Minneapolis city, business and nonprofit leaders said Thursday they will debut a concerted effort this weekend to solve the tricky problems of crime, homelessness and general unpleasantness on Hennepin Avenue.
Police and the Downtown Improvement District will post people on each of five blocks along Hennepin Avenue during commuter hours, nonprofits will step up outreach to young people and the homeless, and the efforts will start April 1 rather than Memorial Day as they have in past years.
“Our aim is to get out early, set a positive tone right from the start, and sustain it all through the year on Hennepin Avenue and have that carry over to all of downtown,” said Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and president of the Downtown Council.
The new plan, announced at a news conference Thursday led by Mayor Betsy Hodges, calls for no dramatic increase in police presence, however, which critics say makes it toothless.
The focus should be on arresting people who are drunk and disorderly, said Joe Tamburino, president of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association.
“The downtown ambassadors are very helpful, but they are not police officers,” he said. “What are we doing putting them in a situation where they can be hurt? They don’t have guns, they don’t have Tasers, they don’t have squad cars. … We should not use them to replace law enforcement.”
The First Precinct is soon getting about 15 new police officers, and some will be devoted to the area around Hennepin Avenue, said police spokesman Scott Seroka. “It will be a visible presence,” he said. “If we see criminal activity, we’re going to be arresting people.”
Violent crime downtown dropped in 2016, but the number of robberies in Downtown West is still about double the number in 2008, and over that nine-year period aggravated assault in the area is up 20 percent. Part of the reason foot traffic is heavier on Hennepin is the ongoing reconstruction of Nicollet Mall, which won’t be complete until early 2018.
Jhesenia Reinoso, who works at a hotel and catches a bus home daily, said “it’s not safe here.” What’s needed, she said, is “more police officers, more enforcement of rules against drinking.”
A restaurant and bar called City Works opened at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Seventh Street about a year ago. Violent fights happen on the corner once a week, staff said, and drug deals are common. The restaurant has “No Public Restrooms” signs on the front door, but that doesn’t stop panhandlers from coming in.
“It’s a lot going on on this corner. If they’re trying to do something about it, that is so great,” said Gina Heard, a host at the restaurant.
In a sharply worded letter last fall, downtown leaders, including Cramer, asked Hodges to address the problem. She said Thursday she has witnessed bad behavior on Hennepin Avenue but does not believe Minneapolis can arrest its way out of the problem.
“I saw things that were unpleasant — shouting matches down the block, people who were drunk and wanted me to know it, and it wasn’t illegal, and it wasn’t fun,” Hodges said. “Many of the people engaging in unwelcome behaviors during the day need outreach and engagement, not to be arrested and jailed.”
Hodges, who’s running for re-election, said she will be measuring results, holding meetings and revising the plan as needed. Only one City Council member, John Quincy, was at the news conference. Police Chief Janeé Harteau and several downtown officials were there.
Staff for Council Member Lisa Goodman and Council Member and mayoral candidate Jacob Frey, whose wards include downtown Minneapolis, said they weren’t informed of the event until late Wednesday, which irked them because they have been working on downtown safety for several months and believe the mayor and her staff have been excluding them since Hodges got involved in December.
Aside from the police and downtown ambassador presence on Hennepin during commuter hours, the only major new part of the plan will be an outreach team from vocational school Summit Academy, which will join YouthLink, St. Stephen’s Human Services, Hennepin County and others who are working to get people off the streets and into jobs.
The new initiatives in the plan will be paid for with $250,000 that the City Council earmarked for downtown safety in an amendment to Hodges’ budget that was introduced by Goodman.
“The mayor had six months and $1.3 billion in money to play with, and she didn’t find a penny,” Goodman said. “I found that money in the mayor’s budget and reallocated it to downtown public safety, and my colleagues unanimously supported it.”
Mayoral candidate Tom Hoch, former head of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, also showed up for the event, and said the mayor has been far too slow to act. “I was convening people last summer, last fall, trying to solve this, and the mayor was nowhere. Nowhere!” Hoch said. “This didn’t have to go on so long.”
Some on Hennepin Avenue don’t think there is a problem. Stephanie MacDonald, 26, who was waiting for a bus, said, “I just hang out with everybody,” and said she thinks the only reason there’s an effort to “clean up” Hennepin is that the Super Bowl is coming next year.
“The riffraff or whatever that are out here, we’re Minneapolis,” she said. “Me, I love it just the way it is.”
Rami Farrow, an 18-year-old who was jogging down Hennepin to the light rail, said he sees no problem with the state of affairs, and he thinks more cops won’t help.
“Having more police down here, that’s going to make things worse,” he said. “People aren’t going to stop coming down here. It’s downtown.”