After a night of partying at a downtown Minneapolis nightclub, Sir Knox ushered his friends out a few minutes before 2 a.m., looking to avoid the problems that can come around bar closing time.

But suddenly, two men began shooting at each other on the crowded sidewalk.

As friends took off running, Knox yelled, "Get down!" before hitting the ground. He saw a young man sprint past him and then fall. When the gunfire quieted, Knox looked up to see the man on the pavement a few feet away, fatally wounded. He would later be identified as 21-year-old University of St. Thomas student Charlie Johnson, who was just hours from graduating.

Shaken by the tragedy, Knox, 29, an Edina mail carrier, said he's thankful the bullets missed him and his friends, "and that we're breathing and that we love each other."

Johnson was one of two people killed in the May 22 shootout — the other was Christopher Jones, 23, who police say was the intended target and shot back in self-defense. Eight others were wounded. The man accused of starting the gunfire faces multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. More shots broke out near the North Side church that held a memorial service for Jones, killing one man and wounding another.

As Minneapolis struggles to develop a new approach to public safety amid intense scrutiny of its Police Department, it faces a depressingly familiar problem: how to curb surging violence as the weather warms.

As of Thursday, the city had 273 gunshot victims and 43 homicides so far this year, mostly by gunfire. Overnight Friday, five more people were shot and wounded in Dinkytown.

Mayor Jacob Frey and other city leaders say they are focused on reducing crime during the summer months, deploying teams of violence intervention workers and bringing in outside law enforcement help to boost the depleted police force, down by one-third since George Floyd's murder last year. Others worry that officials are going back on their pledge to radically reimagine public safety. The answer, they say, is funding affordable housing, health initiatives and other services supporting communities of color, not more cops.

According to the most recent police statistics, the number of people shot citywide went up nearly 90% compared with the first half of last year, while homicides jumped from 22 to 40 in that same period. This year has seen violent crime arrests drop by about a third, with about 400 so far, compared with about 600 at this time last year.

Some critics argue that the city's crime-fighting efforts have been muddied by politics.

Frey called a news conference in May to announce a new public safety plan that was sweeping in scope, if light on details. The following day, the two council members who represent most of north Minneapolis, Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison, held their own media event, urging the mayor to take a more aggressive approach to what they deemed a "crisis in our city." A week later, Frey joined Ellison to discuss a proposed initiative that called for having unarmed "community safety specialists" patrol the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Noticeably missing from that event was Sasha Cotton, director of the city's Office of Violence Prevention. Cotton declined to comment.

Her absence highlighted the problem of policymakers ignoring the voices of those who are on the ground doing violence prevention work, particularly Black voices, according to Jason Sole, a Hamline University professor and onetime head of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter.

He wondered why leaders "wait for the violence to actually start saying, 'We're creating a whole new program.' "

The recent shootings continued an unusual surge in violence that dates to the unrest that followed Floyd's killing. The number of homicides in Minneapolis jumped from 48 in 2019 to 84 in 2020 — one of the deadliest years on record. This year is on pace to exceed 2020's total.

From Portland to Baltimore, cities across the country saw shootings and homicides soar in 2020, a trend that has continued in the first half of this year. The spike has been blamed on a combination of factors, ranging from rising gun sales to entrenched inequality to frayed relations between communities and law enforcement — all made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

After Floyd's death, Minneapolis became the epicenter of a movement to defund police in favor of a public health approach that could address the cycles of trauma that proponents say can lead to violence. Last December, the City Council voted to divert roughly $8 million from the Police Department's $179 million budget to other services — $1.1 million of which went to expanding the MinneapolUS program, which sends "violence interrupters" to defuse conflicts. After months of training, the first group hit city streets in June.

Such efforts could benefit from a proposal by President Joe Biden to spend $5 billion on "evidence-based community violence prevention programs" over the next eight years. Earlier in June, the president also proposed allocating a couple of billion dollars to address the country's surging gun violence.

Federal funding could help prop up other crime prevention efforts, too, such as the hospital-based intervention program Next Step and Project LIFE, which focuses on the small group of young men who police say are at the greatest risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence.

The extent of the gun problem was underscored by the shootings of three young children. Further adding to the tension, members of a federal task force fatally shot Winston Smith during an arrest attempt at an Uptown parking ramp June 3, spawning a fresh wave of protests. A man in an SUV plowed into protesters at one of those demonstrations, killing a woman and injuring two other people. He now faces murder charges.

The city's most recent fatal shooting came Wednesday afternoon, when police say a man was killed during an altercation outside the Stop and Shop gas station near E. Lake Street and S. 17th Avenue, the third homicide at that station so far in 2021.

Muhammad Abdul-Ahad, who runs the violence interrupter network on the city's South Side, said that to reach some of the most at-risk individuals, outreach workers must contend with layers of anger and alienation that only someone who has walked in their shoes could understand.

"It's not like some of these people don't want change or want help, because sometimes you've gotta bring it to them, because they don't know where to look," said Abdul-Ahad. "Without trust, none of this is going to work."

Down by 200 police officers

Department officials say it is no coincidence that the rise in crime comes after the departure of at least 200 members of the city's police force — through retirements, resignations and medical leaves in the months since Floyd's death. Only 19 people were in a new class of cadets that just hit the streets. Staffing shortages mean that officers are spending less time doing the type of "proactive policing" that can help fight crime, while detectives are carrying such high caseloads that some shootings with no obvious suspect sometimes aren't even assigned, officials say.

A council subcommittee last week signed off on an additional $5 million in police funding, a move that if approved by the full council would offset some of the cuts it made to MPD funding last year.

Ayolonda Evans, director of community response and education at the gun violence prevention group Protect Minnesota, agrees with the long-term goals of the defund movement, but worries that in its rush to end the reliance on police, its proponents don't have clear answers to the gun violence in a city where roughly four out of every five gunshot victims are Black men. While many people of color don't trust the police, they want some sort of response when gunshots ring out in their neighborhoods, she said.

"Instead of this 'defund the police' frame, it's important that we talk about investing in Black families," said Evans.

Like the recent child victims and the St. Thomas student, a growing number of those struck by gunfire are innocent bystanders, police say. The carnage has included the shooting of a youth soccer coach who was leading practice when a wayward bullet struck him in the rib cage. Another three people were shot, two fatally, when gunfire broke out during street racing events. And a 53-year-old man was shot in the neck, caught in the crossfire of the occupants of two cars shooting at each other.

Thurman Barnes, assistant director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, said that the new generation of activists who led the movement sparked by Floyd's death have opened many people's minds to the idea that some problems have solutions outside law enforcement. But the recent nationwide rise in crime could test that progress, as politicians and police chiefs push for quick fixes amid community backlash, he said.

"We don't ever talk about social determinants of health when we talk about gun violence: keeping kids in school, access to education and wealth — and I'm not talking about a mansion here, I'm talking about keeping the lights on in your life," he said.

On a recent night, Marcus Smith was tending to a makeshift memorial of stuffed animals, candles and balloons at the corner of N. 36th and Penn avenues, where 6-year-old Aniya Allen was mortally wounded when a bullet flew into the car in which she was a passenger. Having marched in Black Lives Matter rallies in the past, Smith said that he understands that police violence and community violence are separate issues. But he still feels that many people have grown inured to Black lives lost to the latter.

He said he had grown so frustrated by the conversations around public safety being dominated by those whose daily lives weren't shaped by gunfire, that he decided to start his own neighborhood watch group, called Black Lives Matter da Streetz.

Referring to Aniya's death, he said, "An angel was taken from us, and people act like it's normal."

This story is part of a collaboration with "Frontline," the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Star Tribune data journalist Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany