Data show racial bias in reporting from popular Twin Cities crime media network

By: - January 25, 2021 12:02 pm

The Crime Watch network is more than 10 years old and boasts more than 200,000 followers across multiple social media platforms with individual pages for each Minneapolis precinct, St. Paul and the suburban metro area.

This story has been updated to correct a factual error and include more comments from Crime Watch & Information. 

At about 9:30 the night of June 26, 2020, the Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information network reported that a mob of 50 men were attacking a man outside Cup Foods, seemingly without provocation, just feet from where George Floyd had been killed a month earlier.

The information shared by the network is unverified and culled from police dispatch audio, where officers discuss developing situations in real time. That means posts are often based on incomplete or inaccurate information. But even when police find out more, the network often fails to update its reporting. 

Their version of the June 26 story included false information (there was no mob) and omitted key details, according to witnesses. As is often the case with the network — which includes social media accounts and a website — the misinformation was consistent with its general worldview of the Twin Cities as being overrun with marauding criminals and the need for more aggressive crime control. 

Andy Browne, who lives near Cup Foods, says three men were volunteering to keep the area now known as George Floyd Square safe. The men accosted a fourth man who broke a window at Cup Foods and was throwing cigarette butts at passersby. Browne joined them. 

As they struggled to restrain the vandal, they saw he had a tattoo on his ankle, a stylized “33,” which is known as a white supremacist code because the letter K is the 11th letter of the alphabet, times three is 33. The volunteers tied the vandal to a fence, unharmed, and waited for police.

It took two more calls and a 90 minute wait before the police arrived. When a squad car finally came, Browne said he yelled at the officers, who then refused to help, he said. When Browne objected, they threw him to the ground and let the vandal go. Browne received a $10,000 settlement from the City of Minneapolis over the incident.

Buried deep in the 108 comments on Crime Watch & Information’s post about the incident are several that criticized the inaccuracies. Crime Watch & Information neither corrected nor deleted the post. Instead, it responded to the critics that the network is not responsible for the accuracy of its content because it is based on audio from police scanners, adding: “If you don’t get how this page works, GTFO.”

Critics are routinely met with this kind of response from the network and its allies, who play an outsized role in shaping perceptions of crime in the Twin Cities. Crime Watch claims 250,000 followers across more than half a dozen Facebook pages, its influence amplified because it’s followed by journalists, politicians, police and others who are themselves influencers. And, since its birth a decade ago, Crime Watch has stayed relentlessly on message, arguing that Minneapolis is plagued by unchecked crime that the mainstream media, Democrats and police department bureaucrats have conspired to hide.

The information coming out of Crime Watch is flawed, however: An analysis of five months of posts from the popular network reveals a disregard for accuracy, including a significant over-representation of Black people as perpetrators of crime. 

The anonymous writers of Crime Watch & Information declined to comment to the Reformer, instead releasing a public letter to followers that called the interview requests “unhinged and scary” and denounced any eventual article. “This is a page run as a VOLUNTEER public service — for 10 years — by regular people because we feel residents of this city deserve critical information that is not being supplied by the city or police administration,” they wrote.

To be sure, much of the network’s content is in-line with its stated mission of providing useful information to the community. Its writers post information about lost and missing vulnerable adults and children, which is scrupulously updated. It has a policy of not promoting GoFundMe projects, but chose to ignore it to support a young father who was shot after coming to the aid of a woman being carjacked. It has advertised community permit-to-carry classes for free because its writers believe in the right to self defense.

Still, the network’s core work is riddled with inaccuracies — and occasional outright falsehoods — that serve what appears to be a political agenda.

The network began in 2010 with the “2nd Pct Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information” page on Facebook. It was a success, and more pages followed. In the ensuing decade, the network has grown to nine Facebook pages — one for each of Minneapolis’ five police precincts as well as pages covering Minneapolis as a whole, St. Paul, the suburbs, and one dedicated to information about sexual predators and offenders. It also has several sporadically-updated websites and operates on Twitter, Instagram and Patreon. 

The Facebook pages host its core work: Moderators listen to police scanners and post about incidents in real-time. The most popular is the North Minneapolis 4th Precinct page, which has more than 53,000 follows. For comparison, this is nearly twice MinnPost’s 28,000.

This places the network among Minnesota’s largest alternative media outlets, and yet little is publicly known about it. According to its Facebook page, there are between three and 14 individuals managing the pages (depending on overlap), and all the managers are based in the United States. The managers themselves maintain anonymity.

Crime Watch & Information is the big player in a wider community of people who cull audio from police scanners and post it in real-time on Facebook. A person active in this community of police scanner sleuths requested anonymity because of threats made against them after criticizing Crime Watch in the past, including a threat that included the source’s home address. 

The person recounted several instances like the Cup Foods incident in which Crime Watch failed to provide critical updates and instead let falsehoods stand. In each instance, the inaccuracy amplified the perception of danger or inflated the prevalence of violent crime. The inaccuracies never go the other way.

“I would like to say that maybe they lost the call or whoever was doing it fell asleep, whatever. But it happens too often. It’s happened too many times to be simply that,” the person said. 

Crime Watch & Information may limit itself to reporting what is said over police radio, but by choosing what to post — and what to ignore — it over-represents Black people as criminals by at least 10-20%.

During the five months between May 20 and Oct. 21, 2020, 56% of stops by the MPD were of Black people, when the subject was identified by race. Over the same period, 63% of arrests were of Black people. But 73% of all suspects and perpetrators identified by race were Black in posts from Crime Watch & Information’s Minneapolis pages.

After publication of this story, Crime Watch & Information wrote a response taking issue with the Reformer’s statistical analysis. They say comparing their reports from 911 scanner traffic to arrests or traffic stops is not a fair, apples-to-apples comparison. The Reformer stands behind the reporting and the analysis.

The divide between reality and the network’s coverage is likely wider. Ruth DeFoster, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in media depictions of crime and terrorism, cautioned that police data should not be used as a proxy for the prevalence of crime by people of any given race, because evidence suggests people of color are over-policed, especially when it comes to traffic stops. According to the census bureau, less than 25% of Minneapolis’ population is Black or mixed race.

Crime Watch & Information has a particular interest in Minnesotans of Somali descent who are accused of crimes. Though East Africans comprised just 6% of police stops during the five-month stretch of 2020 the Reformer analyzed, Crime Watch & Information identified 13% of suspects and perpetrators as “Somali.” 

This is accompanied by an under-representation of white people as criminals. In Minneapolis during that period, 30% of stops and 22% of arrests were of white people, while Crime Watch & Information identified 17% percent of suspects and perpetrators as white. 

The source who is active in the scanner community contrasted the network’s depiction of Black suspects with its coverage of several high-profile crimes committed by white people. In August, a white man shot his wife and two neighbors — including a 12-year-old girl — before barricading himself in his house in a standoff with police; the network barely covered the incident and never identified the suspect by race. 

Its statistical over-representation of Black people as criminals is consistent with the network’s at-times inflammatory language. It has repeatedly referred to Black suspects and perpetrators as “urban terrorists.”

DeFoster, who also studies media use of the word “terrorist,” was surprised. “Wow. That is deeply problematic. … That sounds very much like a wink and a nod, just staying above that line of ‘it’s not racist.’”

The comment section of Crime Watch & Information posts are full of graphic revenge fantasies. 

On one post about a man who was arrested for failing to properly register as a sex offender, the comments include: “Pour wet concrete into his anus … let it dry and then feed him and let him die from constipation,” and “Shoot a bullet to the genitals, and let him bleed out until death!”

These virtual fantasies have crossed into the real world. Shawn Simonson was a regular commenter on the network’s posts before he was charged with threatening to kill Gov. Tim Walz in a message on the governor’s public voicemail in August. 

“Is the mayor going to enforce the stay at home rule for these young thugs or do we have to start taking them out ourselves?” Simonson wrote in one comment. 

“Time for the militia to rise up,” he wrote in another.

The network denies responsibility for moderating comments: “The comments and views expressed by followers of this page do not necessarily reflect the views of this page. Please don’t assume that this page agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand,” is written in the “about” sections of several pages.

There is no record when a page deletes a comment, so an analysis of the network’s moderation practices is impossible. 

Police scanner groups “fill a desire for vital information,” said DeFoster, who said she belongs to one that covers her neighborhood. She has concerns about these kinds of groups, though: “It’s not journalism, it’s a firehose of information,” she said. 

Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information use that desire for information to push an agenda.

The network’s writers favor what they call “criminal justice system reform,” though their vision of reform is the opposite of what is usually meant. A questionnaire they sent to several state legislative candidates in January asked where they stood on a bevy of issues: enacting a three-strikes law; increasing Minnesota prison capacity; and increasing sentences. The questionnaire doesn’t explicitly state the network’s stance on the issues, but says it wants “to know where the candidates stand on the issue of criminal justice system reform that would prioritize public safety and hold criminals accountable.”

Elsewhere, the network has called for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

The network candidly states in the “about” sections of its pages that its writers “may frequently take a position or express an opinion on issues,” but insist they are independent. 

Crime Watch & Information maintains a relationship with right wing news outlet Alpha News. Some of Alpha News’ local crime coverage is attributed to Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information,* though the articles occasionally cite Crime Watch & Information as a source in the third person. The true author of the content is unknown. 

The relationship is symbiotic; Alpha News is the network’s most commonly linked media outlet.

The network’s first article for Alpha News was in April, 2019. As early as October of that year, Minnesota Republicans began signalling their intent to make urban crime a wedge issue.

A survey of their posts going back a decade shows a consistent portrayal of unchecked violent crime, regardless of actual crime rates. In 2018, when violent crime in Minneapolis was at near-historically low levels, the network wrote: “Yeah, Minnesota, your ’system’ isn’t working … Stop endangering lives and harming innocent people with your failed feel-goodery. We deserve better.”

Violent crime spiked in Minneapolis last summer and autumn. 2020 brought an economic recession and a pandemic. The police killing of George Floyd sparked violent unrest and a wave of retirements, resignations and disability claims by Minneapolis police officers. The network has blamed the rise in crime on mask mandates and the proposal to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. 

Though its commentary on the “defund police” issue has been limited — the network has shared a handful of articles and op-eds critical of the proposal and directed its followers to a group organizing to stop the defund movement — its position on the issue is clear: “Abolishing the police department is an asinine idea,” according to a post in June 2020.

Crime Watch’s greatest influence over the contentious debate about crime in the Twin Cities, however, is likely not its commentary but its core work. The writers have dedicated themselves for more than a decade to anonymously and uncritically amplifying police scanner traffic on social media, one lurid — and often exaggerated and racialized — violent crime story at a time. 

*This story was corrected to clarify the relationship between Crime Watch & Information and Alpha News. Crime Watch & Information provides some but not all of Alpha News’ crime coverage. 

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Logan Carroll
Logan Carroll

Logan Carroll is an independent journalist reporting on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and co-host of the Unbalanced.MN podcast.