Police and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office said that aggressive enforcement and helicopter surveillance netted 87 arrests and dozens of felony charges during carjacking crackdowns this winter in south Minneapolis.
But a Star Tribune analysis of Hennepin County jail rosters on the days the helicopter was in use could not verify authorities' claims that the operations "resulted in 41 felony-level arrests" in December and 46 arrests with "69 felony-level charges" in January.
When pressed on the issue, city officials later acknowledged that just 15 of those cases were actually charged, though police say many remain under investigation.
The enforcement campaign's inflated success is deeply concerning to many south Minneapolis residents who endured days of low-flying helicopter operation that now has them questioning the value of the surveillance and wondering what other information authorities were collecting.
"Everyone was talking about it. It was disruptive, annoying," longtime Powderhorn resident Molly Priesmeyer said. "People who had sensory issues were like, 'It's loud, it's making me feel like I want to crawl out of my skin.' "
Her neighborhood felt like a war zone, and it brought back traumatic memories from last summer, when helicopters constantly hovered following George Floyd's death.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., will hold a listening session Tuesday to address Minneapolis residents' concerns about "techniques being used to monitor the community."
Carjackings tripled in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest following Floyd's death, and some City Council members' proposal to dismantle the Minneapolis police department. Elected officials have faced intense pressure from residents to clamp down on the surging crime since last summer.
The inflated numbers announced by authorities baffled members of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, who worked to track down the cases after Minneapolis police publicized charges that had not been filed.
"They may well have made arrests, but an arrest is not a charge," said retired judge Daniel Mabley, who acts as a consultant on carjacking cases for the county attorney's office. "They can't issue charges; only the county attorney can."
Mabley suspects law enforcement misidentified "probable cause arrests" as formal charges — a wording error he called "unfortunate."
So far, investigators have presented 23 cases to prosecutors stemming from the separate operations. Of those, 15 were charged. Only one criminal complaint is related to carjacking.
Initial questions about the legitimacy of the charging numbers were first reported by KARE 11 TV.
Both Minneapolis police and Sheriff Dave Hutchinson have defended the enforcement details as a significant crime reduction effort that accounted for the seizure of 20 firearms, 19 stolen vehicles and one pipe bomb. They say they expect more charges to be filed in coming weeks.
"This operation yielded a variety of felony-level arrests, including numerous felony warrants, and has resulted in the recovery of illegal firearms from the hands of persons prohibited from possessing such weapons," sheriff's spokesman Andy Skoogman said in a statement. City officials said they are committed to transparency around the use of helicopters, which are "part of a larger operation to crack down on carjackings and other violent crimes across the city," Mayor Jacob Frey and Chief Medaria Arradondo said in a joint statement to the Star Tribune.
MPD spokesman John Elder did not respond to requests for comment.
The State Patrol said that its helicopter was deployed to south Minneapolis six days in December and three days in January, logging just over 24 hours at $560.83 per flight hour — a total cost of nearly $13,500.
Priesmeyer, the Powderhorn resident, created a Google Form to collect fellow neighbors' experiences with the helicopter. About 150 responded, describing anxiety, terror, sleep deprivation and stressed-out dogs.
"It's been very challenging for people to get information that tells them this disruption and this potential for surveillance has a value," said City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who recently championed an ordinance prohibiting the city from using facial recognition surveillance technology.
"One of the challenges has been the disconnect between the announcement of arrests and … what kinds of charges are actually being placed," Fletcher said. "I do just think that there's a desire by a lot of people to hear a simple narrative that just says if we put enough police resources into something, we can just get the bad guys and it's that easy. And I think that what we're seeing is something much more complex."
Of charges related to auto theft and weapons violations from the days the helicopter was in use, few stemmed from a calculated crackdown. Instead, criminal complaints describe police running license plates while on "routine patrol," responding to shoplifting and answering 911 calls.
In one case, police on Dec. 20 arrested a man in the Central neighborhood who was already being held down by several civilians who interrupted an alleged car theft in process.
Surveillance is mentioned in a series of charges related to the Minneapolis gun unit's pursuit of several suspects wanted in connection to a gang-related Brooklyn Park drive-by Nov. 30, when two victims were shot multiple times.
The helicopter also played a role in the Dec. 9 arrest of a Stevens Square man who was allegedly driving with a pipe bomb in his car. In another case, officers tracked a stolen SUV to south Minneapolis, where they found an occupant who had a felony warrant for his arrest. The 48-year-old Minneapolis man was later charged over the methamphetamine he allegedly had in his pocket, but not the auto theft.
The single carjacking case confirmed to have come out of the helicopter-assisted details involved a St. Paul man accused of robbing multiple people at gunpoint in November. A search of his house turned up a handgun, and he was charged Dec. 11 with five counts of aggravated robbery and one count of assault with a dangerous weapon.
In a virtual town hall in February, City Council Member Andrea Jenkins applauded police for making some arrests but urged them to acknowledge residents' concerns.
"Sometimes we keep seeing the same people back out on the streets," Jenkins said. "And people have been also complaining that they feel like they are not getting a response from MPD and/or from 311."