Robbery pattern persists in Southwest Minneapolis

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Marni Allyson had parked her car in Uptown the afternoon of Sept. 6 and was about to begin her shift as a stylist at the Fox Den Salon at Lake & Fremont when two teenagers jumped out of an unmarked black SUV — punching, kicking and throwing her to the ground before taking her backpack and keys. Left with bruises, cuts and scraped elbows, she checked on her car and discovered it had been stolen.

“It’s absolutely insane to me that they felt bold enough that they could do this at 2:30 on a Sunday,” Allyson said. “The fact that they did this and got away with it absolutely blows my mind.”

A half hour later that afternoon, just after Gabriel Evaska dropped off his girlfriend — a coworker of Allyson’s — at the salon, Evaska said two cars full of seven or eight teens and young adults pulled up alongside his Jeep on Fremont Avenue. He heard the sound of a gun cocking and someone say, “Take his car.” Evaska drove a block in reverse before his pursuers pinned him into a parking space. When one of the young men began to exit his vehicle, Evaska said he accelerated his Jeep and made an escape.

“I wasn’t one of those people who was going to let it go,” Evaska said.

The two incidents follow a brazen pattern of robberies and carjackings in Southwest Minneapolis’ 5th Precinct that police say appears to be stretching into the fall and continues to be focused on the Wedge and Whittier neighborhoods. Also continuing are trends of burglaries and nighttime gun violence, assaults and drag racing, police say.

Violent crime totals in the 5th Precinct dipped in early August after police announced arrests related to the robbery spree but rose again in late August and early September.

Robbers in stolen vehicles have been approaching people on sidewalks or in parking lots, often using physical force, or implying they have weapons, and targeting purses, cell phones and cars. Robberies in the 5th Precinct were up 86% between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year compared with the same period last year, and non-domestic aggravated assaults were up 39%. Many of the suspects are teens and children as young as 12 and 13, and police have made more than a dozen arrests so far.

Many factors have been named in the rise in violent crime this summer.

The pandemic has increased economic hardship, closed down schools and youth programming and added to social stressors.

As adult and juvenile detention facilities seek to limit exposure to COVID-19, some people with felony warrants have been released at the time of booking, according to 5th Precinct Inspector Amelia Huffman. “There are young people who are gaming the system knowing they are going to be immediately released,” Council Member Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) said.

George Floyd’s May 25 killing by a Minneapolis police officer has decreased trust in law enforcement, which research has linked to citizens seeing violence as more acceptable. And the unrest following Floyd’s death may have helped create an atmosphere where rule breakers are less afraid of repercussions.

At the same time, staffing levels in the 5th Precinct are down a little over 20%, with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) seeing a wave of resignations, early retirements, officers out temporarily on quarantine and permanent disability claims due to PTSD.

Some City Council members say their constituents are reporting purposeful slowdowns. “Officers on the street are telling them that they are not enforcing crime,” Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10) told Police Chief Medaria Arradondo during a Sept. 15 study session. “Perhaps they think they are making the case for more resources for the department. In my ward, it is having the opposite effect. It is making people even more frustrated with the department.”

Arradondo responded that this was “troubling to hear” and that he would follow up with his command staff.

Huffman said the 5th Precinct is meeting a minimum target of eight officers on each shift, with two shifts overlapping during the busiest 9 p.m.-2 a.m. hours. In January, when her precinct was more fully staffed, she said, shifts with 10 or more officers were common. In November 2019, Huffman told a Whittier Alliance committee that most shifts in the 5th Precinct were staffed by nine or 10 officers, including one officer working the desk.

“It’s harder for us to keep up on a busy day with the volume of incoming 911 calls,” she told the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association on Sept. 9. (Since Memorial Day, the MPD has denied at least five requests to interview Huffman from the Southwest Journal, though she provided information through a spokesperson on one occasion. Huffman answered some questions that the paper asked during the meeting.)

Between Memorial Day and the end of August, police stops responding to 911 calls were down 29% in the 5th Precinct, though responses to violent incidents were up in the city from 2019. Other police stops in the precinct, including stops for traffic violations and to detain pedestrians and drivers suspected of crimes, were down 73%.

In addition to patrols, the MPD is working to counter crime trends in the 5th Precinct through partnerships with the Uptown Association, owners of late-night bars and restaurants and street outreach groups like MAD DADS and A Mother’s Love, Arradondo said.

In an effort to stop retaliatory violence among gangs and groups, the city’s Office of Violence Prevention is deploying five teams of street outreach workers under a model called “Cure Violence.” One team will be detailed to the full Lake Street corridor “within the next several weeks,” a city spokesperson said in early September, while another will work exclusively in Uptown on Friday and Saturday nights.

On Sept. 8, two days after Allyson and Evaska were mugged, the Fox Den Salon held a meeting to discuss staff safety. Workers are thinking about self-defense techniques, planning to walk in and out of the store in groups and lobbying for more police cameras in the neighborhood.

Sica Dawn, the salon’s owner, said the community’s distrust of the MPD means it’s important to learn strategies beyond “pulling that 911 trigger over and over again,” but that in instances of violent assault, there’s currently no other option.

“We need to turn it over to the police sometimes,” Dawn said. “[But] there’s so much animosity, and it’s really hard for people who have ethical and moral obligations to their Black and brown peers.”

Allyson is still processing what happened to her.

She said she doesn’t think the city necessarily needs more police officers and that the root causes of violence should be addressed through more social services, economic relief and community-based solutions — though she’s not quite sure what that should look like.

She’s frustrated with her experiences with the MPD — that the officer she talked to didn’t seem to believe her at first, that her follow-up calls to the station went unanswered and that she only found her car at an impound lot with the help of social media. (A request for the police report for the incident was not fulfilled as of press time.)

For her assailants, she wants them to get help with “whatever caused them to feel like they had to do these things.”

And for the public?

“I want people to know how actually serious this is,” she said.

Michelle Bruch contributed reporting to this story.