Fact Check: Walz and Jensen seek edge on crime ahead of debate

Crime doesn't pay, according to an old saying, but campaigns that run television ads about crime can certainly pay off.

In the lead-up to the first general election debate between DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen, a GOP group and Jensen are hammering Walz over a surge in carjackings. In his own crime-themed ad, Walz is defending his record while calling Jensen "dangerous."

Carjacking claims

Freedom Club, the group behind the "Walz Failed" signs and airplane banner at the Minnesota State Fair, is running a television ad that uses a mash-up of news stories about carjackings in the Twin Cities. It's a modest buy so far, with one TV station showing $40,000 in booked time. It includes no statistics and makes no claims.

Meanwhile, Jensen is running a cinematic ad that depicts a young woman driving home from school before getting carjacked by people who jump out of two cars. The ad correctly says there were 779 carjackings in Minnesota last year.

"Before Tim Walz, we didn't worry about this," the woman says.

This needs clarification, a FOX 9 Fact Check found. It's true that carjackings have surged, especially since 2020. Minneapolis was responsible for 78% of the reported carjackings in 2021, according to that year's statewide Uniform Crime Report.

The state didn't track carjacking statistics before 2021, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety said.

In Minneapolis, carjackings didn't get their own offense code until September 2020, allowing them to be followed on the city's crime dashboard. But Minneapolis Police analysts did record carjackings before this, as robberies with the property loss of a vehicle.

On Wednesday, a Minneapolis Police spokesman said obtaining the data from 2018 -- the year before Walz took office -- would require a formal data request, which is a longer process. But he did provide data for the years 2019-2021, plus some context.

There were 655 carjackings in 2021, 401 in 2020, and 104 in 2019. Most of the carjackings in 2019 happened in the last half of the year, said Sgt. Garrett Parten, the MPD spokesman.

"It was not an issue of note prior to that," Parten said.

What the ad doesn't say is that Minneapolis isn't alone. Other major U.S. cities have also reported surges in carjackings over the same time period, according to Pew Research. Walz has countered by increasing the Minnesota State Patrol's presence in Minneapolis this summer and fall. One of the goals is to pursue carjackers using the State Patrol's helicopter. 

Walz defends record

In his own ad, Walz's campaign says the governor has taken steps to address violent crime before turning to criticize Jensen.

"Tim Walz fought to hire more police across Minnesota and crack down on gun violence," the ad says.

The first part is true. During the 2022 legislative session, Walz did call on the state Legislature to pass more public safety funding, which could've been used to hire more officers.

A potential deal flamed out in May. The governor could call lawmakers back for a special session without an agreement, but he hasn't.

The second part, about cracking down on gun violence, is murkier.

This summer, Walz agreed to Minneapolis city officials' request by bringing 20 state troopers into the city to help the understaffed Minneapolis Police Department. While the State Patrol has touted large numbers of arrests and guns seized, it's hard to know what effect the added resources have had on violent crime numbers.

Gunshot wound victims have fallen by 14% over the same time in 2021, while homicides are down 19%. But carjackings are up 7% from 2021, city data indicate.

The Walz ad accurately says Jensen opposes universal gun background checks, but using that to call Jensen "dangerous" is an intangible claim that only voters can sort out.

Walz and Jensen are scheduled to debate for a second and final time Oct. 28 on Minnesota Public Radio.