In its annual report to state lawmakers this summer, the Department of Public Safety reported that violent crime in Minnesota rose 11.5 percent in 2005. The report terms violent crimes as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The increase for that category of crimes in 2004 was 2.2 percent and 4.3 percent in 2003.
Still, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty views public safety among his first-term accomplishments. His first campaign TV ad briefly highlighted several issues, including crime fighting.
"We're cracking down on dangerous criminals," Pawlenty said in the ad.
Pawlenty is referring specifically to legislation passed in 2005. He describes the package of policy and budget initiatives he championed that year as the best public safety bill in 15 years.
We ought to put bad guys in jail. They ought to stay in jail, and in this case, they probably ought to stay in jail forever.
"It included a massive crackdown on sex offenders, indeterminate sentencing for them, which means we can keep them indefinitely in prison fat least for or the most serious sex offenders, life in prison without parole, a major crackdown meth dealers and meth offenders, getting the precursor chemicals to meth behind the counter, having a dramatic decrease in meth production in Minnesota," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty also provided emergency state funding to Minneapolis earlier this year to help put more police on the street following a rash of high profile crimes. The help came after Pawlenty criticized the state's largest city for "frittering away" resources on programs less important than public safety.
Peter Hutchinson, the Independence Party candidate for governor, disagrees with Pawlenty's tough-love approach.
"I think calling people names and taking them out in public is not the way you get this stuff done," Hutchinson said. "I think you want to do it by collaborating, by sitting down, by talking about it we can get a better result for our citizens. Because the crime in Minneapolis isn't going to stay in Minneapolis. If we do our job right, or if they do their job right, they're probably going to scare those people off to someplace else."
Hutchinson is stressing the need for better relationships between state and local government as a way to improve public safety.
Mike Hatch, the DFL candidate for governor, says the key to fighting crime is increasing the number of police officers. Hatch, who's spent eight years as Minnesota attorney general, says the state has been moving in the wrong direction on public safety.
"We have cut back on the number of police at the local level," Hatch said. "And that's been in large part caused by cuts in local government aid, by a 90-percent cut by Bush on the Clinton cop program, by a 60-percent cut by Bush of the Byrne grant program, which funds the anti-drug activity. And the governor didn't help by cutting the gang strike force."
Hatch has been hitting the funding argument hard. He stressed it again in a TV ad with the help of a Rochester police officer, who also represents the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
"Tim Pawlenty abolished the gang strike force, cut funds for our criminal database and cut the personnel we need to keep track of sex offenders," the ad said. "We've endorsed Mike Hatch for governor and it wasn't a close call." Pawlenty accuses Hatch of playing loose with the facts about recent state budget cuts.
"He says we eliminated the gang strike force, Pawlenty said." That's just not true."
The governor insists the function of the gang strike force is alive and well, albeit in a slightly different form.
"We combined it with the drug strike force and increased the net funding," Pawlenty said. "And all most everyone in law enforcement supports that approach. So, it's really misleading for him to go around and say we eliminated the gang strike force."
That's the way Minneapolis Police Lt. Bob Kroll sees it too. Kroll supervises the department's SWAT team.
"I've executed a number of high-risk warrants this past year and the prior year for the Minnesota gang strike force," Kroll said. "We have a lieutenant assigned there, we have two sergeants assigned there, we have a few officers assigned to the gang strike force currently."
Kroll is also vice president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, which has endorsed Pawlenty for re-election.
For voters like Dennis Wagner, public safety is a key issue. Wagner lives in North Minneapolis and sees the impact of crime on a regular basis. He also sees a lot of politicians struggling with the issue. Wagner says they're either throwing money at the crime problem or trying to ignore it.
"The lefties feel guilty about a lot of things," Wagner said. "They feel guilty that... 150 years ago black people were enslaved and they're trying to pay retribution from now until the end of time. The far righties are saying, 'well jeez, I live out in the suburbs, it's not my problem, why should I deal with it?'"
Wagner wants state government to do more to address the root causes crime, not just build new jails.
The 2003 kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin lead to tougher sentencing for sex offenders and a need for more jail space. Alphonso Rodriguez, Jr., who was a convicted sex offender, is now facing a federal death sentence for the crime. Mike Hatch says corrections officials failed to commit Rodriguez and others to state hospitals after their prison time was up.
"What we've got is an over reaction at times to a failure by the state to perform its job," Hatch said. "So, the real reform is that the state ought to be doing its job. And it is doing it's job now, but it sure wasn't at that time."
The Sjodin case also renewed the debate over capitol punishment. Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911. Subsequent efforts to bring it back have failed. The arrest and conviction of Rodriguez turned Gov. Pawlenty into an advocate.
"I strongly support the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes," Pawlenty said. "But the Legislature doesn't support it and won't pass it. So they dismissed that idea. But it is something I support."
For Mike Hatch, the issue is less clear. He supports the concept of capital punishment and says there are some criminals who do not deserve to live. But Hatch is concerned that too many innocent people have been wrongly executed in death penalty states.
"I would have no hesitation supporting a death penalty, if I thought there was a statute that could guarantee certainty with regard to the conviction," Hatch said. "But I have not found that statute yet."
The only major party candidate who flatly opposes the death penalty is Peter Hutchinson. He's convinced the threat of execution does not deter violent crime.
"We need good criminal justice in this state," Hutchinson said. "We ought to put bad guys in jail. They ought to stay in jail, and in this case, they probably ought to stay in jail forever. I have no problems doing that. I think we ought to keep sorting out on a regular basis that we have the right people and that they're in jail for long enough. Not everybody belongs in jail. It's not the solution to every problem, but certainly in these cases, life sentences without parole make sense to me."
Hutchinson describes the death penalty as one more wedge issue that doesn't belong in the campaign. He lumps it with abortion, same-sex marriage and religion -- issues Hutchinson says are used to divert and divide voters.