The thumping music, bright lights and crowded streets of downtown Minneapolis are reaching fever pitch at 2 a.m. on a recent Saturday when a squad of bicycle-riding police forms a neat row in the middle of Hennepin Avenue — eyes trained on a river of clubgoers.
It’s five hours and about 17 miles into the night shift of the Bike Rapid Response Team, a group of officers specially trained in crowd control.
Officers dart off to a nearby parking lot to break up a brawl, then pedal away moments later when a similar melee erupts in a parking ramp. Within a minute, two men lay on the ground in handcuffs, next to police bicycles tossed aside in the takedown. A whiff of pepper spray lingers in the air.
A night with six members of a two-wheeled squad shows the value of being able to zoom through alleys and streets to keep an eye-level watch over all corners of downtown, but also that they can be the slow-moving, friendly face of a force that has recently come under fire for being out of touch with the community.
“It doesn’t make us different. But it makes people’s perception of us different,” officer Jim Bulleigh, a longtime veteran of the force, said earlier in the night. “They think we’re friendlier, we’re nicer, we’re more approachable.”
While about two dozen other officers patrolled downtown on foot or in squad cars, the bike team helped stranded bikers repair a tire, gave Band-Aids to a woman who had cut her knee and offered directions to lost pedestrians. They also got the occasional earful from people who hold the force in low regard.
Nearly 150 Minneapolis officers are certified to patrol the city by bicycle, a method of policing that has existed in the city since the 1930s but was modernized in the 1990s. Forty-two of them are cleared to work part time on the Bike Rapid Response Team, an elite group created in advance of the 2008 Republican National Convention that is now deployed for club close, sporting events, parades, protests and even the annual Zombie Pub Crawl.
Mayoral candidate Cam Winton participated on a recent bike-along with the BRRT team — along with a Star Tribune reporter — because he would like to see bike patrol expanded. “When an officer is in a police car, it’s tough for a citizen to interact with that officer,” Winton said.
6 p.m. The shift begins at the First Precinct on 4th Street, where certified bike mechanics Bulleigh and officer Dan Lysholm — both sporting horseshoe mustaches — fix the Trek police bikes in a well-stocked repair shop. They are responsible for every bike on the force, which endure broken spokes, forks or even frames navigating unpredictable urban terrain.
At a roll call in a nearby conference room, the team reviews some of the night’s potentially large events. Among them is a birthday party for Deepak Nath, a player in the Minneapolis club scene who now co-owns the Pourhouse.
7 p.m. About six officers mount their bikes and head down 1st Avenue, turning heads as the two-by-two procession snakes through downtown onto the Cedar Lake Trail. “I can’t sell bikes enough. It’s the best way to patrol a neighborhood,” said Sgt. David Hansen, the leader of the BRRT and the city’s bike patrol coordinator, riding down the Midtown Greenway.
9 p.m. Darkness falls as the team rolls onto Minnehaha Avenue, where residents at a housing complex on 35th Street have reported that a crowd of people are smoking marijuana and being noisy filming a rap video — some dancing on a low-rise roof. “If you don’t live here, you’ve got to get going,” an officer bellows as the amateur filmmakers disassemble a jib camera crane and pack into a van across the street.
The final YouTube video, Lil Cheiff’s “Ya Feel Me,” shows a wild party between the two buildings and ends with a shot of the officers waiting for them to leave. Subsequent social media posts indicate that two men at the shoot were shot to death two days later in a south Minneapolis alley.
10:30 p.m. The officers keep a slow pace but ride confidently on active streets without bike lanes, like Lake Street. Several members of the team are critical of bike lanes for giving bikers a false sense of safety and making bikers and drivers too territorial, which can lead to accidents.
11:30 p.m. Back downtown, Bulleigh and Lysholm are citing a fedora-clad pedicab driver for parking on the sidewalk of Nicollet Mall when an intoxicated middle-aged woman approaches from a nearby patio. “You’re pulling this guy over! Why don’t you do some real police work?” the woman says before berating the officers for several minutes.
The pedicab driver is simultaneously challenging his right to park when his boss arrives and yells, “If this guy says ‘Move your pedicab,’ you say ‘Yes sir’ and move the pedicab!”
‘A darker tone’
Midnight. The team inches closer to the heart of downtown, which is coming to life. “Don’t be afraid to Dosey Doe here tonight!” a DJ can be heard saying at Whisky Park as the officers tell cabs parked in front of the Pourhouse to move along. “Police! 911 baby!” a man shouts from a rooftop as they roll by Cowboy Jack’s. At a red light, a drunk woman tries to straddle an officer’s back tire and yells at her friend on the sidewalk to take a photograph, a process that continues after the light turns green.
12:50 a.m. They huddle with colleagues outside of 400 Soundbar, a 3rd Avenue club where officers say gang members have birthday parties and get into fights. An ambulance that has been remodeled into a mobile tattoo studio pulls up, and about eight people spill out of its back doors into the club.
1:10 a.m. The team heads down 4th Street where Lysholm tells a woman to dispose of a cup of liquor. When she tries to finish it instead, he forcefully dumps it out, prompting a stream of expletives. The yelling continues for several minutes as officers write her a ticket.
“You’ll see me in court!” the woman says as she walks away. “I’m exercising my [expletive] right to free speech!”
2:10 a.m. An hour later, the officers line up on a portion of Hennepin closed to vehicle traffic as the sidewalks fill with people. “The concern right now is rival groups or just people getting mouthy to one another and [it] leads to a brawl,” Hansen says as he surveys the crowd. “And two people fighting can turn into 100 people real quick down here with this group.”
In a short span before 2:30 a.m., as Winton would later recall, “Things took a darker tone.”
Blazing red taillights zoom across the street as officers race to the two successive fights on 4th Street and Hennepin Avenue. “Why are you standing here? Move!” Hansen shouts to a group at the entrance of the parking ramp. The team then pedals to a light-rail station on 5th Street, where paramedics are lifting a man with a neck brace and a bloodied face into an ambulance.
Just up the street, another seriously injured man is lying on the ground surrounded by bystanders. Police reports showed that assaults also occurred just after 2 a.m. near 400 Soundbar and inside Brothers Bar & Grill — both requiring medical attention.
Compared to last summer, however, the club-closing scene has improved. “That was a pretty easy close,” Hansen says afterward. “It went fast without a lot of fights.”
2:40 a.m. Just a few people remain at 4th Street and Hennepin. At least one man isn’t done for the night, however, and casually approaches the assemblage of bikes to ask: How do I get to Sex World?