As families leave Cedar Lake’s Hidden Beach after a day of swimming and playing in the sand, a Minneapolis Park Police squad car is pulling up for an eight-hour shift.
No other Twin Cities beach receives this much attention. Police patrol the beach on summer evenings, watching for drunken, drug-fueled behavior that’s made it the neighborhood’s top safety priority and one of the most closely watched areas in the park’s system.
“East Cedar Beach has been a challenging site since 1995 and way beyond that,” Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said of the one-time nude beach, nicknamed “Hidden” because it’s accessed through a clearing on a dead-end street and down a long, narrow dirt path.
Neighbors in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood say they’re turning the beach’s reputation around with family-friendly events and money to pay for extra police patrols. But it’s an ongoing battle, with police incident reports doubling last year.
“It could mean we were focusing more resources there; it’s not indicative that there’s more crime,” Ohotto said.
Four years ago, neighbors debated closing Hidden Beach after a tumultuous summer season of drunken driving, drug use and fighting.
Neighbors complained of people urinating on their lawns, driving into yards and ringing doorbells in the middle of the night. In 2007, a lifeguard tower was destroyed.
The Kenwood-Isles Area Association (KIAA) has been footing the bill for Park Police overtime hours since 2006 in an effort to curb problems in the area, saying safety at the beach is one of the association’s top neighborhood priorities. This year, it allotted $5,000, or about 80 hours in overtime, Ohotto said. But the money for overtime is not always used, he added.
Police responded to 134 incidents in 2013 and 49 in 2016 — the lowest in five summers. But reports jumped to 95 last year. This year there have been some low-level crimes reported, the chief said. From May 1 to June 14, 24 of the 35 reports were alcohol-related. Last year, during the same time period, only five of the nine reports were related to alcohol.
In addition to the neighborhood’s overtime funding, the Park Police uses budgeted general fund dollars for two park patrol agents assigned to the beach. The patrols work at the beach from 3 to 11 p.m. Thursday to Sunday from May to September.
Ohotto said the level of service is similar to that at Webber Natural Swimming Pool, Jim Lupient Water Park and North Commons Water Park.
Regular on-duty Park Police patrols also provide coverage and call response for all beaches and pools, he added.
The neighborhood association recently added more family-friendly programming, including a Shakespeare production and a luau. The season’s first event on June 9 was canceled due to rainy weather.
“We’ve been trying to police our way through the problem, but now we are trying to do something different,” said Shawn Smith, chair of the association.
Park Board Commissioner Jono Cowgill said the board wants to “make sure neighbors feel safe at home. How do we make a culture of respect?”
Neighbors and beachgoers have noticed a shift from the beach’s rocky history.
Last year, Mark Brown, a KIAA board member who lives on the closest street to the beach, said a family thanked them at a BBQ event for making the place safe for their kids. “It feels like we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
Brown said he doesn’t want to come across like “you kids get off my lawn,” but instead wants a “balanced and respectful place.” He said his family moved to the 2600 block of W. 21st Street three years ago because of the beach, which he called a hidden gem.
Recent daytime visitors praised the beach. Hannah Knazan-Lippman, of Minneapolis, called it a beautiful spot. Zachary Tisdell of St. Paul said his parents brought him there when it was still a nude beach. Seven years ago he started frequenting Hidden Beach because that’s where his friends would hang out.
“It wasn’t cleaned, no walkways, there were drugs and homeless people,” he said. “It was like a punk, anarchy beach.”
But on Thursday, returning for the first time after two years of living in Kentucky, Tisdell saw a much different scene.
There were benches and chairs, new sand, and families. “Wow, it’s different,” he said. “It’s awesome.”