Alley Ordinance Concerns
Today, the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee held a public hearing on a proposed ordinance amendment changing how pedestrians can use alleys in Minneapolis.
The proposed ordinance was forwarded to the Council without recommendation on a 2-3 vote. My motion to return it to author failed on a 2-2-1 vote (two votes opposed, two in favor and one abstention). A substitute by CM Johnson, to send it to Council with the committee's recommendation, also failed on a 2-2-1 vote.
The proposal would amend Title 15, Chapter 385 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances relating to Offenses—Miscellaneous: In General, prohibiting use of alleys for through pedestrian traffic, except for abutting property owners, tenants, their guests and invitees, law enforcement personnel, emergency medical or fire personnel, persons performing public service activities or inspections, and person performing services for public or private utility, garbage collection, or communication companies.
I have concerns about this proposal and feel obligated to raise them.
This kind of prohibition is unprecedented in the United States. I am concerned that it will move us in the wrong direction. It may well move us away from the proactive, preventative and accountable approach to public safety that we know works and towards a system that criminalizes harmless behavior and opens the door to more discriminatory and selective enforcement revolving-door placebo practices that are so frustrating to so many people. It may well bring us closer to a privatized, suburbanized city and not towards the safe, pedestrian-friendly community of close-knit, caring neighborhoods that so many of us want Minneapolis to be.
“Placebo” Public Policy
Everyone recognizes that there is a public safety problem in Minneapolis. I believe that to solve it we must invest in public safety and change the way we police ourselves. We need to change police officers’ role from chasing 911 calls to being active, constructive participants in our communities – both knowledgeable about our neighborhoods and known by neighbors. We need to rebuild true community policing in this City.
We also need to make sure that there are real consequences for those people who do commit crimes. When the laws we have on the books are violated, our public safety personnel must have the resources to investigate crimes, catch offenders and effectively prosecute them. We must invest in block clubs and neighborhood groups, to give neighbors opportunities to know one another and keep one another safe. We must invest in restorative justice programs, to give first time petty offenders input about the negative impacts of their behaviors and reduce recidivism. We need the resources to investigate violations of laws that are already on the books.
What we do not need is yet another law that the public may believe the police department will actively enforce, when policymakers know that the department does not have the resources to do so. Like other misdemeanors (fireworks, loud parties, et cetera), this ordinance will fall below more serious crimes when called in to 911. This ordinance will not keep “strangers” out of alleys.
Even when tickets are given or arrests are made under the proposed ordinance, they will likely follow the pattern of the “lurking” ordinance, which has a dismissal rate of about 90%. And even when dismissed, the incident will remain on the pedestrian’s arrest record for years to come. Is this really what we want to spend our public safety resources on?
The proposed ordinance is an opportunity for policymakers to look and feel like we’re doing something about the acknowledged crime problem, likely without making any actual impact on crime.
Faced with the crisis of global warming and obesity pandemic, Minneapolis should be taking the lead on encouraging residents to walk and bike whenever possible. One thing we should not do is erect another obstacle – or even perceived obstacle – to pedestrian uses.
The proposed ordinance would give police officers yet another tool for selective enforcement. We should not fool ourselves: this ordinance will be used primarily against the homeless, the poor, people suffering mental illness and members of racial and ethnic minorities. Just as the “lurking” ordinance is used now, just as the ridiculous “dancing in streets” ordinance was used until the Council wisely removed it earlier this year.
We should not willfully blind ourselves to this reality. Racial profiling exists in Minneapolis, as in the rest of society.
Make no mistake, if a police officer thinks you look like you don’t belong in a given alley, he or she may question you to develop what attorneys call “articulable suspicion” that you are in an alley that is not “yours.” The officer may then ask you to prove somehow that you do indeed have a right to be in the alley. If you are unable to prove that you belong, you could be ticketed or arrested.
Because a violation of the proposed ordinance will be a misdemeanor, it would be a “ticketable” offence. That is, like a traffic stop, an officer would generally be expected to write a ticket to the “offender.” However, the officer has full discretion to decide whether “the person poses a threat to self/others, will not respond to the citation, or will continue criminal activity,” and make an arrest.
Even though our police officers are generally highly professional, statistics have shown that this sort of discretion inevitably leads to disparate, unequal outcomes. In my opinion, we should be taking the City in a different direction: removing opportunities for subjective, selective enforcement, not creating more.
The presumption in our society is that people have the freedom to do what they want unless their behavior significantly negatively impacts others. When an act negatively impacts others, we criminalize it. A peaceful walk down an alley does not negatively impact anyone, and therefore should not be criminalized. The City has laws prohibiting behavior in an alley that could negatively impact neighbors, and these existing laws can and should be fully enforced.
Too often, the trend in our society is towards greater and greater criminalization.
Unsurprisingly, the net effect of this trend is that we now have more people incarcerated per capita than ever before. I do not believe this is a good direction for our society – we should be helping people live full, meaningful and healthy lives, not taking unprecedented steps towards greater criminalization of harmless behavior.
Away from Prevention
We should be doing everything we can to change the public safety paradigm in Minneapolis from punishment, arrest without consequence, and pushing certain people out of certain spaces towards preventing and addressing the root causes of crime: poverty, hopelessness, homelessness, addiction, lack of opportunity. It is infinitely less expensive to invest in people through chemical treatment programs, jobs programs, homeless outreach and support programs, and early childhood education than it is to treat the symptoms of disinvestment with the police department.
At best, the proposed ordinance is yet another opportunity to deal with larger social problems using the least effective, least efficient means possible: arrest-and-release. At worst, it diverts resources better used in more constructive ways.
The proposed ordinance would effectively privatize over four hundred miles of common space dedicated by City ordinance “to the public use.” The loss of shared public space is one of the most disturbing trends in our society, whittling away the areas in which free speech and assembly are respected, increasing the areas that are accessible only to those with money. When progressive cities like Minneapolis go this direction, what can we expect from the rest of the country?
Defenders of the proposed ordinance have pointed to the existence of “gated communities” and “private streets” as precedent. That is the sort of precedent I think we should avoid emulating. Minneapolis residents choose to live in a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban setting. Even our streets that are closed to cars remain open to pedestrian uses. If we wanted to live in gated communities, we would move to one.
Towards a New Requirement: Carry Identification at All Times
There is currently no law that requires residents of Minneapolis to carry identification at all times. The proposed ordinance would essentially require residents to carry some proof of address even in our own alleys. “Articulable suspicion” on the part of a police officer is grounds to ask for a resident to identify her/himself. Refusal or inability to provide identification or proof that one lives in the alley would be probable cause for the officer to believe that a crime (being in an alley that is not “yours”) is being committed. I believe that we should not move in the direction of requiring Minneapolis residents to carry identification or proof of address at all times.
If you have comments or concerns about this proposal I encourage you to make them heard. Written comments are welcome. Send Comments to:
City Clerks Office
Room 304, City Hall/Courthouse350 South 5th StreetMinneapolis, MN 55415-1316