Police squad cars, officers on horseback and surveillance cameras have increased on Nicollet Mall in recent weeks to fight what one business leader referred to as “challenging behavior” in downtown Minneapolis.
The greater police presence is one of several tactics businesses are using to restore a sense of safety on the street, said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. Reported incidents are up on the street this year, Cramer said, including “large crowds of young adults; increased, very visible homelessness and people with obvious intoxication.”
“The hope is to calm things down on Nicollet and restore a sense of confidence about the city’s main business street,” he said Thursday. “People have been lacking in confidence ... and we have to get it back.”
Downtown Minneapolis, once the beating heart of the city, has lost its bustle in recent months, with the coronavirus pandemic emptying offices, restaurants and retailers. Nicollet Mall looks grim even compared with the beginning of the shutdown, with storefronts and windows still boarded up from August after stores were looted and vandalized following a suicide on the street falsely rumored to have been a police killing.
Downtown West has reported more property crimes than any other neighborhood this year, according to Minneapolis police data.
Though violent crimes downtown are down 7% when compared with last year, homicides and aggravated assaults are up, First Precinct Patrol Lt. Mark Klukow said.
“The thing that has created safety on Nicollet Mall has been people,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents a portion of downtown. “Ninety percent of the office workers who would typically come and be a presence on the street are not coming, so figuring out strategies for creating a sense of safety have been a priority.”
In the past month, the Downtown Improvement District, a business-led nonprofit, has requested that the First Precinct focus its attention along Nicollet Mall, primarily between 8th and 12th streets, Cramer said.
It has also contracted with nonprofits MAD DADS and YouthLink, whose workers are out on the street from morning to late night, and brought out more of their downtown ambassadors to greet visitors and sweep the street.
Officers have been on the street 11 nights in the past three weeks, Klukow said. They are starting their shifts earlier or staying late and patrolling on bike, horse, ATV, squad car and foot.
“It is as old as policing to saturate an area with a lot of police officers and give them the orders to engage people and look for criminals,” Klukow said.
They have looked for and arrested suspects involved in August’s looting almost every night, Klukow said. Beat officers, he said, recognize and interact with the people they see on the street every day.
“They’re not necessarily leaving. They are doing the things that bother other folks less,” he said.
Officers were on nearly every corner of Nicollet Mall between 7th and 9th streets Thursday afternoon. Squad cars were parked on the curb with their lights flashing, and officers sat on horseback on 7th Street. Several mobile surveillance cameras were stationed along the way. Meanwhile, outreach workers wearing green MAD DADS hoodies chatted with people, clipboards in hand, outside of the Target and Walgreens stores.
Fletcher, one of nine council members who pledged to end the Minneapolis Police Department, said he recognized that seeing more officers on the street can be unnerving for some.
“We know that there are a huge number of people in our community who feel less safe when they see a big police presence, and who feel less invited,” he said. “In the meantime, we are responding with the imperfect tools we have as we try to build a better system together.”
Because it has fewer customers, the downtown Target shortened its hours and closes at 6 p.m. The store, whose entrance is still boarded up with plywood, has also temporarily suspended alcohol sales and removed its wine, beer and liquor from shelves.
The Downtown Improvement District has spent about $100,000 this year on contracts with the outreach groups and expanding the ambassador service, Cramer estimated. That effort will last through the end of October.
“We definitely have been getting a lot of great feedback from the folks that use Nicollet Mall,” Klukow said. “We are going to continue it, but I think cold weather might replace us pretty soon.”