Home to nearly 6,000 businesses, downtown Minneapolis swells daily as more than 160,000 workers head in to the state’s economic hub. Its landscape is dotted with major businesses, banks, hotels and a massive football stadium. But unlike a generation ago, downtown is also a growing neighborhood, home to nearly 40,000 residents. By design, they tend to be educated, affluent professionals craving an urban lifestyle that includes the excitement of a nightlife powered by bars, theaters and restaurants along Hennepin Avenue and in the bustling North Loop.
But downtown also has a stubbornly rising crime rate that threatens all of the effort and investment in making this area vibrant and attractive. Robberies are up significantly. Homeless encampments are becoming more common. Weekends bring regular reports of shots fired. Complaints about aggressive panhandling are up, and some light-rail transit stations have become trouble spots that draw crowds of young people late at night.
These are the early warning signs that can signal greater trouble in the future. Spiraling crime can scare off prospective residents and employers. Residents of downtown, unlike those in most neighborhoods, tend to be renters, for whom moving is as easy as not renewing a lease. Businesses, too, can vote with their feet if they or their employees become uncomfortable.
“Downtown has become everything to everybody,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, and that’s a problem. Few downtowns, he noted, have two major homeless shelters, along with the myriad social-services and outreach programs that have located downtown over the years. “That may be something to rethink,” he said.
The appointment of Arradondo and the upcoming mayoral and City Council elections make this an opportune time to rethink strategies for keeping downtown safe, livable and thriving.
‘A mind-set of violence’
Inspector Mike Sullivan commands the busy First Precinct, directing his troops from a cramped, brick building in what remains one of the seedier sections of downtown. A veteran officer who regularly walks a beat himself to keep in touch, Sullivan is pragmatic and methodical, given to diagraming on paper as he talks. He has created morning and late-night “power shifts” that put more cops on the street during the most troublesome hours. His officers work with outreach programs and check in with businesses. More and more, they’re out of squad cars and walking foot patrols to increase visibility.
Despite those efforts, crime has stubbornly ticked up. Violent crime strikes at the rate of more than once a day in downtown, with 367 incidents between January and September. Robberies in Downtown West, which covers much of the business and warehouse districts, are up nearly 50 percent this year over the same period last year. The more heavily residential Downtown East has little violent crime, but it has seen a disturbing rise in larcenies — the nonviolent theft of personal property.
Gunfire has wounded 18 people downtown this year, compared with 11 for the same period last year. That includes a British visitor shot at a table outside Lyon's Pub, a woman mistakenly hit in a drive-by shooting as she waited in line at Pizza Luce after bar close, and a hotel chef shot in the stomach when gunfire erupted near his bus stop in the early evening.
Sullivan points to a proliferation of guns, social media that allows troublemakers to congregate and disperse quickly, and what he calls “a mind-set of violence” as key elements. Disputes too often are settled with guns, and even victims sometimes wave off police, saying “I’ll handle it myself,” Sullivan said. “There are a lot more guns now than when I was a sergeant,” he said. “There are more confrontational attitudes and more defiance.”
The statistical chances of being a crime victim downtown remain low, particularly for daytime workers who exercise reasonable caution with expensive devices and nighttime entertainment-seekers who leave before bar close and remain in relative control of their faculties. But that is small comfort to those who find themselves victimized, and the actual numbers are high enough to warrant forceful action.
Quality of life
Police have lost some tools in the past couple of years that in particular appear to have affected quality-of-life issues. Public drunkenness and aggressive panhandling are more than nuisances — they can be threats to safety. Police used to be able to book inebriates who drank in public. But an order issued by then-Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill in early 2016 quashed that, allowing only ticketing for public drinking.
“Now you see someone with a bottle at 4th and Hennepin and you write a ticket,” Sullivan said. “A half-hour later, they’re at 5th and Hennepin, then 6th and Hennepin. Before, we could interrupt the cycle, get them off the streets and maybe even get them some help.” Hennepin County is the only jurisdiction in the state operating under such an order. Cahill said that his standing order can be changed, but that to his knowledge no such request has been made. It should be, and city officials should make it. Other efforts to help those with addictions should continue, but having created a neighborhood, city officials now have an obligation to ensure that public drunkenness is dealt with effectively.
Panhandling is tougher to deal with, since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 — Reed vs. the town of Gilbert — has been widely interpreted as a prohibition on panhandling laws thought to restrict free speech. The high court did not make a specific ruling on that issue, but the Columbia Law Review recently noted that “there is a real danger that virtually all panhandling laws will be invalidated, even though some serve to protect pedestrians and others.” Because of the court’s decision, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said the city’s panhandling laws are no longer enforced.
Aggressive panhandling is not benign, and it often is committed by individuals with mental-health problems and addictions. There have been reports of panhandlers confronting individuals and demanding money, even chasing them for “donations.” It is possible that more narrowly targeted laws, aimed at harassing behavior or specific locations, such as near ATMs and transit stops, could survive legal scrutiny. Minneapolis officials should undertake a serious effort to craft legally defensible alternatives, rather than leave an apparently unenforceable law on the books.
Similarly, businesses and patrons alike complain about the large number of young people at night whom some see as intimidating. Arradondo said kids often come downtown because they lack activities in their own neighborhoods. That may be, but some undoubtedly come for another reason: bars and clubs downtown that lure the 18-and-older set with cover charges that can be cheaper than a movie ticket.
Entry to the Gay 90’s on Fridays and Saturdays is just $5 for older teens. At Bar Fly’s “House Party Fridays,” women 18 and older get in for $10 (similarly aged men pay $2 more). Once in, they can party until 2 a.m. Hand stamps ostensibly prevent minors from being served alcohol, but those old enough to drink can buy cocktails on Saturdays for a buck or two until 11 p.m.
Little surprise, then, that crowd management at bar close presents a logistical nightmare for Minneapolis police. City leaders should press bar and club owners to take voluntary measures to deal with this issue, whether it’s restrictions on 18-plus events or perhaps just a requirement that those under 21 clear out earlier. If they fail to do so, the city should consider taking action.
“I’m not a big fan of those under-21 events,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “I don’t see a positive societal gain from having 18- and 19-year-olds hanging out in what essentially are bars that offer dancing.” The risk of trouble goes up exponentially after 1 a.m., he said, “and kids are particularly vulnerable.”
With higher expectations for public safety, it’s reasonable to think about greater resources. The Minneapolis police force stands at 877 officers. That’s larger than in years past, but still short of the 901-officer goal set earlier by Mayor Betsy Hodges. Some proposals have been made regarding public-safety initiatives that may prove worthy, but they should be weighed heavily against the value of adding sworn officers to a force that remains undersized for the demands made of it.
There’s another, more intractable problem that Freeman, Segal, Arradondo and others wrestle with: guns. “We as a society have refused to provide law enforcement with the resources and laws needed to reduce the number of guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” Freeman said.
Options here are few, especially in light of the strength of the gun lobby. Some attempts at municipal restrictions have been struck down. One notable exception is New York City, where carrying a gun requires a special city permit issued by the police commissioner. Minnesota typically has had strong Second Amendment protections, but it may be time for Minneapolis to explore its own carve-out. Illinois recently passed a law to restrict gun trafficking that was openly aimed at curbing gun violence in Chicago.
The legislative delegations from Minneapolis and St. Paul, with assists from city leaders, should make their voices heard on resurrecting a gun safety bill that would require criminal background checks for gun sales made at gun shows, privately and online. These are the same background checks gun shop owners are required to conduct, and a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll last year found strong support for such a measure — 82 percent.
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Making downtown safer — and just as important, making it feel safer — will require innovation and cooperation. This region and state all have a stake in the health of downtown Minneapolis, and the Super Bowl in 2018 and NCAA Final Four in 2019 will put the city in the national spotlight. In the weeks before the Nov. 7 election, candidates for mayor and City Council should be pressed to articulate specific strategies that will ensure the vibrancy and safety of downtown for residents, employers and visitors. Community members should be engaged in meaningful ways. In the coming weeks, the Star Tribune Editorial Board will do its part to hold candidates accountable.
Minneapolis has much it can build on as it charts downtown’s future. But the city and its leaders cannot rest.
Coming next Sunday: Many of the most high-profile and violent crimes in downtown Minneapolis in recent years have occurred in the Warehouse District — the epicenter of city’s theater, music and bar scene, as well as two major sports venues.