Minneapolis’ SafeZone

A public-private surveillance effort with retail giant Target Corp. has led to a dramatic reduction in the city’s violent crime

As urban centers go, Minneapolis doesn’t leap to mind as one of the nation’s high-crime cities. But when Minneapolis-based Target Corporation decided in the early 2000s to explore the possibility of building more stores in downtown areas, including its home base, it knew that customers wouldn’t visit the new stores unless they felt safe.

“Quite frankly, what we looked at was for our Target shopping experience; the guest demographic we seek is very much a woman with children,” says Brad Brekke, Target’s vice president of assets protection. “They value safety, whether parking their car or coming in to shop without much concern.

“In fact, we try to create a shopping experience that’s not just commodity exchange, but a pleasurable experience,” Brekke continues. “The guest experience, as we call it, is a very big contrast in that we want to be a lot more like Disney World and a lot less like a flea market.”

Like many downtown areas, Minneapolis shares concerns about rising crime rates. “Crime was a challenge downtown,” Minneapolis Police Department Deputy Chief Rob Allen says of the early 2000s. “We have 165,000 at a time coming in to work downtown on a daily basis, and our population of the downtown area in terms of residents grew from about 19,000 to close to 35,000 in less than a decade. There are 65,000 parking spaces. We now have three major sports venues downtown and three professional sports teams.”

From those concerns sprang a public-private effort, now known as the Minneapolis SafeZone Collaborative, that has made the downtown area a more inviting place to visit and laid to rest some of the concerns suburbanites and others might have had about coming to the city. A key component of SafeZone is an extensive video camera system that, officials believe, has helped to dramatically lower crime in the roughly 40-block area being monitored.

The original SafeZone camera system consisted of 30 cameras in 2006, but a gradual expansion raised the number to 45 in the First Precinct, where the monitoring station resides, and another 100 or so are located in adjacent downtown areas.

Allen, a precinct commander in 2001, was asked by the police chief at that time to put together a strategic plan for addressing downtown crime issues. Fortuitously, a friend of Allen’s who worked for Target was sent about that time to a conference in England. “He heard a police officer from North Hampton, England, talking about how they were integrating a camera system with a radio link and fact-sharing information between businesses on people who might cause trouble,” Allen recalls. “That’s how we identified the sort of thing we wanted to model our whole strategy on.”

The video camera system was kicked off with some $200,000 in seed money from Target Corp., along with advice by the company’s security experts on how to make the best use of the cameras.

For years, Target had used CCTV to monitor its stores. It had gone through different iterations, from analog and eventually to IP, and also gained experience using audio communication devices. Platforms called “investigation centers” served as monitoring posts for multiple stores. For its own use, the company also built video forensic labs. All these innovations served as a precursor for Minneapolis’ system.

Target’s investigation centers helped it establish an operating principle that has carried over to the Minneapolis video system. The centers, says Brekke, “allow us to coordinate activity to use video as a force multiplier — to look at multiple stores at once so that the staffing model by store doesn’t have to be as robust. You have multiple resources you can deploy.”

Minneapolis’ system was the first of numerous public-private initiatives for Target. Brekke estimates his company has been involved with “about 23 or 24 of these around the country, from Hawaii to Compton [Los Angeles] to Columbia Heights, British Columbia — different cities we go in, and they don’t all track exactly like [Minneapolis], but they all have sort of the same premise to use technology as leverage and use that almost to bring people together and create a public-private partnership of sorts.”

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