the City Council members was obstructed while I was standing at the podium. Another landlord told me that while I was giving testimony Cherryhomes was vigorously shaking her head, signaling to her colleagues that I was lying.
Three weeks earlier, Cherryhomes had attended a rally organized by the neighborhood for the purpose of denouncing me. Though smaller and milder in tone, I would compare it with one of those Red Guards meetings staged in China during the Cultural Revolution. The organizers had passed fliers around the neighborhood. About thirty persons attended the meeting. I sat in the front row, center seat, right in front of the podium. The rest of the row was unoccupied. My neighbors sat in the back rows leering at me.
At this meeting, a series of speakers described me as a person who was operating a kind of headquarters for crime menacing the neighborhood. To give themselves a breather from my nefarious influence, the Harrison Neighborhood Association presented a demand that I relinquish management of the building and that the building be kept closed for a minimum of six months.
I later learned that the second demand was a trap: If a building is vacant for six months, city ordinance gives the city the right to declare it a nuisance property and order it to be torn down at the owners expense plus a 15% administrative fee. Fortunately, I got my building back in service within the six-month period because I had enough credit to make the repairs.
Jackie Cherryhomes struck a conciliatory note at the neighborhood rally. She suggested that some of the early money from NRP be used to buy me out so that the neighborhood could dispose of the building as they saw fit. She also stated that she had personally met with me four times to try to resolve the problems at my building. Presumably because of my obstinate nature, we had not managed to make any progress.
I raised my hand. Cherryhomes did not recognize me, but another person did. I told my Cherryhomes that to the best of my recollection I had met with her only once - two weeks after I had purchased the building, when she had demanded that I empty out the building. She responded in words to this effect: Well, maybe you werent actually at the other three meetings; but you knew about them and should have attended. (Truthfully, I was not notified of any other meetings besides the one I attended.) She left the meeting shortly after this exchange.
I was given a short time to defend myself at the neighborhood rally. When I read from a CARE report observing that conditions at my building seemed to be improving (although the report gave credit for this improvement to persons other than me), someone in the audience accused me of having manufactured the report. There were the usual cat-calls of liar. Finally, I let these people have it. I decided to give the entire group a tongue-lashing.
I told the self-appointed neighbors that they had done little to fight crime in Harrison neighborhood. I told them that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for trying to gang-bang me like this. I told the manager of the apartment building across the street that she ought to remove the two-foot-high gang graffiti from her own building before pointing the finger at mine.
I told the group that I had sent out press releases inviting people to attend not only this meeting but another one that I would have at my home to discuss the facts of the case. I invited anyone sincerely interested in the facts to come to my house immediately following the neighborhood meeting. There I would be glad to answer any questions and even serve coffee. Two persons actually accepted.
My impudent reaction must have had some impact since the staff person at Harrison Neighborhood Association who had orchestrated this campaign never achieved her goal of climbing to high political office on my back. In fact, she was not reappointed to the position of permanent lead staff person at the neighborhood association when it was filled several months later. By some irony, I was elected as an alternate representative to Harrison Neighborhood Association from my area at its annual meeting two months later.
A young man at the rally, who became an aide to a U.S. Congressman, did later cite his crime-fighting activities in Harrison neighborhood (presumably directed at me) when he ran for City Council in another ward eight years later; but he, too, failed to achieve his political objectives at that time.
You can see that politics is woven thickly into the fabric of community policing. Its not about officers walking the streets and getting to know all the neighbors. Its more about police politics and using the crime issue for political advancement. The mantra of community policing is far more attractive than its reality.
One of the few people who responded to my press release happened to be the head of the Minnesota Tenants Union. In a phone conversation, he explained my experience in terms of a larger political agenda then being pursued in the Twin Cities area. The key points, he said, were that my tenants were mostly young and black and my building was located not far from downtown Minneapolis. City officials may have been perceived my apartment building as a launching pad for the hordes of black teenagers who roam the streets downtown in high-priced shopping areas. Rather than require store owners to do the racially sensitive job of policing their own properties, the movers and shakers of our city prefer to put the squeeze on owners of nearby rental property. That was his take on my situation.
And so we see discussions, couched in politically astute and correct terms, of the need to disperse the concentrations of poverty located in inner-city neighborhoods. Putting a white face on the crime problem, political liberals of both races are able to deal with the situation by blaming the white landlord who rents to blacks. This may also involve the particular animus that a certain type of white female has towards males of her own race in a city such as Minneapolis.
In racially diverse neighborhoods such as Harrison, homeowners can in politically acceptable ways vent their rage against landlords who supposedly tolerate or condone crime; it would be too much of a political hot potato to focus on the criminal himself. Community policing we may consider to be the law-enforcement prong of that posture. A more accurate term would be blame-shifting by the politicians and police.