It was just after 7 p.m. Tuesday as officer Michael DeTomaso patrolled the skyway leading from St. Paul’s Town Square toward the Alliance Bank Building. Except for a custodian polishing the floor, all was quiet.
A couple sat at a table in the nearly deserted food court dining area. Occasionally, a bundled-up worker who’d stayed late scurried past to head home.
“It’s really like this most of the time,” said DeTomaso, 44, a St. Paul police officer since 2011. “Crime is really the exception.”
But recent publicity over a handful of skyway attacks has made some downtown business owners nervous. That, and an uptick in some crimes over a year ago — including robberies — has prompted police to beef up their downtown presence the past couple of weeks. High school tournament season kicks into high gear this week, bringing an estimated 1 million visitors to downtown this month — starting with the girl’s state hockey tournament this week — and perception is important. Any talk of crime is serious business.
“We take it very personally when something bad happens — especially this office,” said DeTomaso, who works out of the St. Paul Police Downtown Patrol office on the skyway level of the Securian Building.
DeTomaso is one of a dozen officers — six during the day, six on the evening shift — who patrol downtown streets in squad cars and the skyways on foot, bicycle and Segway. Police increased those numbers after a skyway assault in late January and an early February incident involving a group loitering in another area of the skyways.
Police arrested a 28-year-old man for a Jan. 19 attack that left one victim with a broken wrist and another with facial injuries. On Feb. 7, police were called after receiving reports about a group of about 10 people loitering and smoking marijuana in a skyway near Mears Park.
Earlier this week, Sgt. Paul Paulos, a department spokesman, said that the increase in police presence “patched the hole. The problem isn’t a problem now.”
Some downtown business folks agree.
“I honestly think that it’s isolated and I know the boys [police] stepped up and they did their jobs,” said Mark Dixon, who owns Legacy Chocolates in the Pioneer-Endicott Building with his wife, Lorraine. “It’s kids, trying to intimidate. And I’m not intimidated at all.”
Statistics on reported crimes from Jan. 1 to Feb. 11, however, show that the number of offenses downtown has increased compared to the same time a year ago — 163 compared with 132. Over the first six weeks of this year, there have been eight more robberies and 13 more narcotics offenses than over the same period last year. The number of assaults and thefts are about the same as a year ago.
Downtown scene changing
John Mannillo, chairman of the Downtown Building Owners Association, said there’s just more activity downtown, and not all of it is good. The Green Line is bringing more teens into the Central Station and the skyways.
“You get five or six kids hanging around, that kind of spooks people,” he said. “When it turns into a fight, that concerns everybody.”
Police have responded, he said. But he would like to see more. Building owners, too, need to ensure that private security levels don’t diminish in the quieter center of downtown.
Lowertown, with its new restaurants and clubs, and the neighborhood near Xcel Energy Center and Rice Park stay busy. It’s the hole in the doughnut — the office areas in between that go dark at 5 p.m. — that attract trouble, he said.
“It’s not when we have a lot of people,” Mannillo said. “It’s when we don’t have a lot of people.”
DeTomaso, who has been on the downtown beat for nearly a year, made a stop Tuesday at Sakura on St. Peter Street. Most businesses have his cellphone and pager numbers in case they need help that wouldn’t require a 911 call.
Dan Schmidt, Sakura’s head bartender, said recent skyway crimes have worried some. But it’s nothing new. Schmidt said he was punched in the face when he was 17 by teens hanging out in the skyways. He still walks the skyways.
“Hell, yeah. I can handle myself,” the bartender said, before nodding to DeTomaso. “And these guys are doing a good job.”
As for any crime or trouble near Kincaid’s, located a block from Rice Park, restaurant manager Sheryl Vatne said simply: “We haven’t seen the bad stuff.”
“One or two incidents are not going to be what drives us to say ‘Oh my gosh!’ ” said Joe Spartz, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association.
At the Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday, Blake students Walker Albinson, Walker Bond and Camren Hansen lined up to buy tickets to the opening game of the girls’ hockey tournament. They said they hadn’t heard about the recent assaults and crime downtown and weren’t worried about it.
About the same time the game started, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman joined a nearby news conference touting the events that are expected to flood downtown with visitors. He praised the police response to several recent assaults and pointed to 17 arrests since October, adding that he doesn’t believe that news reports about crime will scare visitors away.
“It’s a blip on the radar screen,” Coleman said. “I think people will understand that it is very safe downtown.”