It was around 2 a.m. on a recent Monday in downtown Minneapolis when the pop-pop-pop of gunfire pierced the din of bar closing time.
Spotting a rival gang member, a gunman opened fire on a group of people hanging out outside the First Precinct police station, on 4th Street between 1st and Hennepin avenues, setting off a brief shootout that left one woman hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds, according to police.
That brazen shooting underscored the rise in gun violence this year.
Even as property crimes have receded, violent crime has risen nearly 7 percent compared with this time last year, with some categories of these crimes reaching five-year highs, according to department statistics released last week. Still, police officials note, the rates of violent crime are a far cry from the levels seen in the early-1990s, when rampant gang- and drug-related violence earned the city the grim nickname “Murderapolis.”
In 2015, Minneapolis’ violent crime rate was 1,019 crimes per 100,000 residents, about 14 percent below its 15-year average of 1,187. That figure is still higher than that of some other larger cities like San Diego and Philadelphia.
Despite the five-year rise in violence, overall the city remains a safer place than it was in the early 2000s, said Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson.
“I don’t know if we have absolutely an explanation for it, because if people want to commit crimes they do, but when we look at the numbers I think our biggest concern is aggravated assaults,” Arneson said. She attributed part of the increase in such assaults to a rise in domestic violence incidents, which have led to five killings so far this year.
The brutal slaying last week of an 89-year-old woman by her son in a downtown Minneapolis condominium pushed the city’s overall homicide total to 49 this year — the highest number since 2006 in which there were 57 slayings citywide.
Not included in this year’s tally is one killing that is being investigated as self-defense and another in which medical examiners were unable to establish whether a man shot himself or was killed by someone else. In another case, a city man was charged with second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and interference with a dead body in connection with the disappearance and possible death of a 25-year-old single mother.
Meanwhile, property crimes like burglary and larceny have fallen nearly 10 percent since last year, and 12 percent since 2013, police statistics show. Overall, so-called Part I crimes are down about 4 percent.
Through Monday, the most recent day for which data are available, there had been 2,029 aggravated assaults — defined as shootings, stabbings and other felony assaults — reported citywide with less than two weeks left in the year. There were 1,779 such assaults in all of 2014, crimes which experts say is one of the best indicators of how safe a city is.
The rising levels of crimes committed with guns have put continuing pressure on Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who has been building a reputation as a leader on the gun violence issue. Last year, at a regional crime summit in Milwaukee, Harteau told the audience of police chiefs, politicians and academics that when it came to fighting gun violence, Minneapolis was “about 12 months behind” Chicago and Milwaukee.
Why the uptick?
Officials caution against reading too much into the rising crime rates — a product of underlying social conditions like poverty, racial discrimination and chronic unemployment — saying that sharp variations in the numbers may be misleading when considering long-term crime trends, which show that current levels are still hovering around historic lows in Minneapolis and other large U.S. cities. As a recent study by the New York City-based Brennan Center for Justice pointed out: “Although monthly changes in the murder rate tend to attract notice from the press, the reality is that short-term fluctuations in the murder rate are common and not very predictive of long-term trends.”
Deputy Police Chief Bruce Folkens, who heads the department’s Investigations Bureau, said the rise in violence is due, at least in part, to the proliferation of guns among young men, whom police say are increasingly likely to pull a trigger to settle old neighborhood scores or present-day beefs on social media. Officials said more than three-quarters of the city’s homicides in 2015 were caused by guns.
In addition to the creation of new specialized investigative units to work gun- and gang-related cases, the department this year announced a broad initiative to fight domestic violence, which officials say makes up the majority of 911 calls that originate from traditional crime hot spots across the city. The federally funded program is based on the idea that reducing early childhood exposure to violence, which studies have linked to later aggressive behavior, will deter future crime, Folkens said.
The department, he says, is also using predictive analysis software to forecast where crime will pop up next and instructing officers to get out of their patrol cars more often and deal directly with people.
That this year’s statistics resemble levels from the relatively safe 1970s comes as little comfort to many residents in the city’s most crime-stricken neighborhoods. Some have formed online communities like North Vent and True North Minneapolis to vent their frustrations and discuss crimes of concern in the neighborhoods that they say rarely make the news.