Several law enforcement agencies and campus officials were invited to the State Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the plans to ensure student safety as robbery and assault reports mount, particularly near the University of Minnesota campus.'
The rising crime rate near the Twin Cities campus took center stage at Tuesday's hearing with lawmakers asking what is being done to tackle the issue before more students become victims.
"We are not here to instill fear but to combat it," Sen. Terri Bonoff said at the hearing.
Many of the assaults and robberies that have triggered crime alerts in the area have occurred just outside campus boundaries, and the majority of the suspects arrested aren't from the area. Rather, police say criminals see the area as an opportune place for what is known as "apple picking."
'APPLE PICKING' REASON FOR ROBBERIES
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said many of the criminals on campus are engaging in "apple picking" by targeting kids with iPhones and laptops the crooks could fence for money. A single iPhone can fetch about $450. Retail value without a contract plan for a 16G iPhone 5s, the most recent model, is $649.
Stanek said robberies are up 13 percent this quarter compared to this time last year. He also mentioned law enforcement has made no progress in convincing cell phone providers to disable stolen smartphones.
"This is a serious issue for us and it's important for us to say that this is unacceptable," Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels said.
According to Samuels, carrying a smartphone is tantamount to carrying un-tethered jewelry or brandishing $20 bills.
Deputy Chief Ed Frizell, with Minneapolis police, confirmed many of the suspects arrested in connection with campus robberies are not from the immediate area. Instead, they come specifically to target pricey mobile devices.
CRIME ALERTS KEEP COMING
Since school started, the University of Minnesota has released multiple crime alerts warning students to keep their wits about them and avoid walking alone in the dark on campus; however, a woman brushing snow off her car at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood was approached by a man with a handgun. She was unscathed, but the suspect fled and police have yet to locate him.
According to Frizell, more off-campus living options for students forces them to walk down poorly lit side streets as opposed to the better illuminated University Avenue.
Minneapolis police deputy chief Kristine Arenson said a vast majority of U student robberies and other crimes take place off campus, in Dinkytown and in neighborhoods west of campus.
"We know that numerous law enforcement agencies are working in tandem to ensure the safety of our students and communities on and around Metro area campuses," Bonoff said in a news release. "This hearing is an opportunity for all of them to come together and share their efforts with the public."
Minneapolis police have reassigned three quarters of the department's mobile cameras and lights to the neighborhood, but students argue better coordination of officers is what's needed.
The department did tell lawmakers that officers and other resources have been assigned to the area, particularly the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, and they say the campus area saw a 35 percent reduction in violent crime this past weekend.
U OF M CRIME ALERTS
Dec. 8: Woman threatened with gun while brushing snow off car
Nov. 30: Bus stop robbery, assault outside University Village
Nov. 27: Student pepper-sprayed in attempted kidnapping
Nov. 24: Student sexually assaulted by man impersonating police officer
Nov. 23: Student robbed by 3 men while walking home
Nov. 20: U of M student robbed at gunpoint on porch
Nov. 11: Attempted armed robbery of student at Anderson Hall
Oct. 31-Nov. 1: String of armed robberies and assaults
Oct. 27: U of M student sexually assaulted near Van Cleve Park
Oct. 13: U of M students victims of 4 separate robberies
Oct. 5: Robbery and assault at 11th Ave. SE and 7th Street SE
September: String of armed robberies in Marcy-Holmes
U OF M REACTION
With the memory of 23 violent crimes reported near the U this fall -- including 3 on campus, unease is growing -- especially in light of one disturbing trend.
"This year, in half of the robberies, criminals used a gun," U of M Police Chief Greg Hestness told lawmakers.
"We are very concerned about the perception that our campus is not safe," University of Minnesota vice president Pam Wheelock said at the hearing.
Wheelock said the Marcy Holmes neighborhood is changing as more and more students rent homes in the area -- very few homes are owned by their occupants.
There have been 7,000 new apartment units constructed off-campus in recent years, and more are expected to pop up in the next 18 months, Wheelock said. In addition, Wheelock noted the new LRT line will ease transit and bring more people to campus.
Yet, some worry those new avenues could bring in more trouble by creating an even larger population of students for thieves to prey on, and that new transit option could give crooks another way to escape.
"The fact that more people are coming just to target students just because of our vulnerability, just because we have these electronics -- these cell phones and laptops, that's the scary part," Rachel Sadowsky, a current U of M student, said.
U of M Police Chief Greg Hestness said his officers have put in 211 overtime hours for robbery suppression this fall.
According to the U's head of Student Affairs, the rise in off-campus crime has some students considering leaving campus. U of M Vice Provost Danita Brown Young said crime concerns are also prompting families to reconsider having their students apply to the U at all.
"Some current students are considering transferring from the institution, and potential students are rethinking their admission to the U, and some families are reconsidering whether they should send their son or daughter to the university," Young confirmed.
Police have performed thousands of door knocks to encourage students to avoid walking alone, U of M student Matt Forstie said at the hearing.