On this regional public affairs program, an examination on the problem of arson and what can be done about it. The Citizens League issued a report on arson in the Twin Cities, and the crime’s impact on the community.
MPR’s Neal St. Anthony interviews numerous local fire, law, and insurance officials for report.
Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.
Arson by consensus of law enforcement officials Nationwide it is the fastest growing crime in the country. It is a hideous offense claiming innocent lives valuable property and often result in a veiled robbery of many citizens to fires which are set intentionally to collect insurance which results in increased rates for us all the Citizens League founded in 1973 National dollar losses from Arson were three times as great as dollar losses from robbery about 36% of fire insurance premiums can be attributed to our Sim settlements.Statistics from the Minneapolis and st. Paul fire department show that arson is a serious problem here, but it is not accelerating at the ramp. And Pace fires are being set in major cities on the east coast. In fact statistics show that the number of fires attributed to arson or suspicious causes peaked in 1973 and 1974 in both cities. For instance Minneapolis reported 371 fires in 19.23 link to arson but less than 300 in 1976. However, arson investigators urge that the statistical decline is certainly not grounds for complacency for several reasons in the past and in some Suburban communities currently adequate statistics are not kept and often are some slip by investigators or simply are ignored for lack of Manpower Artisan lofts in Minneapolis. And st. Paul total millions of dollars. Annually not to mention loss of lives and jobs finally arson is a confounding problem because it is difficult to make an arrest and conviction according to police Minneapolis officials estimate that they make arrests on only 12% of the arson cases. They investigate in St. Paul police officials say they are up to an 18% arrest rate from just 3% several years ago. There are many sorts of arson including arson for profit. According to Lieutenant Jerry Dolan Chief arson investigator for the sea.Paul police department we have burning for events and the people who are sick the burn because they are pyromaniacs. We've got to have some of those Turn the Revenge Factor the courses at his maybe I only brought her once. It's probably something we've seen more in Saint Paul. And then the last one is this is probably the the prankster that youngster who sets trash on car in the garage burns down with over the house and or they flip a firecracker or some burning object into a car in the car Burns Lieutenant Dolan Chief Minneapolis Fire Department. Arson investigator. Jim Carlson said his unit is aware of many arsonist who simply have been too crafty to get caught. However, he said he believed some profit-seeking firesetters have been persuaded to seek other employment and When they realize that others have been convicted on this and that. We don't intend to let it drop they don't care to have that. Any of us looking at him in that way and of course that at that point the insurance industry's steps in and possibly they aren't going to get their money. So where they've had money tied up in a building and now they aren't getting their insurance proceeds. It's not on a bad for them from a criminal investigation, but they're actually losing money are the people in town who will Arrange an arson that you're aware of brokers. There have been we're aware of. A few individuals who more or less are the contact people and they in turn can get any character to set of fire. But there are certain people around here who has been involved in more than their share of fires and we don't have the evidence, but we know exactly what has happened. Are they particularly hard to prosecute because they are actually lighting matches. Well, that's it. Then they're removed from any actual physical act so that Their background is strictly been a middleman between somebody who wants it burned in the guy that burns IT Minneapolis arson investigator. Jim Carlson Lieutenant Dolan said, the number of convictions is up in St. Paul since 1975 when the police and fire departments joined in a concerted effort to identify and investigate suspected fires the last year it was 18% and we're doing very well we filled with this I can say that we would cause more cases than that cleared, but they were cleared because of other reasons not necessarily prosecution or where they are. We specifically of a day. 10% hand of the time sometimes he gets killed at the fire scene to bring themselves or they threw press kit for another crime and we know about what they tell us about the arson there. Number of them that are committed to mental institutions Lieutenant Dolan. The League's had many suburban and Rural Minnesota communities are ill-equipped to combat arson report recommended that those firefighters be better trained to spot a possible arson through educational guys prepared by the State Fire Marshal the league noted that Minneapolis and st. Paul are proceeding differently, but generally trying to effectively pursue the deliberately set fire problem. Once a Minneapolis firefighter discovers a possible arson healers. The Department's six-man arson Squad investigator Carlson said last year the squad investigated 487 or about 45% of the fires, the fire department responded to the point of origin if we can find the area or the specific spot and it's a fire started then of course we can look for a Cause. sometimes he area of origin is very very difficult to find. Physically, but there's always somebody that has seen that fire previous to somebody else and those people are important because they can give us information that from which we can probably establish an area in from there may be a point. We find a point of origin for the fire originated. Then we look for a cause if there are accidental causes within the area we look at those very closely if we can eliminate all of The Accidental causes we better incendiary fire or an arson fire. And of course there might be physical. Evidence that might be specific burn patterns that indicate the flammable liquid was used Etc Carlson added that discovering that a fire has been set is far easier than painting the crime on somebody despite the stepped-up pace of arson investigation in Minneapolis. And st. Paul fewer than one in five suspected arson results in an arrest and that only takes into account the actual number of fires reported Sandra birth in a Minneapolis attorney chair. The league report suspected arson is quite low at this time and even prosecution's as a function of how many people are convicted is also a quiet low. Now, we expect this to change the legislature just enacted a new statute redefining arson, and I thought that that helped enormously it didn't used to be a crime. You burn your own property unless you intended to defraud the insurance company and so on so they have a much better statute is much easier now to prosecute under are some Sandra birthing Ramsey County. Attorney Robert Randall agree that arson is an extremely hard trying to prosecute and even in the case of the pyromaniac who may not be a professional with a premeditated plan extensive damage can be done before the suspect is apprehended. Or sometime back shortly after I became County attorney. We had a person who. Set fires in lumber yards. At that time we had more lumber yards in and around the city that we have today. I think it was the fifth or sixth. Lumber yard has set a fire before he was apprehended and it was a mental problem the Deltas. I'm sort of a sexual satisfaction which came out of the fire arson is tough to prosecute according to Randall particularly in the case of arson For Hire while I mentally deranged person may break down in a tearful confession of his place it take the testimony of two witnesses under Minnesota criminal law to pin the crime on an uncooperative suspect and arson is one of the least visible crime historically the resistance to change in the criminal Rules of Evidence has been the fact that there are very very few persons who have been County attorneys will go on to be members of the senate or the house of the state of Minnesota Legislature. There have been in the past and suitable numbers of lawyers. In private practice who from time to time in their private practice represent individuals accused of crime their orientation as far as a criminal process and the criminal trial comes from the point of view of the defendant. It comes to the point of view of looking out for any person who may come in to see them and the show their orientation in criminal process has been consistent and all of the rules to see to it that nothing is done that makes it easier to get a successful prosecution. And in fact, there's been many many situations in which they have proceeded to adopt laws, which make it more difficult. For example, Minnesota is the only state in the United States. In which the burden of proof? Being on the prosecutor does not carry with it the right that the final argument before the jury. We have to prove each of the essential elements of a crime Beyond A Reasonable Doubt each element Beyond A Reasonable Doubt and yet we do not have the final argument to the jury Ramsey County attorney Robert Randall the legs of the Minnesota Crime Control planning board and the state County attorneys Council should investigate impediments to arson prosecution and recommend improve procedures. It also recommended that other counties follow the lead of Hennepin which assigns prosecutors solely to arson cases arson investigators and prosecutors deny that there is any sort of outside organized crime attempt to set fires for economic gain in this area. However, Sandra birthing said there is substantial evidence that are some scheming is a live with in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to go out to Stillwater to talk to a man who has he said Various kinds of arson and explain how this is setup. They can set it up through even funny insurance companies are crooked insurance agent. It's set up for a certain percentage of the insurance take and they go in and torch the place. Hopefully if they get the total loss then the insurance company must pay out the face value of the policy and they split up proceeds and off I go quite aside from the direct property loss in something like this and the loss of insurance premiums. So then in payout from the insurance company, you do have your loss of jobs at the food commercial establishment of the loss of the tax base if it's a large business of the of one kind or another all of the the ramifications anytime that you lose jobs, of course than the other Are affected and the One season in the merchant Supply this particular business. There's a tremendous ripple effect that people don't stop to think I'm quite aside from the direct property loss center birthing. What's a I am unable to make the payments on my 1978 sports car. In fact, I never should have bought it 6 months ago. I couldn't afford it. So one night I break into it steal my own tape deck to stain a robbery and Burnet let the insurance company make the payments. I can't meet the mortgage terms in my house and have no collateral to base medicinal Lona. So I have it burned and pay off with insurance proceeds or let's say I have my house or failing business property insured for more than it is worth and that's a nice profit after an accidental fire. That's the building and I collect on my policy the above situations have occurred in numeral X here and elsewhere the Citizens League reported. However, that step can be taken to discourage arson for hire the committee found that sometimes a property owner. Over ensure his building. So the owner makes more money burning then selling it. This is much more likely to happen for example in residential property, but it also can happen even in commercial properties. The insurance company does not actually go out to inspect know some of them are getting much tougher on that and are insisting that they're being inspection of the property. Also the property be re-inspected if the amount of the insurance is increased beyond what would be accounted for by inflation and we strongly recommend that the property be inspected before it is insured re-evaluation. That would be the case where property is insured for $500,000 and I'll send the owner shows up on Friday afternoon and puts down. The Freeman says say bring my insurance up to 4 million, that would be Suspect you're right. We would a dentist that these insurance company would anticipate this thing would go up at night will not enforce increase that amount and then pay it off to that extent. The thing that is difficult would be if the party has something he says look I have inventory the four million dollars and it's particularly if it has been very active business who's to say other than his record switch off of probably will burn up exactly what his inventory was at that time. And so that is a distinct problem when it comes to how much you going to ensure for and how much you going to allow people to one of the Dodgers that we discovered so far as Residential Properties are concerned people will buy this is customarily in the marginal areas of I said they will buy a property on contract for deed and it will then be conveyed through a whole series of straw man with red escalating sale prices and it's all phony as a three-dollar bill and lo and behold a house that was worth maybe 15,000 is now supposedly sold for 40000 and surprise surprise burns up teacher woman Sandra birth in Minneapolis. Arson investigator. Jim Carlson describe a composite arson arrangement of property. Value on the market of the sea $15,000 which is not he's very very marginal other words. It's a place that needs a lot of work renters have either moved out or it's been condemned. vacant for a while At that point the new buyer goes to Nathan says I just bought this place. I'm going to do a lot of work on it. I'm going to put in some plywood or some paneling and new wiring Etc. And I think it's going to be a nice place and she's going to be worth around $25,000. And when I get my rent up with the new occupants, then I'm going to sell it by now. If you want. I paid 20 and it's going to be worth $25,000 wilstead to policy for 25 at this point. He's got a $10,000 margin right there over what he paid for it. And if it mysteriously Burns due to vandalism on its open for trespass while it's under the remodeling. Under the valued policy law that we have now. Companies liable to have to pay the 25000 Carlson said this Arrangement as occurred often involving apartment buildings dilapidated houses and warehouses Saint Paul police department arson investigator, Jerry Dolan believe laxity on the part of insurance agent accounts for some fires. Probably the the the best return would be an adequate investigation both financial and and maybe personal servility before they issue a policy or they should put a perhaps that delay right around them so that when the man asked for an increase in his policy from $100,000 to four million dollars in coverage that he should be able to show that his business is worth that and I I think that sometimes the agents individual agents her or maybe a little hungry yet for their commission like you don't like any other person working on that basis and and there isn't adequate time span. Another word for the increase your insurance for the profit and there's no investigation done Dolan added. However that recently the fire and police department and insurance companies have conducted seminars to stress. The importance of pre policy checks insurance companies are in business to make money and that end of saw through policy sales David Mo Local District property lost manager for the American Family Insurance Group said the pressure to make a sale can result in underwriting a bad policy. He is usually paid on a commission basis selfie doesn't have a sale. He doesn't have any money to bring home. So he is anxious to make a sale particularly a new agent rule. Has limited resources and needs to make as many sales as possible. He will at times buying coverage over the phone or write business that is very marginal because he needs the money of the sale plain and simply depending upon the individual company. The underwriter will pass judgment as to whether or not they will accept the risk. They rely upon the agency as in many cases and will accept it without making an inspection. It's going to depend upon the insurance company is going to depend upon the amount of the policy some insurance companies NADA man that there be an inspection of every piece of property by its agent prior to finding coverage many companies have a dollar amount where their Underwriters are required to make inspection before they are buying that coverage. It's hard to make across-the-board statement because many companies in Minnesota. They all operate a little bit differently as far as I'm done running a risk, but cruel I would say that there are companies lacks in this group new property certainly and a lot of it will depend upon the prophet picture of that company. I believe that this is true any way up there making proper profits are probably a little more relaxed and if they're losing money in the area David Mo to reduce the ability to over ensure or underwrite bogus property the league When did that state law explicitly mandate a property review before it may be insured this may require a change in current law more over the League's of the law should require that property be re-inspected when request to increase coverage exceed the rate of inflation the league also advised the state insurance commissioner to review ambiguities and state law governing property insurance practices. Within 30 days after proof of fire damage the insurance company under law must pay the loss unless it intends to deny the claim and the company. Can I try to deny a claim unless it is willing to defend the denial in a civil suit, which might be brought by the insured on any of several possible grounds because insurance companies desire reputations for prompt payment of claim few claims are ever denied League found companies also fear the cost and damage to the reputation of a long Court battle, but the league said prompt payment of questionable claims may act as an incentive to a potential arsonist. Sandra Burton was critical of the insurance industry, even if they Something fishy about this fire. They still have the push to take claims very promptly because if they don't if they hold off on it, then somebody is going to scream and holler their civil rights have been violated end salon and less the company really is prepared to defend the claim is that yes we feel this was arson Sandra birthing insurance company official David Mo. This is the main thing we have to offer so true. We are interested and making settlement of a claim as soon as possible and to reimburse the insured as soon as possible. This is what he has taken out a contract of insurance with a company for and it's an obligation. This goes hand-in-hand with consumerism as we know it today and I believe as a consumer myself that I'm entitled to some type of preferential treatment in certain cases. In the arson situation, we have pressure pressure to make payment right away there also because of the temporal Society right now. So it's difficult at the present time to do late payments for a long. Of time because of other external pressures on us David Mo state law should be altered to relieve the burden on insurance companies specifically criminal investigators could petition for a delay of claims payment in a civil proceeding to get cord protection while a criminal investigation is underway. So I think that if a public official was to petition the court as indicated in the lead paper to delay payment for a. Of time yet make it possible for the insurance company to complete their investigation further into the Truman really, what is the true nature of the loss Insurance representative David Mall. This delay would provide immunity for the insurance company while police investigators pursue the suspected cause arson investigators a plot of the recommendation saying one of their greatest frustrations. Currently is payment on a suspected arson while they are still working on the case. Another League recommendation dealt with cooperation between police and the insurance companies st. Paul police Lieutenant Sherry dolin. We know of a man who conveniently had a fire on a boat motor and the Damage claim was quite High the occasion was a good friend and did not look at the boat motor and our follow-up prove that the boat motor really were not damaged the extensa and you've had you would you would use another River one investigator caught up to it and our recommendation. I couldn't risk it look further and I'm not that we could say this person is always an arsonist or whatever and they did and it was not paid off in that situation Dolan said the Saint Paul police were able to advise the insurance company about a questionable policyholder, but because of privacy And the fear of suit there is a reluctance among insurance companies to exchange information with the lace about a policyholder that may result in an arson arrest. The problem is if no conviction is gained the company may be sued according to David Mo and we would very very gladly give it to him with the exception. If a conviction was not gained we interned could then be sued for slander bad faith punitive damages many other things the league hope to relieve the suit phobia of the insurance industry and enhance the possibility of a better case against the suspected arsonist by recommending legislation be passed requiring insurance companies to share information with criminal investigators relating to an insurance policy history. If a criminal investigation is under way we would have to have some immunity from suit one of the recommendations that we had the sific Lee. a dressing that was that we wanted to have the insurance companies directly required to give that information to the fire service and that they The immune from suit for giving this kind of information center birthing insurance company representative David Mo said such legislation is desirable if there was a law that required us or allowed us to give information that we developed to the public agencies concerned. It would help them tremendously in many situations many times. We want information or need information that the public officials have gathered and they cannot give it to us because of privacy laws because of The possibility of them being sued while delaying payments sharing information and granting immunity to insurance companies and police department may increase chances for salad cases against known arsonist. It may also mean scrutiny of personal files and Records or simply be a nasty inconvenience to an innocent victim of a fire ant Eng on individual rights like this. You do have to have a strong public policy reason for it and we felt that generally the innocent person while he would be inconvenienced and unhappy about slow claims payment. If he was not in fact an arsonist, he would eventually get his claim paid and aside from the inconvenience it would be probably all right. We're as this way we would get the arsonist and he would not be able to take his claims in and take off because Chances of getting that money back once it has been paid out or pretty poor Sandra birthing chairwoman of a Citizens League committee investigating arson in the Twin Cities metropolitan area a standing committee of the legal Lobby the Minnesota Legislature to enact the recommendations of the report requiring changes in state law a 14-member Citizens League committee spent five months interviewing experts in an attempt to learn more about arson and developing recommendations to curb the incidence of intentional fire setting. I'm the Old Saint Anthony.