Why Do We Let the Police Define Safety?

I was on 6th Street, carefully navigating three lanes of traffic and construction. I signaled my turn as I eased into the left lane, aware of drivers moving urgently around me. Suddenly I bounced, failed to reestablish grip, and tumbled. I rolled off my bike and onto concrete. Something hit my knee bad enough to cause instant nausea. I gathered myself in the panic-knowledge that I could have been run over.

I wasn’t safe downtown that day. Many people in our city feel unsafe. Safety is important! In the media, in city hall, people are talking about public safety and the budget. Many of the alarms being raised about safety center on the experiences of people downtown. At the time of this writing, the Minneapolis City Council is marking up the proposed city budget (contact your councilmember!).

That day, my safety took a hit from a narrow trough cut across the street. Hard to spot, but deep enough to give someone on a bike a sudden jolt. I iced the knee for a couple days, and got away without any lasting injuries.

But not everyone survives. Alex Wolf was killed by a driver downtown last month as he biked, also on a designated bike route.

Will we see the leader of a major city department come forward with a new proposal for tens of millions of dollars in ongoing, annual spending to address this set of public safety problems?

This year, the police department and downtown property owners have set a very narrow agenda in the discussion around public safety. For them it’s all about hiring more cops, with no hesitation in making a huge budgetary demand.

I work downtown at a growing software business. I regularly feel unsafe downtown. But not because of any problem that more cops is going to solve. I feel unsafe because downtown is built to protect cars as they speed towards on-ramps, change lanes and make sudden turns/parking maneuvers. Because cars, trucks and construction regularly block painted bike lanes, making downtown an unpredictable obstacle course. As a longtime bicyclist in the Twin Cities, I know that hiring a few cops to reconstitute a traffic enforcement unit (one proposal in the mayor’s budget) will not make my daily experience of downtown safer. Hiring cops doesn’t build protected bikeways.

And for me that’s the real problem with allowing public safety to be defined so narrowly. If I know that my concerns about safety are left unaddressed by this demand for more cops, then how many other people feel unsafe, and yet their voices aren’t being heard?

My experience with safety isn’t the same as everyone else’s. I’m a white man with a salary. Sharing my experience must not diminish or supplant the seriousness of harm other people experience downtown. A woman who feels unsafe due to fear of harassment on a train station deserves our care. A valet or hotel worker who feels unsafe around inebriated crowds deserves our care. A young Black person who feels unsafe because of the real history of police violence against Black people deserves our care. A sex worker trying to earn a living while dodging incarceration and risks of violence deserves our care.

We already have a massive investment in policing as an approach to public safety. For many people in this city, every day, it isn’t helping. For many it’s hurting. We need to hear those voices.

That’s why I want new funding going to programs that build common safety by addressing root issues. Not hiring more cops. Building safe transportation infrastructure. Building dignified housing so people don’t need to live on trains. We should stop fighting for scraps of funding for the infrastructure and preventative work that makes us safe, and instead demand a transformative shift.

There are lots of ideas for making this city safer. Let’s treat public safety seriously – for all people in this city – and get to work funding them.

31 thoughts on “Why Do We Let the Police Define Safety?

  1. Brian

    How does building better transportation infrastructure help stop people from being killed or assaulted? How does it help stop some of the behaviors that are causing outsiders to believe that downtown is not a safe place to go?

    Now, I am downtown every single weekday and I feel perfectly safe, but I am there at times when large crowds are coming and going.

    1. A

      What does this have to do with anything in the article? Jesse is saying their problem is feeling unsafe when going somewhere on foot or on a bicycle, because the streets are designed only with cars in mind.

      1. Steve Gjerdingen

        Jesse continually compares bike safety to the perceived public safety issues centered around downtown that have been raised to the city council’s attention. We all know that these issues are centered around crime and not around bike infrastructure, so that’s why this comparison is being made.

        I think the point Brian is trying to make (and maybe Jesse as well) is that being entirely centered on only one aspect of safety is a short-sighted way to run a city.

        Also, I think that Jesse’s article is focused mostly on biking on not so much on the aspects of walking downtown. Depending on the time of night, I feel much safer on a bicycle in downtown than I do while walking down there because I can move away from someone much more quickly than I could if I were walking. Personally, I’m more concerned about the people than I am about the vehicles. I don’t work there during the day time, but I’m guessing that discussion is a lot different.

  2. Jesse Mortenson

    Hi Brian – building better infrastructure will literally save people from being killed. Look at the bike/ped fatality numbers comparing different places. There are clear, measurable differences.

    Assault is a scary and harmful act. I have family members who have been assualted. I take that very seriously. Please tell me, what gives rise to most assaults? How do you think hiring more police will halt assault?

    My understanding is that most assaults are carried out by people the victim knows. Intimate partner violence is a huge category here. Do police prevent this? I would argue that investing in efforts to create economic independence, especially for women and marginalized people, and also efforts to break down toxic masculinity, will have the biggest impact here. Absolutely people need a place to call if their intimate partner is being violent. It’s a dangerous situation. But I think clearly police do not prevent that situation (or its recurrence) nearly to the degree that laws giving survivors the right to break leases w/o penalty do.

    1. Brian

      The reason people don’t want to come downtown is not because of assault by domestic partners. They are worried about assaults, killings, and muggings happening on the street. People don’t want to come downtown again after being panhandled and dealing with groups of “undesirables”. Maybe they had a purse or phone stolen or witnessed it happening so they don’t want to come back. Good luck even getting the police to show up for a purse or phone theft unless the victim was injured

      (The whole “undesirables” thing is typically more about the race of the group than anything.)

      Nobody has answered the question of how better bike lanes, fewer cars, and more buses is going to reduce crime and make the average person feel safer.

      If the city of Minneapolis had two officers walking on each block in the the downtown entertainment district on Friday and Saturday nights people would feel a lot safer and probably less actual crime too.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Lots of people feel less safe when the police are present. Lots of people don’t feel safe downtown because they are afraid of people who don’t look like them. Lots of people say they don’t feel safe downtown not because of any personal experiences they’ve had, but because of narratives driven by politics, not reality.]

        Safer infrastructure will help keep people from being assaulted by negligently driven cars. Why is that a class of assault that you don’t care about?

        1. Brian

          The average person who comes downtown for entertainment or who would like to come downtown for entertainment is a lot more worried about crime or the perception of crime than they are about getting run over by a car in downtown.

          If you asked a group of average people to list reasons why they wouldn’t go downtown I doubt anybody would mention the possibility of getting hit by a motor vehicle as a reason, but plenty would mention crime.

          I have had two very close calls of nearly being hit as a pedestrian in downtown, but I still don’t consider downtown unsafe for walking. One was a bicyclist making an illegal right turn onto a one way street who didn’t yield to pedestrians crossing. Pedestrians were conditioned not to look left because there was never supposed to be traffic from that direction. Only the the bicyclist slamming on his brakes stopped him from hitting me. He stopped about a foot from me.

          1. Andrew Evans

            Brian, I saw two bikers almost hit each other once. One was on a bike path meaning to cross the street, and the other in the street going forward. I believe in that case the one in the street had to stop for the one acting as a pedestrian on the path, but that didn’t happen. The one on the path should have been looking for vehicles to see them and stop before proceeding, to which they must not have taken the bike on the street in account. They didn’t end up colliding, but got close.

          2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            “The average person who comes downtown for entertainment or who would like to come downtown for entertainment is a lot more worried about crime or the perception of crime than they are about getting run over by a car in downtown.”

            They shouldn’t be.

            Not that I think we should spend much timing thinking about the average person who would like to come to downtown for entertainment.

            1. Brian

              Most of those who patronize businesses in the downtown entertainment district don’t live in downtown or even in Minneapolis. These businesses will lose substantial portions of their business if potential customers from outside of downtown believe it is too unsafe to visit.

              Didn’t the Timberwolves and Twins recently take out an ad due to the (real or perceived) safety issues downtown?

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                I actually doubt that that much of the customer base doesn’t have other reasons to be downtown already. They might not live there, but they likely do work there.

                Anyway, pretty much every mistake in the last 75 years of downtown planning (and it is a long, long list) was made in the name of appeasing frightened theoretical suburbanite customers. We make much better decisions when we stop worrying about them and instead work on making downtown a pleasant place to live and work.

      2. Jesse Mortenson

        “Nobody has answered the question of how better bike lanes, fewer cars, and more buses is going to reduce crime and make the average person feel safer.”

        Brian, you’re projecting onto “the average person.” That’s something we need to stop doing. Who is that average person? is it you? Do you feel unsafe downtown? Who/what do you feel afraid of?

        Does the “average” assault take place downtown? Does the “average” assault take place between strangers?

        “People don’t want to come downtown again after being panhandled and dealing with groups of ‘undesirables’ [race of the group]”

        So here it is: it sure sounds like when you say “average person … downtown for entertainment” that you’re saying “white people from [elsewhere] are afraid of black people downtown and would be more comfortable with two cops on every block.” That’s racism. I don’t want my city to define and institutionalize public safety on the basis of racist fears any longer. It’s not even worth arguing with people about the putative value of catering to a vague suburban white “majority” and their fears. I won’t sacrifice people for the marketability of Sneaky Pete’s or whatever. It’s deeply wrong to do so, both for the immediate and profound harm inflicted on those you label “undesirables” and for the way it distorts our discussion around public safety, which causes us to ignore and under-address real safety problems that affect thousands of people. And sorry, but Edina and Woodbury aren’t meaningfully competing for those entertainment dollars anyway. It’s a vicious joke of an argument that gets taken seriously because of what “we” means in this context.

        1. Brian

          Yes, the majority of people coming to the downtown entertainment district from the suburbs are going to be white because whites are still the majority in most of the metro. They also tend to have the most discretionary income to spend on entertainment.

          I understand that most violent crime is not happening to random strangers on the street. However, when the media is constantly leading with shootings, stabbings, and the like happening in Minneapolis then potential visitors decide it is too dangerous to go to Minneapolis.

          I’ve worked in downtown Minneapolis for nearly 20 years and have only personally witnessed one crime. Someone stole a phone about two years ago. (No idea why anyone steals a phone because they turn into an unusable brick as soon as they are remotely locked.)

      3. Rosa

        it’s not like infrastructure and driver behavior safety issues aren’t continuous and continuously brought to officials attention. But crime issues get more attention. The person who is afraid of crime but not concerned about crossing streets or dealing with icy sidewalks may not be as average as you think.

  3. Monte Castleman

    I do get that there’s different values of “safety”. But we can hire police officers to address safety from crime a lot faster than we can reconstruct all the major streets to increase bicycle and pedestrians safety (I don’t consider things we can do short of reconstructing a street like adding flimsy plastic sticks to be actual protected infrastructure).

    Maybe if we had enough police that we not only can respond to all the priority 911 calls but had some time left over to enforce traffic laws that might increase bicyclist and pedestrian safety too. Everyone knows you don’t speed through Edina.

    1. Andrew Evans

      City Lab had an article about this a month or so ago. “What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths.”

      It seems that lack of enforcement also leads to lack of progress on these goals.

      Then like I keep saying, all the bike lanes are great but eventually a biker or pedestrian is going to need to cross streets. In that case, no striping, plastic sticks, or concrete barriers, will help if a driver decides that a stop sign doesn’t apply to them. Same goes for running a red light, to speeding, and over the top weaving around in traffic.

      1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

        Ryan, you bring up a good point about enforcement. I think it is part of a greater issue with equitably in enforcement. The police have a great deal of leeway in how they enforce laws. This can lead to differences in policing between economic strata, between charge type.

        Just consider how a kids skipping out on train fare is often charged with the same level of crime as someone driving a car 7 miles over the speed limit. In a pure argument of social costs vs social benefits, inequitable enforcement doesn’t align with the idea that enforcement solves social problems. There’s a lot of great academic work being done on this now, dig it:


        To take it one step further, inequitable enforcement lends itself to a widespread belief that law enforcement lacks “legitimacy.”

        The brilliant Yale law professor Tom Tyler has done a ton of work on this: essentially he argues that establishing “legitimate” procedures is the #1 factor that leads to people obeying laws. And people obeying laws is kind of the main goal.

        Dig it, pt 2: http://proceduralfairness.org/

        Ultimately I agree with your admonition that we need more enforcement of traffic laws re: pedestrians, but the why is important here.

        For me, we need to increase enforcement to protect pedestrians because it is fair and equitable. Fairness leads to a belief of legitimacy. And legitimacy leads to law abiding citizens.

        Isnt that what enforcement is supposed to be about?

      2. Brian

        I both drive and ride the bus. As a driver I make full and complete stops 99% of the time. I occasionally have passengers and they ridicule me for actually making full stops. Drivers coming to a full stop at stop signs or when turning right at a red light seems to be a rarity these days. I constantly see drivers going so fast making right turns I don’t know how their wheels stay on the ground. (This is when they are supposed to stop first.)

        Even the bus drivers aren’t making full stops at stop signs. I take the 7 twice a day on weekdays and it is rare the driver actually makes a full stop no matter which driver. I’ve considering contacting Metro Transit regarding the poor driving.

    2. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

      Woof. There’s a lot here man.

      #1 Hiring police is one thing, and for the sake of argument let’s pretend its easy. But what if that policeperson turns out to be a proper egg? It’s a union job and the police union is super well funded and super powerful. If you hire a police officer and they turn out to be racist or Chauvinist or just lazy, it’s reaaaaaaally tough to fire them, and the whole process is generally handled behind close doors in internal review. And if you do end up having to get rid of an officer, you will still be paying that officer his/her pension, even if they got kicked off the force for being a jerk.

      #2 hiring cops is actually really difficult. Its a dangerous job and police departments especially struggle to get people of color into the force. This is why in the 90s they changed the rules so that you aren’t required to live where you serve on the force. They couldn’t get Minneapolis locals to be Minneapolis cops. (This is how you have a police force in Minneapolis that is primarily people from Lakeville).

      Ultimately, policing is a difficult job, and labor relations with cops is a difficult process.

      It isn’t cheap either, currently the police are something like HALF of St Paul’s budget.

      Adding police officer staffing to solve crime is something the police union loves to say fixes crime, but you gotta really question the validity of that argument when that labor force is already HALF of our municipal budgets after 50 years of expansion and we are experiencing the safety concerns we are currently discussing.

      At a certain point, you gotta go, “hey maybe arbitrarily staffing up on expensive police labor isnt working.”

      1. Brian

        Police isn’t even close to half of the St. Paul budget in 2019. I just read the budget and police is under 20% of the budget. Police isn’t even the largest budget item in St Paul. Public works is the largest budget item in 2019 and is over $20 million more than police.

        1. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

          The argument still applies even if the numbers are off: why continue to do the same thing (hire more police) when it hasn’t shown to effectively help community safety?

          My numbers are re: “police and fire,” here’s my source:

          “The mayor’s proposal increases the St. Paul Police Department budget from $100.7 million to $105.2 million, a $4.5 million increase. That would cover wage increases for officers, which the city agreed to in a 2018 contract.

          Spending within the Fire Department would grow from $66 million to $68.4 million, a $2.4 million increase.

          Together, police and fire make up approximately 54 percent of the city budget.”


          1. Brian

            You and I must be reading different versions of the St. Paul budget. I am using the PDF document from here: https://www.stpaul.gov/sites/default/files/Media%20Root/Financial%20Services/2019%20Adopted%20Book-%20Online%20Version.pdf

            That document is 382 pages and goes into great detail on the 2019 adopted budget. Page 13 of the document lists the composite spending by department. Total budget is $612 million. Fire is listed at $74 million and police is listed at $117 million.

            The fire and police combined budget of $191 million is not even close to 54% of the total budget of $612 million. The total between the two is just over 31% of the budget.

            1. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

              You are reading the “general funds” + “special funds” as the net aggregate.

              I wouldn’t necessarily read it that way, as “special funds” come from other things other than property taxes, so the actual cost to the community isn’t really shown.

              General operating expenses for the city come from the general fund.

              “Special funds” can be things that are project based so it’s for things like “hey we build a bridge and we got additional money for it because we put in a bike lane” whereas if we are talking straight police labor, that is something that I would presume comes from the general fund.

              It makes it especially difficult to compare special and general funds as an aggregate across departments, as a big special police project is waaaaaaaay different than a big special public works project.

              I’ve read the big ol’ document too. It’s a doozy. I stand by my statement that SPPS takes up an egregious % of the general fund, especially considering they are the least transparent government unit by far and they are almost never required to show what they do with the money they get from the general fund.

              1. Brian

                Your first two comments specifically said budget, not general fund. The property tax levy may support the general fund, but the amount of property taxes collected in St. Paul is less than what is spent on police and fire combined.

                1. Dan Choma

                  Yup, those are two different words.

                  Regardless, if we hire more cops it’s gonna come from the general fund to the tune of 60K a year for at least 20 years plus a pension after that for as long as the cop lives.

                  And you pay that even if the cop gets thrown off the force.

                  If you’re doing the math, that’s $1,200,000 per cop for 20 years. Plus however long they live after that, so you’ll easily be paying $1.2 million dollars per cop for their retirement.

                  That’s a big long term investment into our least transparent area of government that has known systemic issues in both racial bias and economic bias.

                  And you are gonna be paying for that cop even if they screw up their beat and ride a desk for 20 years.

                  To say that hiring cops is an easy, effective, cheap solution to issues of crime is just false. It’s hard to do well, we hardly measure it at all so there’s little to no way to know if it’s effective, and it’s super expensive.

                  Maybe we should put in some bike lanes? At least that’s cheap and bike lanes never shoot anybody.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt

    I also feel less safe – for myself and for my family – because of the amount of vehicular violence happening every day in our city. That’s far more of a concern than other types of crime, not to dismiss those either.

    Great and relatable article. Thanks for writing.

    1. Brian

      The problem is the majority of the public is not a member of Streets.mn and doesn’t care that a minority of the population feels unsafe going about their daily lives and traveling from place to place. Most people probably don’t like that 500+ people are killed in motor vehicle accident yearly, but they also believe that is a risk of living in a modern world.

      The media puts a lot more emphasis on crime in Minneapolis than on people killed by motor vehicles. A murder is typically front page news while a motor vehicle incident that kills someone gets buried on page two of the metro section.

      There are people who think that Minneapolis is a crime infested rat hole that should be avoided at all costs. There are even a very small percentage of people who would never cross into Minneapolis city limits as they think there is a 100% chance of becoming a crime victim just by being in the city. (Of course, any reasonable person knows this is not true.)

      If you did a scientific survey of persons across the metro and asked how safety could be improved in downtown Minneapolis I doubt more than a few percent are going to suggest fewer motor vehicles, more protected bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. The majority are going to suggest more police or not have a suggestion.

      1. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

        This is a huge issue for things like “funding of Metro Transit Police” as the representatives in the legislature who set aside funding for Metro Transit are often times representing the people who have a “perception” that the cities are a crime ridden war zone.

        Actually public money is then assessed according to false perception.

  5. Steve

    –Mpls City Council still hasn’t acted on the speed limit reductions for next year. Its the cheapest fastest way to cut injuries and deaths. Meanwhile the death toll keeps mounting.

    –An old couple from the suburbs went downtown this month for entertainment, got run over outside the venue and added to the death stats. How many old folks were attacked and beaten to death this month downtown? None. Cops won’t help that couple. It is speed of cars and design.

    –Homeless and jobless need homes and jobs. Unless they are all hired as cops and living in the police stations adding police will not help the “perception” of problems downtown.

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