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Is locking the doors overnight the key to making Rochester's skyways safer?

Is locking the doors overnight the key to making Rochester's skyways safer?

Rochester officials spent a portion of Monday’s council meeting grappling with how to address an uptick in issues in the city’s skyway system.

Police Chief Jim Franklin told the city council that the recent increase in problematic behaviors has prompted concerns from business owners, who say their employees are fearful about walking back to their cars at night.

“What we have seen in the past couple of months is a steady increase in … what I would call purposeful, aggressive behavior,” said Franklin.

Over the past three months, Franklin said his officers have made 305 points of contact with individuals in the skyway system. While many of those occurrences did not necessarily lead to arrests, law enforcement has observed a shift in activity, he said, from people simply looking for shelter to more troublesome behaviors, including incidents of violence.

“Our community action team went out there and did an assessment and came back with the narrative that there’s just a different feeling with the skyway system downtown — the feeling that there’s a certain group down there that are there to cause problems,” Franklin told the council.

Working with the city attorney’s office, the department brought forward a series of policy considerations aimed at deterring criminal activity in the skyway system. They included locking the doors overnight and restricting sitting and sleeping in the skyways.

The goal is to prevent what the chief described as a “quasi-occupying of the area.” He referenced images taken in the skyways showing people stacking air mattresses, putting out their laundry, and leaving behind garbage.

“Bottom line is that unaddressed low-level disorder kind of signals lawlessness,” said Franklin, “and the serious crime … is more likely to occur in a lawless perceived environment.”

Closing the skyways overnight

Among the ordinance considerations brought forward, the idea to lock the skyways overnight was met with the broadest support from the council.

While Rochester does currently have hours laid out in its skyway policy, they are not enforceable by city ordinance.

“What I am suggesting is codifying this in the ordinance to actually make it a criminal activity to be in there after certain hours,” said City Attorney Jason Loos, who worked with Franklin on researching potential ordinances.

In looking for examples, Loos looked to Minneapolis and St. Paul, both of which shut down their skyways overnight. In St. Paul, for instance, the skyways are locked daily between midnight and 6 a.m.

“They have indicated that it has been beneficial, that they have seen a decrease in criminal activity,” Loos said of St. Paul’s ordinance.

While Minneapolis has more restrictive hours, Loos said their skyways primarily function as a daytime pedestrian system. Noting that Rochester’s skyways are often used in the evening by people leaving restaurants and accessing hotels, Council Member Mark Bilderback, whose ward includes downtown, said he was inclined to support hours similar to St. Paul.

“I think it’s too bad that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Bilderback. “But I think as we continue to work forward, one of the things we have to do is maintain safety and I believe the chief has made a good case that the fact that it’s getting to be more difficult all the time.”

Council President Randy Staver also signaled support for enforcing hours of operation. By starting there, he said, the city can gauge what kind of impact the measure has on the activity happening in the skyways.

The two other considerations discussed Monday were implementing a prohibition on sitting and lying in the skyways and placing restrictions on panhandling. The latter did not receive much discussion, while only Council Member Shaun Palmer spoke in favor of a so-called ‘sit-lie’ ordinance.

“I would like to see us close the hours now, as soon as we possibly can, do the ‘sit and lie’ as soon as we can; send that message and get everything taken care of right now,” said Palmer, who also recommended adding security cameras to the skyways.

‘Sit-lie’ ordinances have been a common, yet controversial, tool used by cities — particularly in the West Coast — to prevent encampments in public areas. In Boise, a federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that the ordinance there was unconstitutional on the grounds of the 8th Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishments. The court said the city could not prosecute people for sleeping outside when they cannot find shelter.

Loos, however, said any ordinance proposed for Rochester would only include skyways, not public streets. If the council wished, he said, the city could also suspend enforcement during the coldest periods and use the system as a temporary shelter. “It would be sort of like declaring a snow emergency; you could declare a cold emergency,” said Loos.

The need for a ‘balanced approach’

The consensus of the council extended beyond creating overnight restrictions. Members also agreed that it is essential that any plan include strategies for addressing the root causes of increased homeless activity.

Noting the complexity of the problem, Council Member Nick Campion called for taking a measured approach — one that shows compassion for what he described as “principally a humanitarian issue.”

“I think we have to have a balanced approach here that doesn’t weigh too heavily on one side, or too heavily on the other — so that we’re not, frankly, pushing aside a population that’s extremely vulnerable,” said Campion.

Campion, along with others on the council, emphasized the importance of providing alternatives for individuals now using the skyways as refuge.

In recent months, the city has been working with the county and other local partners in trying to address housing options for people experiencing homelessness. As we reported last month, Mayor Kim Norton is expected to make a funding request later this year in support of a local shelter.

“I want to make sure we have places for people to go and we’re not simply pushing them out onto the streets,” Norton said Monday.

Council Member Annalissa Johnson recommended that information be made available in the skyways before the city moves any further ahead.

“Something I’d like to see, if we do start locking those doors, is having some signs available where people can get information to get to the resources,” said Johnson. Council Member Palmer made a similar request.

The next step for the city is to draft an ordinance outlining the hours of operation for the skyway system. The council also asked that staff look into the costs associated with the logistics of locking the doors overnight.

In the meantime, Chief Franklin said his department will continue working with county services and others to provide help to those who need it.

“I can tell you that we are actively — very proactively — attacking this problem from a multitude of angles,” said Franklin.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

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