Minneapolis fixation on ‘fluffy’ issues irks North Side city council members

Barb Johnson and Blong Yang ask, "Where's the outrage?"

Barb Johnson and Blong Yang ask, "Where's the outrage?" Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Two big changes bound for Minneapolis are the vanishing of menthol cigarettes from corner stores, and a 5-cent fee for shopping bags.

But for north Minneapolis council members Barb Johnson (Ward 4) and Blong Yang (Ward 5), self-identified “broken records” on the perpetual gunfire plaguing their neighborhoods, the rest of the council’s focus on “feel-good” issues is completely out of step with their reality.

Early Monday morning, Yang and his wife rolled out of bed to the sound of what seemed like a dozen gunshots right outside their home. They hit the floor, called 911, then went to check on their two small children “just because you never know where bullets fly.”

The councilman emphasized that neither he nor his neighbors are strangers to dialing 911, or hearing gunshots throughout the night. They don't particularly care that every store in Minneapolis now has to charge for plastic bags like Aldi's, as long as the city finds a way to prevent the killing.

The North Side requires more police and more security cameras to deal with gun violence, says Johnson.

It’s not a popular viewpoint, especially among residents of lower crime neighborhoods. When Mayor Betsy Hodges pushed a 2017 budget that included funding for 15 new police officers, police critics and council members alike pushed back hard. 

And recently, after the city allocated $250,000 to provide non-police public safety improvements in the West Broadway business corridor, Johnson fought for a piece of it to go toward a mobile surveillence camera. Other councilmembers wouldn't split the funding for anything policing related, but compromised by directing the finance department to work with the police department to find the funds elsewhere. According to the Star Tribune, that camera was just used to capture part of a parking lot brawl that left a 25-year-old man shot dead.

“A number of my colleagues proposed that instead of using these dollars for the police department, for increased staffing, to use it for crime prevention strategies,” Johnson says. “I reject this thought that you can plug enough money into 'positive activities,' that kind of thing, and have it make a dent in some of the criminal behavior that we’re already seeing.”

As for DFL Rep. and Minneapolis mayoral candidate Raymond Dehn's idea of disarming cops, who are then told to go clear the streets of illegal guns, Johnson says proponents are “living in an alternative universe."

Yang agrees without hesitation that the other 11 members of the council tend to neglect the public safety needs of the north side. He feels his voice, and Johnson’s, aren’t enough to persuade all the others. 

The 4th Precinct has the most officers, but Ward 4 also has the most gun crimes, and the most "priority one" calls -- people in imminent danger. Yang believes that assigning more officers to higher-need precincts would improve police response times, work loads, and by extension, mental health. When people complain that they don’t want more cops, and then they complain that cops don’t show up quickly enough, it shows they don’t understand the correlation between the two, he says.

“We talk a big game about how we think the north side is so important, how racial equity is so important, but this stuff happens regularly and I don’t see the call to action,” Yang says.

“We can have hundreds of shootings and homicides on the North Side and it’s no big deal. We have one in some other part of the city and all of a sudden everybody’s up in arms. I don’t know if that’s racial equity. I don’t know if that’s equity in general. I just think that’s pretty pathetic.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified the source of the surveillence camera funding as a $250,000 West Broadway beautification grant. It has been updated to reflect that Councilmember Barb Johnson asked for funding from a $250,000 West Broadway public safety allocation.