The causes of Minneapolis’ summer crime spree

What’s happening. Why. What the city is doing about it.

After a July 23 robbery, the Bryn Mawr Market employee pictured above said it's still "the best job an 18-year-old could ask for.”

The owners of Bryn Mawr Market never expected a robbery in the middle of the day.

“A man came in when my 18-year-old employee was working,” said co-owner Paul Anderson. “He walked in, pulled a gun, cocked it and said give me money.”

“I got very startled, because who robs someone at 1:30 in the afternoon?” said the employee, who requested his name not be printed. He handed over about $155 in all, including the donation jar for Way To Grow, and followed instructions to drop to the floor while the man walked out. The next customer arrived 30 seconds after he called police.

“I love my job, and I’m not going to let this get in the way of me working here,” said the Bryn Mawr Market employee pictured above. A patron started a GoFundMe to benefit the employee’s college fund as well as the Bryn Mawr Market.

Unusually brazen crime patterns in Southwest Minneapolis’ 5th Precinct include daytime and evening carjackings and robberies. Robbery suspects in stolen vehicles have been approaching people on sidewalks or in parking lots, police say, often using physical force or implying they have weapons.

About half the precinct’s year-to-date robberies have taken place in the Wedge or Whittier. Several incidents have involved teens and young adults acting in a group, and police said they arrested a 20-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a 14-year-old boy, three 13-year-old boys and a 12-year-old girl. A police advisory said suspects are targeting purses, cell phones and cars, and advised residents to stay alert, maintain distance from others and lock doors once inside a vehicle.

The rise in violent crime comes at a time when the police chief is reshuffling units to prop up patrol and accommodate the departure of about 80 police officers in recent weeks. City Hall redirected $1.1 million from the police salary budget to street outreach focused on violence prevention, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is assisting through the Twin Cities Violent Crime Task Force.

When compared to the four-year average from 2016-2019, MPD year-to-date data indicate that burglary in the 5th Precinct is up 82%, auto theft is up 105%, robbery is up 43% and aggravated assault is up 39%. Total property crime, which includes burglary, larceny, theft from vehicles, auto theft and arson, is up 17%.

While earlier in the year burglaries were focused on parking garages and other areas in multi-unit buildings, police are now seeing more smashed doors and windows in business burglary and property damage cases.

Anika, who requested her last name not be printed, discovered her car was missing from 27th & Dupont on July 27. St. Anthony police informed her the car had been involved in a Northeast Minneapolis robbery early that morning, ramming into gas station doors until three men could squeeze inside. Now her car is at the impound lot, and it will be dusted for prints.

“My car actually has been broken into three separate times this year,” she said. “I would just encourage people to double-check that their cars are locked. If something like this happens to you, don’t blame yourself.”

While doing street outreach, MAD DADS President VJ Smith found himself in the middle of the June 21 Uptown shooting that sent a large crowd fleeing bullets.

“I was seeing groups of young people just having a great time on Hennepin Avenue,” Smith said. “Then all of a sudden a guy pulled a gun out and started shooting, and people started shooting back. There were so many rounds and people started hitting the ground.”

Smith’s staff helped move people into ambulances. Eleven shooting survivors in their 20s include a father paralyzed from the neck down, a mother undergoing physical therapy to walk, a father who left the hospital on crutches, a mother who can’t work while recovering from multiple gunshot wounds and a father facing medical bills on top of the financial hit of COVID-19, according to their GoFundMe campaigns.

When COVID-19 restrictions eased, Uptown saw a faster increase in big crowds than anticipated, as police heard from some community members that Downtown was still too shut down. Like Downtown, Uptown has seen street racing and fighting, and the MPD is sending overtime shifts, bike cops and traffic control to peak nightlife areas. Recent weekends have been quieter, police said.

Citywide, at least 288 people had been shot as of July 27, which is 72% higher than this time in 2019 and the highest in five years, according to the mayor’s office.

“This cannot become our normal, as a city,” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said at a press conference following the shooting.

Aiming to stop a rash of retaliatory gun violence, Minneapolis is hiring 60 to 100 street outreach workers and deploying them to areas like 38th & Chicago and Lake Street starting in mid-August. Under a model called “Cure Violence,” the workers will respond daily to shooting scenes and work to prevent retaliation among gang and group members, said Sasha Cotton, who directs the Office of Violence Prevention.

“Right now what we’re missing is a street-level presence,” Cotton said in an interview. “What is the beef about? How do we fix this so it doesn’t escalate to a shooting? … We know that a person who is a victim today could easily become a perpetrator tomorrow.”

Why this is happening

When COVID-19 confined people to their homes, they became easy targets for retaliating gangs and groups, said Farji Shaheer, who works with gunshot victims as part of the Next Step program he launched at Hennepin County Medical Center.

“One guy got shot. The next weekend, two of his friends got shot. And then the next weekend, three of the guys that shot those guys got shot,” he said.

“We were at national lows [in shootings] prior to the killing of George Floyd, so to see our community implode to a certain degree, I think we’ve just found ourselves in a perfect storm,” Cotton said at a July 29 virtual panel hosted by the African American Leadership Forum, where she listed contributing factors like poverty, access to guns, the unrest and the stress of COVID-19. The vast majority of gun violence involves young men under 30, she said, some of whom think they can’t walk away from a fight.

Also speaking at the panel was Don Samuels, former council member and mayoral candidate, who watched people uproot a U.S. Bank ATM during the unrest and bang on it for 14 hours with no police interruption.

“It was a casual thing, like a construction job,” he said. “And that symbolizes what’s been happening since the event. There’s a sense that, ‘OK, we can do this and nobody ever stops us? We can do pretty much anything.’ And so anybody who has a beef with anybody, now is the time to settle it.”

Tying into the violence is a record number of guns in the community, Arradondo told the City Council in July, adding that police have begun arresting individuals selling high-powered guns from trunks.

Shaheer said some high-powered guns are coming from shops that were looted during the unrest.

“The sad part is that the majority of the individuals that are shooting these guns do not have the proper training, so it’s like giving a kid a new water gun. Everybody gets squirted with the water gun,” he said. “Kids have new toys, and they’re using their toys on individuals that they consider to be opposition. When in fact they’re not opposition, they’re just lost kids like the rest of them.”

Rapid changes in serious violent crime often come down to group dynamics, in most cities boiling down to half of 1% of the city population at extremely high risk for violence, said David Kennedy, executive director of the National Network For Safe Communities at John Jay College.

“A very small number of people can very easily produce that crisis,” he said.

And there is a well-researched relationship between lower police legitimacy and higher levels of violence, he said.

“When people who are at risk don’t ask the police for help, they do what they need to do in order to keep themselves safe,” Kennedy said.

Police response

The MPD is seeing a wave of resignations, early retirements and permanent disability claims due to PTSD. More officers are taking long vacations and paid sick time, signaling they may also be on the way out, according to the mayor. Arradondo said the department typically sees 45 people separate in a year, and as of Aug. 5 the number was about 80.

Meuser Law Office said the number of Minneapolis officers with PTSD is “nearly 200 and still counting,” according to a spokesman, who added that all are in different phases of professional evaluation and the process can take six months.

The chief is pulling non-patrol positions, including departed school resource officers, into 911 response.

The MPD said in a statement that the 5th Precinct is trying to meet a minimum target of eight officers on each shift, with two shifts overlapping during the busiest 9 p.m.-2 a.m. hours.

Mayor Jacob Frey told the City Council that staffing challenges mean response times are higher, but not dramatically higher. He said the most significant change from 2019 to 2020 is seen in Priority 0 and Priority 1 calls, with an increase of 1.5 minutes from the time assigned to squad arrival and an increase of about 3.9 minutes between a call entry and squad arrival.

That assessment doesn’t match what council members are hearing, however.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) said that when constituents ask police about the slow response, they’re told to call their council member.

Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) said she’s alarmed by reports from 38th & Chicago, where George Floyd was killed.

“They’re not experiencing slow response, they’re experiencing no response. They’re being told that this is called a no-go zone by MPD,” Jenkins said.

Arradondo said he knows of a couple of incidents where officers met callers outside the barricaded intersection, but not recently. Officers tried to save a life at 37th & Elliot, he said. If officers don’t respond to a call, the reason must be documented, he said.

At the close of a virtual Ward 8 town hall Aug. 5, residents circulating a petition for emergency service in the barricaded area near 38th & Chicago said police had just responded to the “autonomous zone” for the first time in 72 days.

The mayor and chief have agreed to provide council members with more information on 911 response.

Citywide police stops in the month of July were down 60% from July 2019, according to police data. Use of force reports in July 2020 were down 68% from July 2019.

The new Twin Cities Violent Crime Task Force, established in July, is focused on intelligence sharing and federal prosecution, according to the police chief. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reports they’ve seized 80 guns and initiated 11 federal and five state cases, and they’re currently investigating straw gun purchasers.

Violence prevention response

Shortly before the pandemic, before George Floyd was killed and before violence spiked, reports from the Office of Violence Prevention were optimistic.

“Project Life” has worked with 230 participants belonging to 35 groups and gangs since 2017 to help keep them “safe, alive and free.” Cotton, the office’s director, told city officials in March that nonfatal summer shootings among gang members dropped from 93 in 2016 (at the time an “astronomical” number for a city the size of Minneapolis, she said), to 42 in 2017, 25 in 2018 and 27 in 2019.

Seeing a persistent issue with gangs and guns in schools, Jamil Jackson, Patrick Henry High School’s basketball coach, was commissioned to create a junior version of Project Life this year.

Cotton said she’s constantly apologizing to spouses and children of dedicated case managers.

“They’ve walked those streets, they’ve been those guys and they know that there’s something better,” Cotton said. “They’re willing to take the 2 a.m. call and go out because somebody did it for them, or they wish somebody did it for them.”

Analysis every six months will determine where to send new outreach teams, and Cotton said researchers are currently focusing more attention on the South side to see where the hot spots are and who is driving the violence.

“Oftentimes the North side has such a volume of shootings that it overshadows even the growth of shootings that we’re seeing on the South side,” Cotton said at the town hall forum.

At Hennepin County Medical Center, Shaheer counsels gunshot victims, tries to stop their shoes and debit cards from being taken indefinitely into evidence, helps them find housing or relocates them to another city with a new job and a fresh start. Out of 437 participants since 2016, less than 7% returned to the hospital with similar wounds. That compares to a national five-year rate of 40%, according to city officials.

“No plan is going to be the same,” Shaheer said. “I’ve had young men give me their firearms. I’ve had young men contact me and say, ‘I’m ready to leave, I’m ready to go.’”

The pandemic is making the work harder. Project Life canceled its May “call-in” for participants, shifting to visits at a social distance, urging skeptical young men to wear masks and take COVID-19 seriously. The same African American 20-29 age group at high risk for violence is also disproportionately catching COVID-19, Cotton said.

Closed schools and lost work due to the unrest and COVID-19 make it harder to keep young men on the right path, she said.

“For our guys, staying busy was so important,” she said. “With this idle time, I think we’ve had some real concerns.”

Smith said the pandemic isn’t slowing him down.

“We just take our vitamins and keep going,” he said.

Regarding the new street outreach teams, Smith said he’s happy to partner with anyone. “We’ve always worked under-supported and understaffed,” Smith said. “Crime is a 24-7, 365 day a year issue, and so that’s how we approach it.”

James Everett, a community mediator with RAGE (Revolutionary Approach to Groundbreaking Engagement), also said street outreach needs more funding, but the respect and influence required goes beyond a standard job application.

“You can go out, it’s OK, but what is going to make them stop shooting?” he asked. “Why should they listen to you? Most of their heroes are dead. … What makes them want to respect a living role model?”

He said a good outreach worker needs rapport with the kids, respect from cops so they’re not perceived as an obstruction, and resources to offer, especially safe housing — shelters can be dangerous. A sense of humor helps, too.

“You have to have preferably a nice pair of shoes,” he said. “That’s a good conversation place to start.”

Neighborhood response

“I think people are spooked and a little uncertain on what’s going on,” said Dane Stimart, ECCO board president. Neighbors were alerted July 25 that a woman arriving home in the middle of the afternoon was robbed and needed stitches on her head. When neighbors called police, they learned six similar incidents had happened that day.

Seventy people recently joined a neighborhood call to talk about safety, leading to the formation of a public safety committee split into two groups, one focused on Uptown, the other focused on the city as a whole.

“People need to put down their social media phrases and complaints,” Stimart said. “This needs to be a call for people to invest the time in their community, because that’s truly how we’re going to move forward together.”

Neighbors in Kingfield are buying whistles in case of emergency, discussing how to distinguish gunshots from fireworks and sharing surveillance video of package thefts. A group of Longfellow residents took a community emergency response team course.

A new safety-driven Stevens-Loring Community Contingency Squad is designed to focus on neighbors caring for each other, rather than fearing each other.

“Navigating that was really difficult, but we’re working on it,” said Scott Artley, an administrator of the group.

A text thread in Artley’s building started as a place to talk about suspicious activity, and it’s become a way to share coffee.

“I definitely feel safer. Part of safety is knowing where to go for help,” Artley said.

Stevens Square is working to resurrect a neighborhood block patrol and rethink the group’s guidelines, which date back to 1991 and describe the patrol as “eyes and ears” for police. Now, residents re-envision the patrol as ambassadors from the neighborhood.

“Ninety percent of what I see happening in the neighborhood probably is something that should be handled by a social worker rather than a police officer,” said Natasha Villanueva.

City Hall response 

Prior to any potential charter change, the city is already making changes to the police department.

Arradondo’s new oath for officers starts with a mandate familiar to doctors: First do no harm. The oath affirms the sanctity of life and states that all people share inherent dignity and equal rights.

The mayor and police chief instituted new policies that prevent officers from viewing body camera video before filling out critical incident reports and require police to bake de-escalation into all forms of reporting. Every report must include which de-escalation tactics were used and document any use of force, including lower-level moves like arm bars and handcuffing. More significant uses of force like takedowns and chemical agents must now be reported to supervisors.

“The focus … is on de-escalation, making sure that is paramount,” Frey said. “It shouldn’t be a second thought or a last resort or an afterthought; it should be the very first piece that is considered.” The city’s de-escalation policy has stated, since 2016, that officers should use de-escalation tactics to gain voluntary compliance to avoid or minimize use of physical force.

At the town hall, Arradondo said he paused police contract discussions because he wants to make sure the contract reflects community values and provides transparency and accountability.

The city is considering other changes, like sending all theft reports to 311. In a recent survey, city departments thought they could help respond to 15% of MPD’s incidents, perhaps by taking reports, checking businesses or responding to parking problems.

In an interview, Cotton said it’s important to find hope.

“We’re a community of survivors,” she said. “We’re going to get through this, but we have to stick together.”