The Warehouse District in downtown Minneapolis has one of the highest concentrations of entertainment options in the city, with popular bars, restaurants, theaters, and major sports and music venues. And in recent years, thousands have chosen to live in the district’s North Loop neighborhood as hundreds of condos and rentals have been built or developed in older buildings.
There’s also been a disturbing increase in crime in the area — some of it violent, including unprovoked assaults, shootings and robberies. Other problematic conduct is less violent, but frightening nonetheless. Aggressive panhandling, lewd behavior, intoxication and open drug dealing — coupled with high-profile shootings and assaults — understandably puts residents and visitors on edge.
Millions of dollars have been invested in remaking downtown Minneapolis into a place where people want to live, work and play. The city and wider community cannot afford to allow public-safety issues like those that plague the Warehouse District to continue. What took decades to build up can be torn down in a few years if the area looks, feels and is unsafe.
Tom Whitlock, president of Damon Farber Associates, says his architectural business moved to the area because of its vitality. He has about 20 employees, half of them women. Several of his female workers say they’re often harassed during the evening rush hour near the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue light-rail platform.
Tim Mahoney has owned the popular Loon Cafe for more than 30 years and knows how to deal with typical liquor establishment issues — namely customers who have had a few too many and get out of hand. But in the last several years his employees and customers have seen more violent crime and harassment — including open defiance toward police. A few of his employees and customers have been punched or robbed on their way to and from his establishment — even though he has private security.
Resident and Commers Custom Jewelers owner Sara Commers was excited to move to the North Loop, where she could walk not only to work but to just about everything else she needs. Now she and her partner are second-guessing their decision because they’ve seen too much trouble outside their building — including shootings, fighting, drug dealing, assaults and loud arguments. Once, Commers said, she was awakened in the middle of the night by women who were brawling. One was pushing a baby carriage.
Whitlock, Mahoney and Commers are members of the Warehouse District Business Association, a coalition of business owners and managers whose concerns are backed up by the data. Robberies are up 48.6 percent in Downtown West, which includes the Warehouse District — from 138 in the first nine months of 2016 to 205 during the same period this year. Violent crime overall in the area is up by 18 percent.
WDBA Executive Director Joanne Kaufman says many of her members are concerned about crime in and around their businesses and fear that it is driving away both customers and employees. “It’s our worst nightmare’’ when bystanders are killed or injured, she said. Kaufman keeps track of shootings and other violence based on reports from her members and has logged dozens of incidents during the past two years. They included at least three since May of this year in which innocent people were shot.
During recent ride-alongs and walking tours with police, Metro Transit and city officials, a Star Tribune editorial writer observed some of the hooliganism firsthand. And during one evening-rush-hour walk last month, an innocent bystander was shot in the stomach at 7 p.m. — about an hour after the writer and a City Council member had left the same Hennepin Avenue spot.
Although business owners say the response was late in coming and remains too limited, the city has beefed up the police presence in the district during certain hours. At the Minneapolis Police Department’s First Precinct, which includes the Warehouse District, cops monitor dozens of cameras throughout downtown. This summer, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office were on foot patrol along Hennepin Avenue during rush hours and late at night. They were joined by Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District workers and outreach groups like MAD DADS of Minneapolis.
Although the civilian efforts are welcome and important, the increased law enforcement presence must be maintained and expanded. Police know where the hot spots are, and city officials should provide the department with the resources it needs to maintain a safe downtown.
To get at the problems with those who are underage, more aggressive enforcement of curfew and truancy rules may be in order. During the day and school year, teens and young kids are supposed to be in school. And every evening of the week, juveniles up to age 17 are supposed to be off the streets by between 9 p.m. and midnight, depending on specific age and day of the week.
In a Sept. 17 editorial on downtown’s public safety dilemma, the Star Tribune Editorial Board encouraged rethinking holding 18-and-up promotions in bars that attract an underage crowd during late-night hours. The editorial also described how police have lost some of the legal tools they had been using to address livability issues such as public drunkenness, drug use and dealing, aggressive panhandling and disrespect for police and other citizens.
Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington acknowledged problems at bus stops and light-rail platforms, where groups often congregate to start or continue fights knowing that they can jump on buses and trains to get away.
Several officials involved in policing downtown agree that more outreach is needed to provide teens with alternatives to hanging out downtown. Harrington helped start Ujamaa Place, a nonprofit in St. Paul that provides positive programs and support for black men ages 18 to 30.
Harrington said he believes in outreach and second chances for those who have made mistakes but are committed to improving their lives. But he acknowledged that there are criminals who cannot be “fixed.”
Target worst offenders
Not all of downtown’s problems are caused by young people. In July, a St. Paul woman out celebrating her 31st birthday with friends was fatally stabbed in a Warehouse District parking ramp elevator, and a 44-year-old career criminal has been charged. More must be done to keep repeat offenders — of any age — off the streets.
Zeroing in on hardened criminals with improved intelligence, better use of technology and innovative policing that builds bridges with communities has made a difference in New York City, according to 2016 figures. In a city of 8.5 million, the number of shootings dipped just below 1,000 last year — the lowest level since 1990. Once the nation’s largest city was plagued by more than 2,000 homicides a year; in 2016, there were 335.
Hoping for similarly positive results, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges sees promise in the new Group Violence Intervention program, a data-driven, U.S. Department of Justice-approved approach to reducing gun violence. It has been used in other cities with proven success in turning around those most at risk to be shooters or get shot.
When prevention efforts fail, however, the city and county must bring the full force of the law down on the offenders. To that end, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman works with federal prosecutors to impose the longest possible sentences for firearms offenses. In his jurisdiction, that means mandatory minimum 60-month sentences for those convicted or using or possessing guns illegally.
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Despite its problems, the bustling Warehouse District still attracts crowds and continues to add to its residential population. To maintain that momentum, city officials and community leaders must cooperate on innovative law-enforcement and crime-prevention strategies. It’s not acceptable to pretend the crime problem doesn’t exist, or to address it with a minimal response.
On Nov. 7, Minneapolis voters will elect a mayor and City Council. Before casting their votes, they should carefully weigh whether candidates believe the growing downtown is a priority and, if so, how they would enhance public safety in the heart of the city.