Safety concerns prompt a call for more cops in downtown Fargo

Pretty much everyone agrees Minneapolis and St. Paul desperately need more police officers on the streets, a lot more. It’s still just too unpredictable and potentially dangerous to take a chance on going downtown anymore for many Minnesotans.

That’s the last thing folks in Fargo want to see happen to North Dakota’s biggest city. But the Forum says safety concerns about the deteriorating atmosphere in downtown Fargo have led the city’s deputy mayor to sound the alarm for more cops in the business district before things go further downhill.

Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said the perception in Fargo is that downtown is not safe, noting public safety is one of the city’s primary responsibilities.

Piepkorn, at the Fargo City Commission meeting on Monday, Sept. 19, called for an increase of visible police presence downtown. He specifically called out “aggressive” panhandling.

“Aggressive” panhandling, defined by the Fargo City Ordinances as “intimidating another person into giving away money or goods,” is illegal throughout the city.

Like many cities, Fargo has seen an increase in the number of vagrants and homeless people gravitating to downtown. A police representative indicated the department plans to increase the force’s presence next year.

Captain Chris Helmick of the Fargo Police Department told commissioners they are going to have officers downtown on a more consistent basis, starting this spring.

“It’s not just a police issue,” Helmickclarified, stressing it takes a lot of community partners to solve mental health issues, addiction disorders and problems often faced by those experiencing homelessness.

He said Fargo police work closely with the Downtown Engagement Center,  Fargo’s facility for the general homeless population and run by the Fargo Cass Public Health Department’s harm reduction division.

Officials say several dozen homeless individuals and vagrants show up on the streets some days. But there was no consensus on how to tackle the vagrancy problem downtown or even on the extent of the problem.

[Commissioner John] Strand proposed housing options and public bathrooms for those experiencing homelessness, and free emergency call boxes for everyone to help increase the feeling of public safety in downtown.

“I think we put our money where our mouth is,” Stand said, adding public safety in a growing city will cost money.

Piepkorn called for people to “go someplace else” if they are only here to harass people and panhandle, adding that Fargo should help people who want it.