Downtown Minneapolis crime wave has police gearing up

Robberies, assaults way up, with summer club season just starting.

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A security guard for Club Envy encouraged crowds to disperse after the bar’s 2 a.m. closing on a recent weekend.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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A week and a half after he was shot in both legs while leaving a downtown Minneapolis nightclub, Marcell Patterson sat in a wheelchair at the hospital, recounting what went wrong.

"When you go down there to have fun, you pretty much know there's a pretty good chance something bad is going to happen," said the 24-year-old Minneapolis resident.

While hundreds of thousands of people work, visit and live downtown without such misfortune, a steady drumbeat of robberies and assaults this spring has pushed the crime rate there to double-digit increases over last year. And summer is just beginning, the time of year when police typically handle larger, rowdier crowds, including the 2 a.m. Warehouse District nightclub closings that have been the setting for stabbings and shootings in summers past.

Stepping into the fray this year will be Inspector Eddie Frizell, a veteran Minneapolis cop who took over the downtown command last month. He's just returned from a year's posting in Iraq, where he served with the Army National Guard.

Frizell, who spent 10 years of his career on mounted horse patrol downtown, said he has numerous strategies for handling one of the most high-profile police assignments in Minneapolis, with increased bike patrols, high-intensity mobile lighting in some problem areas, getting deputies from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office to walk beats, and restricting the bus passes issued to schoolkids to make it harder for them to come downtown late at night or on weekends.

He has his work cut out for him. Robbery has climbed 105 percent in the city's First Precinct, which covers downtown, from 54 cases between Jan. 1 and May 28 last year to 111 cases in the same period this year. Reported rapes climbed from 27 to 37, and aggravated assault from 69 to 87 for the same time period. Violent crime overall, which includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and aggravated domestic assault, has climbed 56 percent so far this year, according to city statistics.

Shane Zahn thinks it has to do with smartphone thefts and the weather.

Zahn, director of safety initiatives for the Downtown Improvement District, said thieves have targeted smartphone users, especially near light-rail and bus stops. The phones sell for a quick $100 to $300, and some users get so distracted using their phone that it's easy to walk up to them and snatch it out of their hands. Depending on what happens next, the crime gets marked down as a robbery, an assault or both.

It's also been much warmer so far this year than it was last year, when heavy snows kept downtown crowds to a minimum in the winter months.

A rash of "flash mob" attacks earlier this year left people injured, some of them severely. Most of the victims in those attacks were young men, many of them walking near Nicollet Mall late at night. The spontaneous nature of the attacks left police frustrated since Nicollet Mall is a primary patrol route.

The attacks have since died down.

Nightclub scene

Still, a flashpoint for violent confrontations remains the streets around nightclubs on 1st Avenue N. It's there after 2 a.m. closing that downtown records some of its most serious incidents. It's also where the police presence is strongest, and while some say they inflame a volatile situation, police don't apologize for their aggressive approach.

Every weekend, police spray chemical irritants to keep clubgoers moving and break up fights. And in the midst of the all the commotion, sometimes people get hurt.

After what happened to him in the early hours of May 21, Patterson won't take his chances in the Warehouse District after dark again.

"I think it's probably a better idea to leave [clubs] early," he said. "Basically, when you're out there at that time you're only asking for a problem. Whether it comes from the law or civilians, it's just not a good time to be out."

A janitor who was planning to take college classes this summer, Patterson was a regular in the club scene. He spent that Sunday night at Elixir Lounge and Pizza Luce.

Patterson said cops were ordering the crowd to move, "pushing people, threatening people, the usual stuff, and trying to get away from them we ran toward a bad situation. ... I was afraid of getting Maced. I went the wrong way, I guess."

Someone shot him twice -- once in each leg -- around 2:30 a.m. Patterson's friend, Derrick Lee Trueblood, was also hit. The relationship of the gunman to the victims -- if there is one -- is unclear, and no arrests have been made. Patterson is recovering in Hennepin County Medical Center, where he still struggles to walk.

Frizell said authorities won't push people to leave downtown immediately after clubs close, but as the hour gets later, the message will get more determined, he said.

"We're not New Orleans or Bourbon Street," he said. "It's not a block party where individuals can occupy the street and the sidewalks."

Horses and police on bikes and on foot will disperse crowds and help move people to their vehicles after bars close, he said.

On a recent night, the club revelers were their usual boisterous selves as they spilled onto the street at 2 a.m.

"Look at it, it's downtown at its finest," said Dion Sanders, 28, of north Minneapolis as he watched people swarm out of Envy and a police officer screamed, "Get off of the street!"

"Goddamn!" yelled Chris Brown, 27, who inadvertently inhaled the chemical that police sprayed at the crowd. He stumbled forward, wheezing. Brown, who goes by the name Doug the Prophet, came out Sunday night to give away his rap CDs. "Innocent bystanders were walking past. They don't know what kind of allergies you [have], a person could get real sick from them spraying stuff just because they want to clear the crowd. They need to figure out new tactics of clearing everybody out."

Brandon Fearing, 21, threw his arm around a spray-can-wielding police officer and jokingly told her to drop it.

The officer smiled and said, "Mace is my best friend."

Tasera Allen, 26, of St. Paul, maintains that clubgoers should not push their luck hanging around downtown past closing time.

"The best thing for people to do is leave right afterwards; if people leave right away things go cool. When they start to hang around and just linger, that's when the fights start."

Even on the more subdued, drizzly Sunday night before Memorial Day, shouts filled the air as people lingered on 4th Street and 1st Avenue N.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to go!" yelled a police officer.

"You're supposed to be puking, you're supposed to be throwing up!" a woman yelled at her friend.

Tia Staples, 21, of St. Paul, said alcohol plays a part in the madness.

"It's crazy, everyone's drunk, apparently, and everyone's been dancing, having a good time. ... Once you leave the club, you never know what's going to happen."

Just before closing time, an ambulance pulled up near Envy as police and medics tried to aid a man who had passed out. He sat on the sidewalk and leaned against a building, his head nodding forward and his pants sliding down.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210 Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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