A man was shot three blocks away, and the crowds hardly noticed.

Two groups tumbled out of Privé, a nightclub on 1st Avenue, looking to fight just after bar close. Police on foot and horseback dispersed the crowd, which drifted toward Hennepin Avenue. Shots rang out.

A male bystander caught a bullet in the leg and was wheeled into an ambulance just after the second-to-last Blue Line train left the platform at 2:17 a.m.

The incident over Labor Day weekend highlighted one of the most vexing problems facing Minneapolis in an election year: downtown shootings and a general sense of eroded public safety along Hennepin and 1st avenues, the entertainment district often flush with Twins and Timberwolves fans, concertgoers, theatergoers and nightclubbers.

Solving the problem will fall to the person elected in November as mayor, the office directly responsible for public safety.

Navigating the issue is politically tricky. Candidates hear urgent calls for law and order from downtown interests. They also feel pressure in the wake of the Jamar Clark shooting for officers to avoid over-policing and unnecessary confrontations with young people.

Police are caught in the middle and aren't vigorously protecting downtown, said Steve Cramer of the Downtown Council, which represents business interests in the area.

"Elected officials, business leaders, folks who want that, need to step up and support the police in that conduct," Cramer said. "It doesn't mean roughing people up, it doesn't mean illegal things, but it does mean solid, aggressive, professional police work."

Mayor Betsy Hodges, who's trying to fend off several serious challengers in her bid for re-election, argues that most of the work needed downtown is already underway. The city has launched efforts to calm downtown streets, Hodges has reorganized the police department so it is top-heavy with downtown experience, and she put $650,000 in her 2018 budget for downtown nighttime traffic enforcement.

"Having shootings downtown, anybody getting shot, including bystanders, is unacceptable," she said.

The mayor has, however, resisted calls for a dramatically ramped-up police presence or aggressiveness, instead describing the problem, and her strategy for dealing with it, in more holistic terms.

"Public safety has to be that partnership between law enforcement and community," she said. "Law enforcement alone cannot solve this problem."

Two of Hodges' opponents — Tom Hoch and Jacob Frey — say she has not done enough to address a problem that's eating at the core of the Twin Cities.

"The mayor can't always be on the street, but for god's sake, you have to show intense interest in something that's so important for our city," Hoch said. "How many more summers are we going to have this conversation? Every month, or even every week, something happens downtown."

Protecting downtown

Minneapolis is throwing all sorts of fixes at the problem — more work with nonprofits whose aim is persuading young people downtown to be less disruptive, more probation officers walking the beat with cops, gang violence intervention programs, and curfew enforcement. Hodges and the Police Department reject the refrain that police are somehow reluctant to enforce the law.

"We can't arrest people for being downtown," Hodges said. "Law enforcement needs to be about behavior, not people."

Despite the city's efforts, several bystanders have been struck by bullets downtown in recent months. A man was hit in the leg outside Lyon's Pub in May. A woman was shot waiting in line at Pizza Luce in June.

Police accountability dominated the public debate after the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July, but downtown safety roared back to the fore later in the summer when a woman died after being stabbed in a parking ramp robbery and a stray bullet hit a bystander at 7:15 p.m. in front of Jimmy John's on 6th Street. Shots fired after 2 a.m. is one thing; bullets flying in daylight is another.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek stepped in — with new Minneapolis Chief Medaria Arradondo's blessing — posting 13 deputies on Hennepin Avenue street corners "to re-establish some bounds of decency." Stanek said the deputies will be downtown for at least a couple more weeks.

Frey, who has been criticized by businesses in the Warehouse District for not doing enough for public safety in the Third Ward, said "unacceptable is a dramatic understatement" for the state of affairs downtown.

"You won't have a world class city without a world class downtown, and you won't have a world class downtown unless it is safe and people feel that way," Frey said. "Right now, that's just not the case."

A broader problem

Too many young people come downtown with no intention of spending money and nothing to do, said Ray Jackson, head bouncer at the Loon Cafe. They don't fear the police and they get away with too much mischief, he added.

"I see people fight, and they just mace them," Jackson said, surveying the crowd at 11:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday. "Back in the old days, people used to go to jail. They don't go to jail anymore."

Crime stats show a marked uptick in robbery, assault and theft on the west side of downtown starting in 2014.

From 2001 to 2010, Minneapolis police reported an average of 13 robberies and 15 aggravated assaults each July on the west side of downtown. This July there were 30 robberies and 18 aggravated assaults.

When it comes to gunfire, 18 people have been wounded in downtown Minneapolis so far this year, one fatally. That's up from last year. Almost all the shootings happen after midnight.

Fifteen years ago, bars were bigger and crowds were thicker. Now, "the crowds are much smaller, but they're more volatile," said Assistant Chief Mike Kjos.

The disagreements that lead to shootings are over small things — a girl, a dirty look, a disrespectful comment. But police can't arrest people for looking like they might fight, Kjos said. In order to stop someone, "you have to have a violation, because you don't want to go down the path of harassment," he said.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, who is running for mayor, said the city needs "greater resources" for the homeless, jobs and housing for ex-offenders. She would work with Arradondo to put together a research-backed plan to lower crime, she said, and cut public safety costs.

"We need a plan that includes better lighting, monitoring of data from cameras, and a greater focus on solving unsolved crime and homicides," she said. "We also need a diverse team of well-trained officers walking the beat, who have a nexus to the community."

State Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, who also is running for mayor, said the city should focus on the root causes of these "crimes of desperation and retaliation" by trying to help people who've been left behind find opportunity, jobs and homes.

"Putting cops on the streets is spending money," Dehn said. "Helping people change their lives is investing money."

The city has a "long ways to go to re-establish trust between police and the people," he said, and more cops on street corners is "not a long-term solution."