For thugs looking to grab a pricey cellphone or a quick wad of cash, transit stops are the target of choice.
The nearly 1,900 robberies in Minneapolis last year played out in all areas of the city but a Star Tribune analysis found that eight of the 10 hot spots were near bus stops and light-rail stations, where commuters made easy prey.
"It's when that train or bus pulls to a stop; a victim close to the door or near a door is a very easy target for 'grab and go,' " said Capt. Chuck Donaldson of the Metro Transit Police.
Even private transportation options occasionally put riders at risk. Revelers on two party buses were robbed in northeast and downtown Minneapolis when suspects forced their way onto the buses, snatching purses, cash and phones.
Driven largely by such thefts of phones, robberies in the city rose nearly 8 percent last year, with the biggest surge — 38 percent — in north Minneapolis.
About half of the robberies were aggravated, meaning a weapon or the threat of a weapon was used. One man was killed in a phone robbery when he was pushed and struck his head on concrete.
The busiest month for robberies was October, followed by July. Robbers were least active in March. Robberies were least likely to occur at 7 a.m. on a typical day, with cases climbing through the day until peaking at 10 p.m. and again at 2 a.m., according to the police information.
Intersections with bus stop-shelters near them accounted for five of the top 10 locations; three were light rail stations.
Authorities have pushed back with video cameras — 16 to 20 more are slated for north and 12 to 16 for northeast — later starts for day shift police officers on the north side, and even a decoy officer posing undercover with a conspicuously available cellphone.
Just one robber has been caught with the decoy phone so far, but police warn that phone thefts will continue. The Metro Transit police have recorded 41 cellphone thefts in the first two months of this year, compared to 57 in the first two months of last year.
"We're always telling people to be aware of their surroundings, and especially by trains and by doors," said agency spokesman Drew Kerr. "Would you stand on a bus or a train with $300 worth of bills in your hand and not pay attention?"
The epicenter of the city's robbery crisis last year was on the north side. The numbers have fallen off a bit so far this year, and Minneapolis police Inspector Michael Kjos says he's hopeful they've turned the problem around.
"As far as last year it was an uphill climb all year," he said. "It just seemed like cellphones were the No. 1 thing that robbery suspects were looking for. It was asked for even before money."
Kjos said he shifted the hours of some officers working the day beat so that they would stay through the busier times for robbery. The crime prevention specialists, a group of civilian employees of the Police Department, have also spent time warning people at bus stops along West Broadway about the threat of cellphone theft.
The new preventive measures may help, but Kjos said he tells people not to fight if approached by a robber: "Don't fight over this piece of property, just let it go."
Party buses robbed
Robberies ranged in location and degrees of violence. In one instance, a 96-year-old man was beaten and then robbed after he refused to let go of the $100 he had just withdrawn at a bank on West Broadway. On the North Side, robbers targeted a man playing basketball and another studying a bus schedule. One man was threatened with a knife and robbed at a downtown hotel. Near Loring Park, a masked suspect robbed a woman at gunpoint, taking her purse and cellphone before fleeing.
Last February, a party bus stopped at a gas station on Johnson St. NE for its patrons when 10 suspects distracted the driver and forced their way onto the bus. When one of the people on the bus fought back, three to four suspects entered via the emergency door. The suspects took two purses, and one victim was attacked when she gave chase to the robbers, according to the incident report.
In the other case, a group was getting onto its party bus at 4th and Hennepin in July and several would-be robbers tried to get on as well. One suspect grabbed a cellphone and ran off the bus. Several people from the bus chased after the suspect, and one of them was assaulted and knocked unconscious. During the assault, the victim's cash and cellphone were stolen, the police report said.
iPhones bring $1,000
Evidence keeps piling in that stolen phones can fetch lots of money on the black market, either from local phone shops acting as a criminal fence or from overseas buyers willing to pay top dollar for the latest smartphones, which U.S. consumers buy at subsidized prices.
That iPhone 5 that you bought for $200 with a two-year plan can sell for hundreds more, even $1,000, in China, said Justin Nordin, a technology consultant based in Minneapolis. "The market, especially in China, has been insanely good for iPhones," he said.
Kjos said he's hopeful that the so-called "kill switch" bill proposed at both the state and federal levels gets passed. Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau has strongly supported the legislation, along with University of Minnesota Police Chief Greg Hestness.
The federal version of the bill, introduced last month by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, would require that new phones have a kill switch that would render the phone useless if it's stolen. The user's data would be stored securely on a cloud and could be recovered, but the phone wouldn't work.
"The phone will basically be a brick," said Klobuchar, who spoke about the issue at a Senate hearing last month.
Chef turns vigilante
The thefts of cellphones and other technology are showing no signs of slowing down in 2014. The robberies often occur quickly, while phone users are distracted.
Maryan Mohamud was visiting Minneapolis on March 19 from Fargo, N.D., when at the Village Market mall in south Minneapolis her brother called. Standing in a busy corridor of the mall, watched by two surveillance cameras, she pulled out the phone to answer.
"I answered the phone and said 'Hello,' and a guy next to me just pulled the phone out of my hand," said Mohamud.
A friend of hers along with two other bystanders ran after the thief as he headed for an exit. When they all got outside, one of the men chasing the thief turned on the others and pulled out a gun. He was actually working with the thief and told the others to stop chasing him, said Mohamud.
"He just laughed and said, 'You guys should go back,' " she said.
In one of the most egregious cases, an 8-year-old boy was punched in the face for his iPad while standing on a Nicollet Avenue South sidewalk. A restaurant chef named Mohamed Armeli who witnessed the March 6 attack gave chase.
The suspect, Aaron Stillday, had a violent criminal history. Armeli, a genial man who wears chef's whites while running Christo's Greek restaurant, said he found his inner vigilante the moment he saw the boy's bloodied face. "I saw red," he said.
Armed with a box cutter, he chased down Aaron Stillday while dialing 911. He cornered Stillday a few blocks from the restaurant and kept him there until police arrived a short time later.
"It rained cops," said Armeli. "Thank God!"