Fix policing? Sure, but don’t forget poverty at the root of crime | Opinion

October 21, 2021 6:00 am

Issues like food insecurity, which has worsened during the pandemic, should be addressed in any discussion of reducing crime. Photo by Getty Images.

The headlines about crime in Minneapolis are sensational. 

“Violent crime surges across Minnesota with record murders,” reads the headline of a July Associated Press article

“Minneapolis’ bloody summer” reads another from the Star Tribune in September. 

“Minneapolis violence surges as police officers leave department in droves,” reads yet another, this one a November 2020 piece from the Washington Post that describes how “day and night, the bullets zip through” north Minneapolis, “hitting cars and homes and people.”

None of this is untrue. As the Star Tribune reported last month, north Minneapolis’ Cleveland neighborhood saw a 200% rise in gunfire compared to the 12-year, pre-pandemic average. 

From before the pandemic is the important and operative phrase. While these statistics are painfully true, there’s a gaping hole between the story they tell and the whole truth.

Much of the conversation about crime in Minneapolis has centered on policing, perhaps naturally, with voters slated to decide the future of public safety in the city in the upcoming Nov. 2 election. But policing, whether you’re for or against it, is only one part of the equation when it comes to crime, which can’t be fully interpreted without considering the role of broader social and economic factors.. 

A February 2012 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime set out to analyze crime during economic crises, much like the one that took hold during the pandemic. Using police data from 15 countries and focusing on the global financial crisis years of 2008 and 2009, the United Nations found a clearly established link between economic factors and crime.

During periods of economic stress, it’s not unlikely to see instances of robbery double and homicide and vehicle theft increase as well, according to the report. 

“The presence of youth gangs, the availability of weapons and potential targets, drug and alcohol consumption and the effectiveness of law enforcement all play a significant role in establishing or restraining overall crime levels,” the document reads. 

In Minneapolis, we’ve largely lost sight of the multifaceted influences on crime rates. Politics has flattened the conversation to a nearly myopic focus on policing alone.

There’s also the movement to defund the police, which many in these areas believe is tied to the violence one way or another,” the September Star Tribune piece reads. “Some say it is sending a message to good police that they are not wanted, driving hundreds to quit and leaving the remaining force too small to respond. Others believe police are retaliating against the movement by slowing productivity, showing how bad the city can get without them.” 

A source outlines their beliefs that the police want to help the situation, but that they’re “stretched too thin,” contrasting the city’s increase in violent crime with arrests dropping by one-third in 2021.

This eclipsing focus on policing has almost entirely left the other critical drivers of crime out of the conversation that’s gripped our city at the local level, and the national conversation, as well. This is despite the fact that we’re living through what the International Monetary Fund described as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression more than 91 years ago. 

Beyond the fact even one civilian murder on behalf of those who are sworn to serve and protect is one too many, policing in America is inherently intertwined with the racial and economic justice that is far too lacking in a country that claims to be for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Policing must be reckoned with, but in the pursuit of justice and a more perfect union — not the reduction or elimination of crime.

Where crime is concerned, we simply cannot ignore reality: Minneapolis is part of a country that has only the saddest and most threadbare excuse for a social safety net, which puts people in desperate, difficult and oppressive situations and prevents them from weathering even the slightest economic hiccup.

In 2018, the UN published a report that found that 40 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million of which live in extreme poverty. In her book Maid, author Stephanie Land outlines the delicate balance she had to strike between the catch 22’s that the U.S. welfare system creates: One must have a job in order to qualify for child care grants, but one needs child care in order to get a job. 

An increase in income is what one needs to get off welfare, but those incremental increases often tend to be just enough to get you kicked off of assistance programs, but not nearly enough to fill the void that the loss of that assistance leaves in its wake.

Although government assistance in response to the pandemic caused poverty to temporarily dip, this fleeting respite does nothing about enduring income inequality and its causal role in crime.

Income inequality has increased in the country by roughly 20% between 1980 and 2016. Minnesota, and Minneapolis in particular, are both worse off than the rest of the nation. Statewide, median household income for Black and American Indian households is less than half of that of white households. In the Twin Cities metro, the disparity is even wider.

It’s easy to see — and research supports — that the impossible situations created by poverty and economic strife can lead to crime. It’s also easy to see why these complex socio-economic factors and their understudied, not yet fully understood link to crime creates a situation so complex that it’s easier to reduce the situation to policing alone, especially when your city has become the national bellwether for police reform across the country.

As mailers flood our mailboxes that reduce these complexities to polarized yes or no bubbles on a Scantron ballot, we have to resist the urge and the push from politicians, the police, and much of the media to focus solely on policing. Public safety and policing are just one — albeit extremely important — factor, but they’re far from the only one.

We cannot talk about crime without talking about poverty in a country where poverty is criminalized, where capitalism and its profit king reign largely unregulated and supreme, where two thirds of those who file bankruptcy do so because of medical costs.

Acknowledging and dealing with the intertwined complexities of what causes crime in the United States is no small feat, but it’s a necessary one. Without properly understanding and identifying the problem, we can’t arrive at an effective solution, even if Minneapolis does become the first major city to have the possibility of eliminating traditional policing as we know it.

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.