To hear some who live, work and play in downtown Minneapolis tell it, crime moves in only one direction: Up.

That perception was reinforced this week by TV news reports about bands of youths robbing people as they left bars or walked to their cars.

Police officials say crime statistics back up the view that safety has deteriorated in the city's business center.

Reported robberies — a key indicator of a city's overall safety — are dramatically up this year, according to police data. Total robbery numbers from Jan. 1 to Aug. 26 were 240 this year, compared with 156 in the same period last year.

Even more recent data show that as of Monday, robberies in downtown's western half have jumped 70% over the same period last year.

Forty-eight of this year's robberies occurred in a three-week span last month, including 23 from Aug. 20-26.

The neighborhood, one of 88 in the city, accounts for one in every five robberies in Minneapolis, police say. Property crimes there are also at their highest levels in the past five years.

The number of shootings in the surrounding First Precinct are up 22% from last year, to 28 — slightly more than the five-year average of about 27 — with most taking place in Downtown West, which includes most downtown bars and clubs. Overall, violent crime increased 27% year-over-year, mostly because of the spike in robberies.

Police spokesman John Elder said most attacks were the work of a loosely organized robbery ring that preyed on perceived "easy targets" — victims who were intoxicated, alone or on their phones.

"We can very safely say these people were a driving force behind a lot of our crime downtown," he said. He said the area had seen decreases in robberies after a police security operation led to the arrest of 16 suspects, including several minors.

Elder dismissed the suggestion that the department was hamstrung by controversies over its downtown undercover marijuana stings or the repeal of laws banning certain low-level crimes.

He added that with the city coming off 30-year lows in crime rates, some annual fluctuations are to be expected.

Most of the recent uproar over downtown crime was fueled by an Aug. 3 incident featured in the TV reports, in which a man was attacked by 12 people as he lay on a sidewalk near Target Field. According to court filings, the victim was jumped on, hit with planting pots and ridden over by a bicycle. Two weeks later, a man was robbed and knocked unconscious while leaving a bar. Charges were brought in both cases.

Council Member Steve Fletcher, whose ward covers much of downtown, said he was told that the First Precinct operated much of the summer with lower-than-normal staffing levels, leading to gaps in service. "It's insane that we've let MPD operate this way for decades, where their staffing cycles fluctuate like this," he said.

Other statistics paint a less bleak picture for Downtown West. Reported rapes decreased about 18% from this time last year, to 33 cases. And despite a 4% increase in the number of aggravated assaults over 2018, incidents of shootings and stabbings remain down from the five-year average of 132.

Former First Precinct Inspector Eddie Frizell, now Metro Transit police chief, oversaw a reduction in crime during his tenure, which he attributed to safety measures such as improving lighting and erecting barricades around the Warehouse District light-rail station to dissuade would-be robbers from jumping onto the platform.

The question of how safe downtown is elicited a range of responses from area residents and merchants.

Nate Kranz, general manager at First Avenue, said patrons feel unsafe walking to and from shows along Hennepin and First avenues.

"We haven't seen an uptick out on the streets in front of our venue, but I also feel that we're an outlier because we have so much security when we're open that it kind of deflects some of that," he said. "The lack of security in surface parking lots is kind of appalling."

Joe Tamburino said raucous crowds jamming the sidewalks outside popular destinations like the Central Library day and night fuel the perception that downtown streets are unsafe.

"Read some of the reviews online of some of the new hotels that are downtown," said Tamburino, a private attorney who chairs the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association. "You'll see: 'great hotel, great service, but horrible area.' "

His solution is to have a heavier police presence downtown.

More densely populated areas usually have higher crime rates, said Fletcher, pointing out that downtown's population has increased to about 50,000 people, and an additional 3,000 visit the city for work or play on any given day.

But since the stepped-up police enforcement, "we've had a very good week," he said.

Others worried that the arrests of the robbery suspects, most of whom were black, would lead to unnecessary police harassment of minorities downtown.

In many ways, the issue of downtown crime has become a proxy for a larger debate over staffing and turnover at the Police Department, according to Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.

"Crime is up downtown, there's just no two ways about that," he said, while adding that he has seen plenty of reason for optimism, like construction of new hotels and condominiums and the fact that people continue to flock to downtown on the weekends. He said he supports expanding the size of the city's police force, from its current authorized strength of 888.

A recent poll, commissioned by the Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, found that 63% of city residents support adding more officers, although some have questioned the survey's methodology.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064