As Minneapolis erupted in pain this week following the death, captured on video, of George Floyd at the hands of local police, one image that quickly spread across social media and news reports was the looting of a Target store in the Lake Street neighborhood on Wednesday. Though the demonstrations in the city have been largely nonviolent, the shattered windows and upturned shopping carts were a prelude to more extensive looting and property damage that would occur in the city on Thursday.
There’s no evidence the Lake Street Target was singled out by looters for any particular reason—other than, perhaps, its location next to the Minneapolis Police Department’s third precinct—but the company has long been associated with police surveillance and MPD’s treatment of black and low-income residents of the city. As the Daily Dot reported, social media users were quick to point out these connections after the looting became national news. In 2004, the company made a $300,000 donation to the city to install CCTV throughout the downtown area. Target also established the “SafeZone” program that same year to help the police department with surveillance logistics. (Target did not respond to a request for comment on its SafeZone program or surveillance efforts.)
Target has a number of similar law enforcement programs in more than 20 cities in the U.S., though its first police partnership was in Minneapolis, where the retailer’s headquarters are located. According to a 2014 joint report from the Department of Justice, the Police Executive Research Forum think tank, and Target, the company’s former CEO Bob Ulrich first decided to make supporting law enforcement a priority during a crime spike in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s. The report states that Ulrich had read an article about a repeat offender whom police accidentally released from custody after allegedly raping a woman due to an information-sharing failure.
Although Target’s initial interest in policing may have been sparked by a particularly violent crime, it seems that its foray into law enforcement in Minneapolis had more to do with monitoring low-level offenses. “The genesis of the [SafeZone] program was a widespread feeling some years ago in the city of Minneapolis that the downtown business district was not a pleasant place to work or visit,” reads another report produced by PERF and Target in 2010. “Panhandlers, people drinking alcohol on the street, and other ‘lifestyle offenders’ roamed the streets. Even though there was relatively little violent crime in the downtown area, people tended not to feel safe or comfortable there.” The report also notes that Target’s program borrows lessons from broken windows theory, which posits that smalls signs of disorder or very minor offenses create an environment in which more serious crimes are more likely to occur. There is, however, little solid evidence that the theory is true, and it’s been associated with draconian police crackdowns on low-income and minority communities. Obviously, besides discouraging serious crimes, Target was also interested in encouraging more people to visit downtown and patronize its businesses.
In an interview for the report, the Minneapolis Police Department’s then–Deputy Chief Rob Allen recounts that in 2001 he began looking into ways to make the downtown area less “icky”—referring to the presence of panhandling, loitering, swearing, and public urination. A Target executive recommended that he should try to emulate the CCTV program that police in Northampton, England, had recently established. In addition to using government-run CCTV, the program also relied on local businesses to turn over camera footage and other information in policing minor crimes. Target was so impressed by the Northampton program that it flew in officials from the town to talk to Minneapolis police.
Target and the Minneapolis police soon set out to install an extensive network of cameras in the downtown area, and to hand out radios to local businesses so they could share information about nuisances. The City Council deliberated on whether Minneapolis should accept Target’s donation for CCTV cameras, approving the arrangement by an 8-to-5 vote, even though council members were worried about privacy issues. (A report by the Urban Institute also found that Target abandoned a similar program in Tucson, Arizona, partly because local media had depicted it as a “big brother” initiative.)*
Since launching, SafeZone has become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, independent from Target. It’s also expanded to include other initiatives over the years like interactive crime mapping, text tipping, and a program in which members go to court proceedings to tell the judge how seriously the community is worried about crime. Five years after SafeZone was founded, Allen reflected, “We absolutely own the streets. ‘Lifestyle offenders’ now know that if they commit a crime downtown, they will be prosecuted successfully, because we’re going to have the video to back it up.” Video gave MPD eyes everywhere in downtown Minneapolis. Now video has put everyone’s eyes on MPD.
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Correction, May 29, 2020: This post originally misspelled Tucson.
Update, May 29, 2020: This post has been updated to clarify that the City Council approved the CCTV camera donation despite privacy concerns, not because of them.