Searching for Answers

Uptown residents look for answers, ways to fight crime after brutal murder

Just days after 25-year-old Michael Zebuhr was fatally shot during a robbery in Uptown, area residents filled a meeting room at Bryant Square Park and quietly listened as police and city officials tried to provide answers and vowed to redouble crime-fighting efforts.

As residents asked questions, it was evident the sheer brutality of the murder of Michael Zebuhr weighed heavily on the minds of many. As police get closer to solving the stunningly brazen attack, community members are looking at ways they can make the area safer.

Many are organizing and joining walking patrol groups, in addition to pushing for an increased police presence, better lighting on side streets and more parking options closer to Uptown’s entertainment venues.

At a press conference April 4, police said five people were involved in Zebuhr’s murder and two had been arrested but not yet charged. The motive for the crime was robbery, police said.

Police arrested a 22-year-old Minneapolis woman and a 17-year-old male in connection with the shooting at approximately 5 p.m. on April 3 on the 3300 block of Emerson Avenue North. Assistant Police Chief Tim Dolan, who will take over as interim police chief April 15, said police are “extremely confident” that the person responsible for the shooting is the 17-year-old male in custody.

As of the time the Southwest Journal went to press April 4, police were still searching for three other suspects. They were also still searching for the gun used in the shooting and a white 1994 Ford Taurus with the Minnesota license plate number GFG 527.

“We’re still working on this investigation,” Dolan said, adding that police need anyone with information about the case to come forward.

Police said they know who the three other people involved in the shooting are, and they issued a warrant for one juvenile male. Police would not comment on how the five suspects are connected.

A graduate student at Clemson University in South Carolina, Zebuhr and his mother had traveled to Minneapolis during his spring break to visit his sister. The family vacation turned deadly as Zebuhr, his mother, sister and a friend left a Calhoun Square restaurant just before 10 p.m. on March 18 and began walking toward the car they had parked near West 31st Street and Girard Avenue South.

It was there, according to police, that two men approached the group and demanded the mother’s purse. She handed it over without resistance, but one of the assailants then shot her son in the head before both suspects fled on foot and got into a white vehicle. Zebuhr died late the next night, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office.

Residents speak out about perceived crime spike

While the more than 100 residents present at the March 21 community meeting voiced their shock and sorrow over the seemingly unprovoked attack, it was clear their frustration was about more than just this one incident.

Robberies in the 5th Precinct are up 43 percent compared to last year as of March 27, according to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Although robberies in the 5th Precinct are actually down half a percent when averaged over the last three years, one area resident after another spoke out at the community meeting about the noticeable increase in crime, especially robberies and burglaries.

“Criminals are viewing our neighborhood as an ATM. They know their handgun is an ATM card and each of us is a potential money source,” said Mike Flowers, who lives on Girard Avenue South.

Many residents have been the victims of robberies or burglaries themselves or know someone close to them who has been, said Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG) Community Coordinator Scott Engel.

“Robberies are up like crazy, and that’s what people are reacting to,” said Engel, who has worked in CARAG for nearly six years. “They know neighbors, they know family or they know friends who have been robbed, and this is different from the past.”

Two years ago, Engel said, crime was not a concern in the neighborhood. But in the last few years, he’s been hearing more from residents who are frightened by the increase in the number and violent nature of crimes in the area.

“It’s people with guns and people with knives, and we’re seeing a lot more of it,” Engel said.

Serious crime on the rise

Police data show that serious crimes, known as Part I crimes – which include homicide, rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, theft, motor vehicle theft and arson – are up more than 20 percent in the Uptown area this year.

From Jan. 1 through March 20, there were 193 Part I crimes, compared to 160 during the same period last year.

A quick glance through police reports filed in Southwest during the first few months of this year shows a host of robberies similar to the one that led to Zebuhr’s death.

During a Feb. 22 incident in the CARAG neighborhood – where Zebuhr’s attack occurred – a suspect approached a 63-year-old woman from behind at West 32nd Street and Aldrich Avenue South and stole her wallet. The next day, a suspect robbed a 53-year-old man at gunpoint at West 34th Street and Lyndale Avenue South and stole his wallet. Both incidents occurred in the early evening.

Other Uptown neighborhoods, like the Wedge, have seen similar incidents. On Feb. 22, a suspect robbed two women and a man at gunpoint on the 2700 block of Colfax Avenue South. And the same week Zebuhr was shot, five men assaulted a man at 40th Street and Blaisdell Avenue in the Kingfield neighborhood. The men punched and kicked the victim and yelled “gimme your money” before fleeing.

Bobbie Olson, a 23-year-old who lives at West 31st Street and Fremont Avenue South – just a block from where the shooting happened – said she was aware that crime has been increasing in Uptown but that Zebuhr’s death has been a “wake-up call” for her as well as for her friends and neighbors. She was gone the weekend of the shooting but returned to find the neighborhood abuzz.

“You feel safe, and I think this is a reminder that these types of things can happen here,” Olson said.

What makes the incident so scary, she said, is that she frequently walks to bars and restaurants in Uptown with friends and returns late at night on the same street that Zebuhr was shot on.

“We always feel if we go out in groups, we’ll be safe,” Olson said. “Obviously that’s not always true.”

Business owners are also concerned about the safety of employees who often drive to work and park on side streets.

Mike Sherwood, who recently opened his second Pizza Nea restaurant at 1221 W. Lake St., pointed out that Uptown employees leaving work late with pockets full of tip money are especially vulnerable to robberies. He said one of his servers was mugged and beaten recently, suffering several broken teeth in the attack. Business in the area will likely suffer for a while as potential customers remain wary about visiting Uptown, he said.

“Nobody wants business to be slow, but what’s more important here is that somebody lost their life,” Sherwood said.

During a press conference March 21 about Zebuhr’s murder, Police Chief William McManus acknowledged that community members are “shocked and upset.” Residents held two vigils after Zebuhr’s murder.

“The Police Department is doing everything it can do to ensure closure in this case,” McManus said.

Measures to battle crime

While police work on solving Zebuhr’s case, Uptown residents are looking for ways to fight increased crime.

City Councilmember Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said at the community meeting that police and city officials are engaged in a “multipronged effort” to address crime in Southwest and bring closure to Zebuhr’s murder.

“This is a senseless act of brutality,” Remington said. “This is a safe community. We know it is.”

CARAG was in the process of creating a “Stroll Patrol” – an organized effort that will send small groups of neighbors out several times each week to walk the neighborhood and report any suspicious behavior or problematic properties – before Zebuhr’s murder occurred.

After the shooting, Engel said he was flooded with an unprecedented number of calls and e-mails from residents concerned about crime. About 50 people have already signed up for the Stroll Patrol, a number much higher than originally expected.

“One of the comments I got from a lot of people after the shooting is that they felt helpless and they wanted to do something,” Engel said.

Kingfield also recently started a block patrol group, and neighborhoods including Stevens Square, Lyndale and Whittier have effectively used the walking groups to fight crime for years.

At the community meeting, Dolan stressed the importance of the block patrol groups and said “visibility and presence is the key.”

“Now is the time for us to come together as a community,” said Tom Thompson, a civilian crime prevention specialist, at the community meeting.

The Lyndale neighborhood is also starting a Court Watch system in which community leaders will track arrests for crimes such as burglaries and robberies through the court system.

Remington said there is also a need for better lighting on many of the side streets in Uptown and more parking options closer to Uptown’s entertainment venues. He said he’s hoping to reach an agreement with establishments in the area that would allow visitors to use the surface lots of some businesses after they are closed for the day. This would hopefully eliminate some of the need for visitors to walk to cars parked on dark side streets.

The police are also taking steps to increase enforcement in the Uptown area. They are increasing patrols on residential and side streets and have pledged to work closely with and be accessible to residents. Dolan also said Uptown would be a “perfect fit” for a Safe Zone like the one Downtown that uses video surveillance to capture crime.

And, of course, residents would like to see more police officers in Southwest. But so far, it’s unclear whether the Police Department will assign more officers to the area.

“We only have so many officers in the Police Department,” Police Spokesman Ron Reier said, adding that 70 percent of the city’s police force is already out on the streets. “Until we get more officers, we’re working with what we have.”

In an update issued March 27, Mayor R.T. Rybak addresses Zebuhr’s murder and said police are “applying every available resource to respond to this senseless attack.”

The Police Department’s robbery task force and homicide unit have more than a dozen officers working the case. Rybak also notes that more police officers will hit the streets of Minneapolis soon, but does not specify if any of those will be located in Southwest.

“In the city’s 2006 budget, we funded an additional 71 police officers and the first batch are in the police academy even as I write this,” Rybak noted in the update.

When those officers complete their 14-week training, Reier said the Police Department’s inspectors get together and go through a bidding process to get more officers in their precinct.

“They bid according to needs and according to strengths and according to weaknesses in the area,” Reier said.

Dolan stressed that while crime is up in Southwest, it is still “nowhere near” the level it was at in the mid-1990s.

Engel agreed that the area is still very safe, but said he understands the concern and frustration on the part of residents.

“When you go from very little crime to a moderate level, it’s still scary,” Engel said.

Anyone with information about Zebuhr’s murder is asked to call the

Minneapolis Police Department’s tip line at 612-692-8477.

 

Residents provide ‘frank’ view of Police Department as part of new initiative

 

When it comes to how well the Minneapolis Police Department interacts with the community, residents are sharp in their criticism.

They feel police react to incidents but don’t address underlying and ongoing problems. Some officers work well with the community, but they say many are unwilling to engage with residents and can be downright rude. And they complain that police officers are continually moving from one area of the department to another, making it virtually impossible for them to establish strong relationships with community members.

What’s surprising is that police officers are concerned about the very same things.

And all of these issues were put under a microscope at a community forum March 30 as a group of community-policing strategy experts presented information they gathered during focus groups and interviews with community members and police officers.

The group was hired as part of a new effort by the city and police officials to improve community policing. The goal is to transform community policing from a concept to something residents can see and work with on the streets.

“We’re committed to this process,” said Assistant Police Chief Tim Dolan, who will take over as interim police chief April 15. “We’re basically taking a look at how the Police Department operates by going to our customers. Š It’s a gutsy thing, but it’s long overdue.”

The experts the department hired are with the Strategic Policy Partnership, a national group of public safety and public policy experts who have assisted other organizations, such as the Los Angeles Police Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in reorganizing their practices and procedures. Representatives from the Strategic Policy Partnership said the Minneapolis Police Department is already on the right track with community policing by doing things like organizing its precincts to focus on groups of neighborhoods.

Now the department needs to listen to residents and police officers and figure out how to best connect with the community, said Elizabeth Watson, a consultant with the Strategic Policy Partnership.

“This is an early checkpoint,” she said.

The Police Department will continue to seek community input on its community-policing strategy through April 30.

It plans to use the information gathered from community members and its own rank-and-file to form a plan and implementation strategy to improve community policing, said Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold, the police department’s coordinator of the plan. The goal is to improve how police interact with the community, even if it means talking openly about what works – and what doesn’t – within the police department.

“This is a very frank, unvarnished view of the police department,” Mayor R.T. Rybak said about the thick report released at the forum.

Residents offer blunt criticism

The report details the feedback and concerns the consulting experts heard from residents and police officers. Many of the same issues came up in almost every discussion with residents and police officers, said Robert Wasserman, a national expert on policing strategy and the principal consultant with the Strategic Policy Partnership.

“These are the things that we heard over and over as we went from neighborhood to neighborhood,” Wasserman said about the perceptions and concerns highlighted in the report.

According to the report, residents and community leaders interviewed have the perception that there is more violence in the city than ever. They also offered blunt criticisms of the Police Department, pointing out specific areas where they felt things could be improved. Highlights include:

– There is a myth in the city that race relations are not strained;

– Narcotics are a big problem but gang activity gets much more police attention than high-level drug trafficking;

– Many police officers do not live in the neighborhoods they serve or even stay assigned to them for a substantial period of time;

– Communication is not as effective as it should be, both within the police department and with the community at large;

– When police hold community discussions, they do not follow up on suggestions;

– Police accountability is lacking;

– SAFE officers have helped residents feel connected to the police, and many people are upset about the cuts to that program; and

– Statistics do not tell the whole story because crimes are underreported in some populations that do not trust police.

What police officers said

Police officers interviewed have many of the same concerns as residents, something Watson said is a good sign that the problems have been identified and can be worked on by everyone.

According to the report, police officers interviewed also felt that:

– The department responds well to crises and 911 calls for service, but there is little time or staff to address quality-of-life issues;

– The value of community-oriented policing is understood, but implementation has gone awry;

– The department structure in which lieutenants lead a geographically based sector rather than focusing just on one shift allows officers to engage more with the community;

– But under the sector structure, lieutenants’ duties are too large and unmanageable and there is less monitoring of officer performance;

– Officers’ attitudes toward residents is not as positive as it could be, and police accountability is lacking;

– Police move from one sector to another too frequently, making it impossible to establish strong relationships in the sector and with the community;

– Political influence is intrusive and crisis-oriented, and the City Council seems to continually have shifting priorities that destabilize operations;

– The precincts are run like five different police departments; and

– Staffing shortages have caused a number of problems and pushed officers to become more focused on responding to calls and spend less time working on prevention.

Where to go from here

Wasserman said the next step toward community policing will depend on what residents and police want to do. To achieve true community policing, Minneapolis needs to change the way its police conduct business, he said. Ideally, he added, residents will be “deeply involved” in developing policing strategies and will be equally responsible with police for addressing crime and disorder. But that means police will have to be committed, too, he said.

“It means no secrets. No things that are just decided at police headquarters and suddenly done,” Wasserman said. “There needs to be openness.”

Rybak called the goals to achieve community policing “absolutely realistic.”

Gerold said once all community feedback is in, the Police Department will look at the suggestions and devise a plan for how to improve community policing.

“What we see here can’t just end here,” Dolan said, adding that he would like to see further analysis done a few years from now to see if the Police Department is moving in the right direction. “This is about bringing all of these questions forward.”

A complete copy of the community policing report can be found online at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/police/news/docs/CommPolicing.pdf.

Ideas and feedback about community policing should be sent to Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold by April 30 via e-mail at police@ci.minneapolis.mn.us or in writing at:

Minneapolis Police Department,130 City Hall, 350 S. 5th St., Minneapolis, MN 55415