The meeting was called to order at 6:15, 17 attending
MPRB Police Chief Jason Ohotto joined us to present an updated overview of Park Police responsibilities in the changing environment that is Minneapolis. He last spoke to 2-PAC in June, 2016. A lot has changed since then.
Chief Ohotto has been in the MPRB Police for the last 24 years, the last 7 years as Chief. He’s worked mostly in south Minneapolis, but now he’s actually a Second Precinct resident, so he’s one of “us”.
Briefly, the Minneapolis Parks system includes 180 parks covering more than 6800 acres. They are serviced by 49 full-service recreation centers (“the crown jewels”) and 55 miles of parkway. The MPRB recorded 26.3 million visits in 2018 and was the site of 2000 permitted special events, most happening Thursday through Sunday, April through October. About 400 of those events require direct policing: Twin Cities Marathon and Pride each pull over 300,000 people, Aquatennial events are huge and all over town, July 4 is a multiple location event. This is in addition to uncounted visits to the playgrounds, wading pools, homework help services, ice rinks, soccer, baseball fields and so much more. In 2020 MPRB had a budget of $126.2 million.
Since 1887, the Parks have had their own police force, rather than relying on MPD and UMPD to cover the territory. This is in part because the Park Board is independent of city governance, which is a leading factor in making our park system the winner that it is. Nine elected Park Board members are elected separately from the City Council. The Park Board has the charge and the authority to acquire, maintain and develop the parks. This has resulted in the creation of one of the very best parks systems in the country. [EQ: for a statistical comparison of Mpls., St. Paul, and the rest of the country: https://tinyurl.com/snxcogn]
For one example of how the Twin Cities handle their parks differently, in 2008 recession, St. Paul closed some recreation centers; some were later privatized and leased off to NPO’s to operate. Mpls did reduce hours, but never closed the recreation centers. For this and other reasons, Mpls neighbors know our parks are the hearts of our neighborhoods. Neighbors trust that their kids will be safe there after school, on weekends and all summer long, for preschool programs, organized sports programs, pickup games, and more. Cities, just like people, act to protect what’s important to them. If people had to rely on the MPD for concerns about parks, those calls would be important, but would have to be prioritized with all the other calls the MPD gets. The Parks police have one highest priority: safety in the parks; for the Parks Police, a park call has the highest priority.
MPRB Police staff is very lean. 34 sworn police officers include Chief Ohotto, 2 Lieutenants (Patrol and Investigation), 6 Patrol Sergeants and 2 Investigative Sergeants, and 23 Police Officers (divided into 2 shifts 7A – 4P and 4P to 1A; between 1AM and 7AM, MPD takes any emergency calls). There is 1 Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator working to make sure the Parks youth violence programs are in step with MPD and similar programs. MPRB PD includes 15-25 Park Patrol Agents, similar to community service agents. Most are aspiring police officers, retired police officers, or law enforcement students. Patrol Agents are in grey uniforms, have limited ordinance enforcement, and have the same arrest powers as any other citizen.
Service averages over years 2016-2018 and limited to sworn officers:
- 9192 calls for service (85% park related, and 15% emergencies outside the park)
- 4680 recreation center stops
- 2367 offense or incident reports
Budget is shrinking: 2020 budget is $6.4 million – about 5% of the MPRB total budget. This is down from $6.6 million in 2019, resulting in one officer position and some programs getting cut.
CRIME AND SAFETY ISSUES IN OUR PARKS:
Parks are generally safe places to be, and they are intentionally open spaces. Parks draw people who are looking for peaceful, uncrowded natural surroundings. Although parks comprise 18% of Minneapolis area, less than 2% of Part 1 violent crime occurs in the Parks. Parks are also places where people can go if they have no other place to go.
Mental Health and Suicide – Suicide has increased by over 50% in Minnesota over the last 20 years, rising from a complicated list of factors. Also increasing is the number of non-fatal self-inflicted injuries that needed hospital-treatment. While parks are not the dominant place of incidence, they are increasing there, as in other places.
Serious Aggravated Crime in the Parks – Part 1 crimes (murder, aggravated assault, rape, robbery) — Chief Ohotto brought a chart summarizing Part 1 crime incidents in greater Minneapolis vs Minneapolis parks over 8 years. [EQ: contact me for a copy of this chart] Brief summary: Minneapolis comprises 30565 acres not including parks @ 6811 acres. The 8-year average of Part 1 crime in Greater Minneapolis = 4158 ~ 98%. Parks = 88 crimes, just less than 2%
Theft from motor vehicles is the most frequent report, and, like city-wide theft from motor vehicles, is the most easily prevented if owners will just take their possessions with them. Credit or debit cards stolen from the cars can be taken and used to the max before the owner gets back to the car and finds they are missing. This is a very organized operation: the crooks use spotters to avoid detection. The spotter reports what he sees. Then a second person comes up, breaks in and is on his way in under a minute. The credit cards may be used in half an hour — before you get back from your jogging, your meeting, or from picking up your child.
Addiction and Substance Abuse: Park police began carrying Narcan in late 2018, reporting 7 successful interventions since then. 2019 saw 1 OD death, but the number is probably higher because cause of death is often “undetermined”.
Homelessness: As homelessness is on the rise across the country, our parks see more and more of this also. According to the Wilder Foundation, in 2019, the Park Police documented 127 camps, usually involving single adults or couples. Contributing factors include a lack of affordable housing and shelter beds, but also include mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, all of which are interconnected.
Chief Ohotto shared the frustration officers face when a call comes in because someone has passed out or is living in a park. The cause is likely based in a mental health problem. Mental health is not and should not be a primary policing function. There is a failure in our community to provide the resources necessary to combat the trends Chief Ohotto is describing. Officers can not provide shelter. They can’t provide the special medical care that people need to manage their condition.
This impacts the livability of our city. You’ve seen the statistics that prove our parks are safe — there are fewer than 100 serious violent crimes over a whole year, but he still hears from residents who are afraid to go to their neighborhood parks because they see people who are drunk, on drugs, having a mental health episode. This has a direct impact on the livability of our city.
RESPONSE TIME: MPS EMTs, MFD, and Park Police share 911 communications, which is why 15% of Park calls for service are not in parks (Parks officers were closest to the incident 15% of the time). If it’s a reported medical emergency, EMT or Fire personnel are likely to get there first. Dealing with crisis response: Parks police are familiar with the Police Co-responder Program, and access that program through the local Precinct.
MISSION: There is also a difference in long term missions: Park Police work closely with recreation staff with a goal of spotting issues while they are still amenable to redirection. It’s important to understand that, in contrast to city services which provides police, fire and EMT response, the Park Police does not exist to provide general public safety services. Everything we do is focused on parks and recreation programs and to support those services.
COVERAGE: Our park system has grown tremendously in the last 20 years. We have begun adding more land every year and there are more people living in the city (50,000 more people are now living downtown that weren’t there before). Add to that, we now have more programs and special events. We’re now responsible for serving the Commons Park adjacent to the stadium. We have more land in the southwest sectors. The more we add to the park system, but don’t add to the public safety resources, the more our service levels are diluted.
Officers in squads used to be able to give pretty even coverage or our large parks area. We can’t do that anymore. The demands of downtown are so great that we have to push more of our effort to the downtown area. The Eastside (2nd Precinct) has lost the most service time, because the Eastside has the lowest number of calls from the parks. We’re not getting resource levels to maintain service levels that we enjoyed in the past.
PARK POLICE AND THE SCHOOLS: We no longer supply school officers, but our officers know what’s going on because the juveniles who need attention are in both the schools and in the parks. Park Police funnel what they know into the MPD information chain so everyone has it. The Parks Police division partners with colleagues in the Parks Recreation Division with an initiative called Straight Reach. This program has trained youth workers who collaborate with us on intervention strategies, behavior issues. We bring these Straight Reach workers to all our special programs. They are the first ones to contact when there is disruptive behavior or fighting. We went from having issues at Pride, and July 4 on the River, to having no issues last year. It’s an effective program.
HOW DO YOU PLAN FOR BIG EVENTS? Practice and stable administration: it’s the same people planning the programs year to year and building on what they have learned. We’ve hosted the Final Four, Super Bowls and other very big events; we’ve had a lot of practice. Planning in Minneapolis also responds to events that happen elsewhere, like the Boston Marathon bombing. We talk about it and plan to prevent it.
We do L.A. programs on an Omaha budget. Think about it: the entire state of Minnesota has 10,000 to 10,500 officers. The city of Chicago, alone, has 20,000 officers. [EQ: Efficiency!]