Police see robbery pattern in some Southwest neighborhoods

Parts of Southwest Minneapolis have seen a pattern of robberies this year, and a citywide spike in auto thefts isn’t helping.

“A steady supply of readily available, running cars is providing easy transportation around town for groups intent on victimizing others for their cellphones, laptops, wallets and bags,” 5th Precinct Inspector Amelia Huffman said.

Police have seen a wave of stickups across the city in which teenage boys and young men, sometimes brandishing handguns, stop people on the street or in parked cars and attempt to rob them. In one Jan. 17 incident, a man was punched in the back of the head outside the Lake & Pillsbury Walgreens and then watched as his assailant drove away from the store’s parking lot with his stolen iPhone.

Huffman said there have been incidents fitting this pattern in the Whittier, Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East, East Isles and Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhoods. There were a total of 13 robberies in those neighborhoods during the first three weeks of January, compared with a five-year average of 9. (Across Southwest Minneapolis, there were 22 robberies in that time period, compared with a five-year average of 17.)

The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) reported “staggering numbers” of auto thefts in the first three weeks of the year: a total of 262 thefts citywide — a 90% rise over 2019. That includes 40 vehicles stolen in Southwest Minneapolis, almost twice as many as were stolen in that time period the previous year.

MPD spokesperson John Elder said about three-quarters of these thefts have been preventable — caused by food delivery drivers leaving their vehicles idling, people leaving their cars warming unattended or people accidentally leaving their key fobs in their cars.

Huffman said that while the spike in car thefts has not directly caused the rise in Southwest robberies, the “availability of stolen cars makes traveling around the city easier and increases the anonymity of the suspects.”

On Jan. 18, two robberies at gunpoint occurred 20 minutes apart in the Uptown area. Around 7:40 p.m., someone attempted to rob a woman in the parking lot of the Lunds and Byerlys. Twenty minutes later, a woman was robbed of her driver’s license, credit cards and $120 in cash from her car at 27th & Hennepin. It’s unclear whether the incidents were related.

Huffman said 5th Precinct police officers are doing extra patrols of the five neighborhoods with a pattern of robberies in both marked and unmarked squad cars, and some officers have been assigned overtime hours in the evenings “to provide dedicated patrols that won’t be diverted by routine 911 calls.”

Police have been able to identify several juvenile suspects involved in the stickups and some arrests have already been made. “I expect more will follow,” Huffman said.

In recent weeks, local businesses have supplied video surveillance footage helpful to investigators, Huffman said, and she encouraged property owners to invest in “good-quality security cameras with exterior coverage.” The Uptown Lunds has notified a local neighborhood group that it’s upgrading the cameras in its parking lot.

The East Isles Residents Association voted in early December to allocate $40,000 to place at least six 360-degree security cameras at intersections along Hennepin Avenue stretching from 22nd Street down to either Lagoon Avenue or Lake Street. The Uptown Association has pitched in an additional $1,000.

“The hope is that by apprehending some of the culprits, word will spread that this is a bad place to do crime,” said Mike Erlandson, vice president of the East Isles neighborhood group. “Many of the culprits are repeat offenders.”

The cameras will be installed by the spring or late summer and then turned over to the MPD, which will monitor the 24-hour live feed. The cameras cost about $7,000 each, and additional funding  could allow for more surveillance cameras at intersections farther north and south along Hennepin.

Minneapolis police suggested a few steps people can take to keep themselves safe:

  • Be aware of your surroundings, look at who and what is around you and take note of anyone approaching you or your car.  A person “heads down” looking at their phone is much easier to take by surprise.
  • Keep the doors to your car locked when you’re inside.  This prevents someone from opening your door to grab a bag or phone from inside.
  • Keep some distance between yourself and a stranger who approaches you.  Staying more than arm’s length away means someone can’t grab your bag or you as easily.
  • Be alert if someone approaches you to ask a question like what time it is or if you have a cigarette. This may be a ruse to get close to you and ideally, get you to open your bag or take out your cellphone.
  • Don’t carry your cellphone in your hand.  Keep it out of sight in an inside pocket or zipped in a bag.
  • Don’t give your cellphone to anyone who approaches asking if they can use it to make a call.  This is a common ruse used to get control of the phone by a thief who promptly runs off with it.
  • If you carry a purse, consider a cross body bag.  Don’t hang it on the back of a chair in restaurants, bars or coffee shops but keep it in your lap or between your feet beneath the table – out of reach of passersby.
  • Take a self-defense class.  That can increase your confidence and decrease fear.

Police also offered these tips to prepare for cellphone or credit card theft or robbery:

  • Keep the box for your phone if it shows the IMEI/serial number or record the model and IMEI or serial number somewhere safe.
  • Activate any finding features available on your phone.
  • Use pass codes to control access to your phone and to apps for banking, credit cards or other sensitive information.  Set the lock time on your phone to a shorter period of time.
  • Record your credit card information somewhere safe so you know how to contact the issuers easily.
  • Know how to access your accounts online so you can quickly check for fraudulent activity.