For more than a decade, W. Broadway and N. Lyndale Avenue has been one of the most dangerous corners in Minneapolis.
A half-mile radius surrounding the North Side intersection, home to the embattled Merwin Liquors and a Winner Gas station known as the "murder station," is where nearly one out of every 10 killings citywide has taken place since 2010, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
This year's 170 combined reports of murder, aggravated assault, rape and robbery in that area are on pace to make 2022 especially violent, surpassed only by 2020 in the previous dozen years. Police have also responded to more 911 calls at both Merwin and Winner compared to last year, according to dispatch data through June.
Yet, as the reports of violence have gone up, the data show proactive policing measures have all but vanished at these two businesses — a microcosm of citywide trends as Minneapolis police have adopted a more reactive strategy since summer 2020, tracking with a surge in crime and mass resignation of officers, leaving the department severely shorthanded. Some north Minneapolis community members also blame city officials and the businesses' owners for failing to disrupt a thriving open market for Fentanyl pills and other drugs.
This month, Attorney General Keith Ellison announced his office will investigate whether the business owners are "turning a blind eye" to the chronic violence. The city of Minneapolis is also examining if the businesses are violating regulations.
In a townhall meeting last week, a group of North Siders vented their frustrations with the city's ongoing inability to control the corner. Some called it an example of how public officials treat north Minneapolis as less deserving of safety than other areas in the Twin Cities.
"They wouldn't do this in Edina or Eden Prairie or Bloomington. They would get them businesses out of there," said Edith Perlin, who operates a shelter in the area called Edith's House. "How many bodies do we need to find on the ground?"
Crime up, proactive policing down
Traffic was steady at both businesses last week, and boards were in place at Merwin Liquors. A sign indicated the store was closed, although customers could be seen coming and going. Nearby, a pair of men huddled in a corner and appeared to be smoking something. A reporter and photographer were told with an expletive to leave.
In the first half of 2019, data show Minneapolis police made a combined 500 proactive calls to Merwin and Winner, often in the form of directed patrols, traffic stops and business checks.
This year: 49.
The 90% drop in proactive measures reflects a change in police tactics in response to depleted staffing, said Minneapolis Fourth Precinct Inspector Charlie Adams. Since 2020, more than 300 officers have quit, and the city has struggled to recruit new hires. For some shifts, the Fourth Precinct is down to only two patrols on duty, he said.
"It ain't like it was a couple years ago," Adams said.
Last year, on the anniversary of the burning of the Third Precinct during the unrest following George Floyd's murder, a group of disgruntled officers called in sick, Adams said. Only one officer showed up to work in his precinct. Adams, who grew up in north Minneapolis, climbed into a squad and patrolled the neighborhood himself that day. He said those officers have left, and the ones who replaced them are dedicated to helping the community. But they don't have enough staff to conduct regular business checks or park a squad at that corner full time.
At the same time, violent crime is surging. More than half of the 46 killings since 2010 that have taken place within a 10-minute walk from Merwin occurred within the past three years. And this year's volume of shootings in that radius is ahead of 2021's pace.
Adams, who was named inspector of the precinct last year, said the staffing shortage isn't an excuse to not do their jobs, but it has forced the department to find creative tactics. His officers conducted several raids in the parking lots around this corner last year, netting dozens of guns. The police have also partnered with 21 Days of Peace, an anti-gun violence initiative in which faith leaders and community members gather in crowds to ward off crime. Adams said they've successfully cleaned up several problem corners this way, but the work is dangerous. One woman was shot in the hip while handing out snow cones.
Over the past five years, Merwin, Winner and a tobacco shop attached to the gas station have repeatedly violated city code or the terms of their business licenses, according to records reviewed by the Star Tribune. The city has issued violations or administrative citations to the owners of Merwin six times since 2018 for issues including loitering, drinking on the premises and litter.
Winner and the tobacco shop have received eight violations or citations, according to city data. The most recent occurred earlier this month, when the city says Winner's owners failed to put in place adequate measures to prevent crime.
In a letter to the city, Winner's management said someone had driven by the property in an SUV and fired at it and the sidewalk from the sunroof. "In this particular situation of a drive by shooting there is not much we can do about a vehicle that decides to drive past the gas station and cowardly shoot as it drives by," the letter said. Managers said they are taking steps to make the area safer, including hiring a security company at the cost of $11,375 per week.
Stuart Tapper, the owner of Merwin, recently partnered with the nonprofit We Push for Peace to help manage the store. Tapper declined to comment for this story, and management for Winner didn't respond to phone calls.
Not a new problem
Jean Hawkins-Koch sees the destruction of this corner every day when she drops off her daughter at an elementary school down the street.
Hawkins-Koch said she's called to complain after witnessing the businesses violating their security agreements with the city through nuisance and other crimes, but nothing came of it. A couple years ago, she started a Facebook page called "Shutdown Merwin Liquors" to rally attention.
"I never want to see businesses go out of business — that's not what we want," she said. "But at the same time, I want them to be a partnership in our neighborhood. And when I can't even get a response … that says to me that they don't care."
Last week, Hawkins-Koch was among the dozens who gathered in Sanctuary Covenant Church, next door to Merwin, to hear a plan from city leaders on how to move forward. Nina Grove, an investigator for the Attorney General's Office, asked participants to bring her their firsthand examples of illegal behavior that could be used in her office's civil investigation.
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, the son of Keith Ellison and whose Fifth Ward includes this area of north Minneapolis, said the city's current investigation will assess whether the businesses are responsible for the crime or if they're being scapegoated for problems outside their control. Either way, Ellison said, the city is limited in its authority to shut down private businesses, but he believes "there's some momentum on reaching a solution."
Others weren't so optimistic. One crowd member said the "murder station" has been a problem for decades, and the city has never addressed the root causes of crime in the area, such as mental health, poverty and addiction. Another lamented that kids are afraid to go to the schools nearby because they're propositioned for prostitution or robbed at gunpoint.
Erik Hansen, director of economic development for Minneapolis, told the crowd the city has been working for the past four years to identify why this corner has become a "safe harbor" for drugs, prostitution and gun violence.
Last summer, the city worked with Merwin on a plan to move to another part of the city, and Love Minneapolis, a sister organization to Sanctuary, was in talks to buy the property with help from a forgivable city loan. But the deal fell apart. In an interview, Hansen said Minneapolis' zoning restrictions on liquor stores make it impossible to move Merwin anywhere but downtown, which the owners didn't want to do.
Some in the crowd said the city could be doing more. "They could actually buy those businesses," said Tim Baylor, a former Vikings player who is building a development with 220 apartments and some commercial space down the street. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers at the suggestion. The city bought K-Mart on Lake Street across town, he said.
"Put your priorities in place to help people like me to help this community," he said.
Hansen said he could "appreciate" the critiques. "We have hosed, as the government, people, especially Black people, for years," he said. "And it's complicated. I'm not going to win a lot of friends in this room by saying it's complicated. But I will say that you should know who you're speaking with — that I am committed to this community, and I can show results."
That night, as the meeting dispersed, people were gathering outside Merwin and Winner, standing on the sidewalks with no apparent business at either store.
Within a couple hours, police responded to a man shot in the leg at the intersection.