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Fargo city commissioners clash in heated debate over downtown safety reports

Commissioners debated the benefit of the Downtown Engagement Center while Fargo police shared crime reports of the area.

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School children cross Broadway on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, at Sixth Avenue North, Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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FARGO — While the general consensus among city leaders on Monday, Oct. 3 was that downtown streets were safe, city commissioners clashed over how to make the area even safer.

Fargo city commissioners prior to debate listened to reports from the city’s police department and organizations such as the Downtown Community Partnership and the Downtown Neighborhood Association.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn began the conversation when he described watching two “intoxicated Native Americans” being taken away by police officers. He later followed them to the Downtown Engagement Center.

“When are we going to stop enabling? Right now, we’re using a lot of tax dollars enabling people,” Piepkorn said, adding that the Downtown Engagement Center, which used to be the police headquarters, should be moved.

City Commissioner Arlette Preston disagreed.

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“The Engagement Center is truly taking people off the streets during the day, to sleep it off, or shower, or wash their clothes. It’s a help, it’s not a hindrance. Hopefully it will be better staffed in the future so it can be open more hours instead of less,” Preston said.

“You know what they should do during the day? Get a job. How about that? Right now the taxpayers in Fargo, we’re paying the bill. This is enabling,” Piepkorn responded.

Fargo City Commission meeting video

Commissioner Denise Kolpack said conversations should be based on fact, not opinion. She called on Mayor Tim Mahoney to address Piepkorn's comments.

"When a commissioner speaks an opinion without fact, it is demoralizing to city employees. It has a chilling effect on those who come to the commission," Kolpack said.

Mahoney admonished Piepkorn saying he needed to be respectful and not to underestimate mental health issues, adding people who are lost in the system, stuck in jail or detox centers, can cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“We have to address mental health issues in our community. If someone has an episode right now, where will they go? There are many in our community who have crises. We take care of all our people,” Mahoney said.

Commissioner John Strand said he too saw people headed to the Downtown Engagement Center.

“And here’s what I saw: I saw hope. I saw people going somewhere where there is help, where there is support for them. If we aren’t going to have that in our community, then what the heck are we going to have?” Strand said.

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Austin Foss, of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said that the downtown area is Fargo’s largest neighborhood, currently with more than 4,000 residents in a small area.

“There are people walking the streets at all hours of the day. It brought a smile to my face to see how far this neighborhood has come. The rhetoric that downtown isn’t safe is not only harmful, it's simply untrue,” Foss said.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association , a volunteer planning group, has put together a guide for the City of Fargo.

While plans to better patrol the downtown area are still in the works, Fargo Police Chief Dave Zibolski gave city commissioners a glimpse into the crime in the area.

During a five-hour period in August, police arrested two people on drug charges and eight for driving under the influence. Authorities issued a handful of citations for using a fake identification card and for urinating in public, among other crimes.

Additionally, 23 traffic citations and 63 warnings were issued.

From the beginning of the year until Sept. 28, the downtown area saw 19 robberies, an increase from five in 2021 and nine in 2020, Zibolski said.

Aggravated assaults were also up to 53 so far in 2022, with a total of 39 in 2021 and 34 in 2020, Zibolski reported, noting many of the issues occurred after bars closed, and when the streets and sidewalks were crowded.

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“We’re trying to come up with unique ways to prevent that clustering because sometimes people just bump into each other and it escalates from there,” Zibolski said.

Officers also “have a myriad of issues they have to deal with,” including over-serving issues and mental health issues, Zibolski said.

Several commissioners asked that the Liquor Control Board begin looking into over-serving issues, bar closing hours, off sale hours and requiring liquor establishments to have identification scanners. Another idea was to install blue lights with telephones and video cameras.

“Let’s step up our performance. If you’re not behaving good, you’re being surveilled,” Strand said.

There's also been three shootings in the downtown area this year, which Zibolski said were street crimes between people who knew each other after bars closed.

Cindy Graffeo, executive director of the Downtown Community Partnership, said the “safety of the downtown area has been top of mind,” for the organization.

Earlier in the summer, the organization received increasing concerns related to safety and nuisance issues downtown, Graffeo said.

“Statistically, downtown Fargo is safe,” Graffeo said, adding that there are nuisance crimes, but it is in a small, compact area.

One of the ideas she presented to the city commissioners was to rezone certain areas in downtown for more funds and staffing.

“We want it to be a great place to live and an 18 hour entertainment district, but we also need it clean and safe,” Graffeo said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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