Violent crimes soared by 21% in Minneapolis last year, adding a painful coda to the city's struggles in coping with a deadly pandemic and widespread protests against racial injustice.
The city recorded 5,422 violent crime incidents, including homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, according to preliminary year-end Minneapolis police statistics. That is a dramatic jump over the previous five years, which averaged roughly 4,496 such crimes. Property crime saw a more modest 10% increase.
K.B. Brown and his wife, Katie, own a screen-printing business in north Minneapolis that is regularly commissioned to design "R.I.P." shirts, in memory of loved ones taken too soon. Such orders started to pick up last summer, he said, as the number of shootings surged. He briefly considered doing away with the service after the anguish of making shirts for the families of several friends who were slain last year. But then he thought better of it, saying he now sees the shirts as a small comfort to those in grief.
"We absorb some of that energy and pain," he said. "It's getting harder and harder."
A range of mental health experts and community leaders say that the increase in violence is unlikely due to any one factor. But most lay the blame largely on the pandemic, which has left many jobless and struggling to pay their bills, shuttered schools and worsened the lack of affordable housing.
Weeks of social unrest over George Floyd and other Black Americans who died at the hands of police added to the toll on an already weary city, officials say.
Violent crime climbed in almost every part of the city, but it continued to exact the heaviest toll in poorer neighborhoods, a Star Tribune analysis found.
On the North Side, the Fifth Ward saw violent crime climb 36% over the five-year average, with homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults like shootings and stabbings going up. The neighboring Fourth Ward to the north saw similar increases, with the exception of robberies, which fell 21%.
In south Minneapolis, the Sixth and Ninth Wards, which stretch from the edge of downtown to Powderhorn Park, also saw a steep increase in violence, particularly in the number of assaults and robberies. The Ninth Ward had 16 homicides in 2020, after never recording more than four in any of the previous five years. Meanwhile, more affluent neighborhoods sometimes went weeks without a violent incident.
Citywide, 553 people were struck by gunfire, the highest tally by far of at least the past 15 years, MPD data show. As in the past, many were the result of feuds between rival youth gangs, according to police.
By year's end, the city recorded 84 homicides, according to a database maintained by the Star Tribune — which differs slightly from the official statistics maintained by the MPD, which don't include the deaths of Floyd and Dolal Idd, a 23-year-old man fatally shot during an attempted gun sting operation. That total puts this year behind only 1995, when 97 slayings spawned the grim nickname "Murderapolis."
Park Board Commissioner Londel French said that the pandemic has made it harder to reach the youth most at risk of violence. At the same time, he said, there was already a lack of programs for men between 18 and 25, funding for which he says dried up during the financial crisis of the mid-2000s, and was never restored.
"There's nothing for them," French said. "All this money and resources we put in for teenagers, which we need to do, but after they turn 18 we just forget about them, and they're not adults, at least mentally."
Minneapolis is in line with a national trend that saw homicide rates jump 30% in other large U.S. cities, according to a new report by the Council on Criminal Justice and Arnold Ventures, which suggests the coronavirus pandemic and unrest over racial injustice were factors. At the same time, those cities saw declines in property and drug crimes, the study found, where Minneapolis did not. The increase in crime, the Star Tribune analysis found, dates to last spring, when the state imposed its first stay-at-home order to stem the spread of the virus.
Police officials point to what they see as a revolving door for suspects in some crimes, with arrests followed by quick release, under new rules aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in jails. Often they would only be rearrested for the same crime. Others blamed the rise in crime on reductions in certain traffic stops after criticism about racial profiling, and new pursuit guidelines that bar officers from chasing fleeing suspects in all but the most serious cases.
But, Artika Tyner, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said the full answer for the increase is likely more complex. She said that Floyd's death awakened some to the hard truth that Minneapolis' Black residents have always known: A city long praised for its progressivism is home to some of the country's worst racial disparities.
Many of the city's Black residents are concentrated in the poorer neighborhoods on the North Side, where decades of racist land-use planning and overly aggressive policing have left their mark, according to Tyner.
Stark differences remain in educational attainment and earnings, she said. And communities of color were also hit hardest by the pandemic. As the virus slowed the local economy to a near halt, the poverty rate for Blacks jumped to 25%, she said, four times higher than it was for whites.
Any attempts to deal with crime, she said, must have a "public health lens" that focuses on prevention, using "culturally specific practices" that are tailored to a community's needs.
"We can talk around them, and we can go across the street and not discuss them, but at the root of many of these issues, it's right there," said Tyner, who runs the school's Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice.
Although violent crime was trending upward through the first half of the 2020, it really took off after May 25, when Floyd died, MPD data show. Experts said that other cities experienced similar surges in violent crime in the wake of a controversial police killing, including Baltimore after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Protests also consumed that city; its embattled police force went under federal investigation, and the city ended that year with 342 homicides.
Some see the sudden increase in violence as a reflection of the shaken faith of communities in the police, arguing that police abuse can undermine law enforcement's claims of legitimacy and encourage people to take the law into their own hands. That fractured trust might mean that fewer witnesses are willing to come forward in criminal investigations, leading to more suspects walking free and a further erosion of public confidence.
In Minneapolis, the number of arrests and traffic stops fell in 2020, continuing a yearslong decline. Department officials say the homicide solve rate is in the mid-40%, well below the national average. However, MPD spokesman John Elder stressed that since most of the city's homicides occurred in the second half of the year, investigations are ongoing.
"We expect that number to increase substantially as the investigations continue," he said.
The rise in crime touched off months of political jousting last year, and promises to be a major campaign issue in this fall's local election. Less than two weeks after Floyd's death, nine council members appeared onstage at a rally in support of the "Defund the Police" movement and took a pledge to work to end the city's reliance on police.
Then, last month the council voted to redirect nearly $8 million from MPD's budget to fund its own vision of crime prevention, investing in teams of mental health counselors, gang intervention workers and other professionals who could help thwart problems before they start and address trauma.
Proponents are hopeful that these programs of the Office of Violence Prevention will be up and running in the next few months, just in time for summer, which typically brings more violence. Others wonder whether crime patterns will return their pre-pandemic levels as vaccinations continue and more businesses reopen.
The depleted force is also down dozens of officers, with about roughly 155 cops out on personal leave, many due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Scores retired, left for jobs at other agencies, or taken a voluntary buyout.
Last week, department officials announced that the city's police force, which had 877 officers at the start of last year, was down to 638.
With most school districts still closed for in-person services, many young people simply have nowhere to go during the day, said Kristel Porter, a candidate for the Fifth Ward council seat. Meanwhile, she said, parents struggling to make ends meet had less time to devote to keeping their kids off the streets and out of trouble.
"Let's just be real, school is a place for us to send our children to learn, but is also a place where we are paying our taxes for our children to be looked after," said Porter, who runs a nonprofit that provides solar installation for North Side families.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany