There’s no dispute: Minneapolis has the nation’s best National Night Out. The city has been ranked first 15 times.
That success does not happen by accident.
National Night Out is the foundation, result, and highlight of the year-round work done by the city’s 15 crime prevention specialists. These members of Minneapolis Local 9 connect week after week with residents to build block leaders, build block clubs and, ultimately, build a genuine sense of community.
Encouraging neighbors to hold a block party on one night in August is the easy part. “Where I work in Phillips, I don’t have a block that’s not having some kind of an issue: a drug house, gang bangers,” says Don Greeley. He has been a crime prevention specialist for 25 years, longer than anyone else in the city. “So that’s my hook to get them involved. It’s not really that hard to ask them to hold a National Night Out event, because they know everybody else is doing it.”
Solving problems together
National Night Out – an evening of cookouts, balloons and media attention – is “just a good, fun thing to do to build community,” he says. National Night Out events in Minneapolis attract more than 60,000 people from nearly 2,500 different blocks.
The events also keep alive the network of block clubs that help crime prevention specialists like Greeley achieve their real goal: Help neighbors make a visible, effective stand against crime on their streets, sidewalks and alleys during the other 364 days, too.
A block club functions well if neighbors know each other, communicate with each other, and begin to solve problems – not as individuals, but together, says Karen Notsch. She, like Greeley, works in South Minneapolis.
Getting to the point of solving problems is the meat of the job. It means recruiting block leaders, training them, building relationships with them, then helping these block leaders build relationships with neighbors and police.
To achieve that, crime prevention specialists – who are civilians – meet regularly with block leaders and community groups. “We have a relationship with these people, so that when something happens, they know who to call,” Greeley says. “If the block’s already organized and they’re active and they know one another, it’s a whole lot easier to step up.”
Budget cuts take a toll
The crime prevention specialists in Minneapolis carry on despite huge budget cuts. At one point, the program had a staff of 84, Notsch says.
Every specialist used to partner with a uniformed officer for their community organizing work. “It made a big difference in how effective we could be,” Greeley says.
Those days are long gone. Only 15 crime prevention specialists remain. Yet nearly every year, the mayor’s budget proposes laying off even more of them. “And every single year,” Greeley says, “the City Council says, ‘No, you’re not.’ Because the community communicates to the City Council. And the City Council feels strongly that we provide an important service.”
Even National Night Out – for all its visibility and success – has seen its funding shrivel.
The city quit providing barricades to block off streets several years ago. This year, block leaders had to go down to their precinct station and cut their own yellow caution tape if they wanted to keep traffic off their street.
National Night Out no longer has support staff, either. Converting to online registration has helped overcome that, but tasks now get squeezed in between other duties, says Luther Kreuger, who manages the database of the 1,300 or so events that take place each August.
Minneapolis should find out in late November whether it ranks No. 1 again in National Night Out events for 2012. But that would be icing on the cake, Greeley says.
“The whole point is for people to know their neighbors and have fun. You put some positive activity out there,” he says. “It’s a good way to build community, and let people know: This is your block.”