One morning in March, a man passed a note demanding money to a teller at a Golden Valley bank branch, then wandered out. The teller hit a panic button to summon police. Hennepin County deputies took a report, categorizing the incident as an "attempted robbery."
Online, the passing of a note took on far larger dimensions. A former City Council member, after hearing a third-hand story about what happened, posed a question to the online forum Nextdoor: Did anyone know about an armed bank robbery where police failed to respond?
Crime and policing are central issues in Golden Valley, where political factions disagree about why the police department is short-staffed — with 13 sworn officers last week, less than half the number budgeted for — what to do about it and whether city information about crime can be trusted.
Joanie Clausen, the former council member who wrote the Nextdoor post, has been raising concerns for years about the headcount in the police department, including during a 2021 council campaign.
"I ran on this two years ago that the police were leaving," Clausen said. "I was called a liar and [accused of] fearmongering."
Police data has shown most crime dropping since 2020, but Clausen has worried — loudly and publicly, to the dismay of Mayor Shep Harris and other city boosters — about the effect of so few officers on public safety.
"I wish this false narrative would just stop," Harris said in an interview. "Support the police. Support the sheriff's office."
Clausen's since-deleted post was the first Police Chief Virgil Green had heard of any armed robbery in the city. He said he scanned call logs and didn't find anything, so he put out a statement saying there had been no bank robbery, and vaguely scolded the spread of misinformation.
Harris, who guessed that the Nextdoor post aimed to undermine Green, posted the chief's statement on Facebook with a preamble of his own.
"WARNING!" Harris wrote. "A former City Council Member has been stating that a bank robbery recently occurred at a local bank and no one from the GVPD was available to respond to the situation ... The fact is that THERE WAS NO BANK ROBBERY."
In dozens of comments on Harris' post, residents tried to sort out the truth.
Clausen said in an interview that while she did not think Green understood Minnesota and she had wanted another person to become chief, she posted about the robbery only to try and figure out what happened at the bank.
Green and Clausen eventually spoke on the phone, both recalled.
"Why didn't you just call me?" Green asked Clausen, instead of asking on Facebook and Nextdoor if anyone had heard about an armed bank robbery.
"I don't trust you. I don't trust the city," Clausen told him.
"The city," to Clausen's way of thinking, has become too aligned with Harris, whom Clausen has clashed with for years as Harris advocates for racial justice initiatives that Clausen finds "too much." Harris is finishing his last term as mayor, and Clausen is not planning to seek elected office this fall.
After Green talked to Clausen and she told him which bank she was talking about — the Wells Fargo on Golden Valley Road — Green said he spoke with the branch manager. The manager explained a man wandered around the bank before handing a teller a note and walking out the door. The teller hit a panic button, Green said the manager told him, and Hennepin County deputies responded. The bank was closed for a few minutes as deputies worked but reopened, and business went on as usual.
The heading on the Hennepin County deputies' report says "attempted bank robbery," but Green said he doesn't think that characterizes what happened. No one displayed a weapon. No one made threats. A seemingly troubled man gave a piece of paper to a teller and left.
"MALE SUSP WROTE NOTE WALKED OUT, NO WEAPONS SEEN IMPLIED," the report reads.
"If this rose to a level where it was an actual attempted bank robbery, we would have notified the public," Green said.
Clausen said she was frustrated that Green and Harris initially dismissed the incident. Something happened at the bank, she said, and she is worried the city tried to sweep it under the rug.
Green said the incident did show poor communication between the city and county. Hennepin County didn't notify Golden Valley leadership about the incident, and Golden Valley wasn't reading every report Hennepin County deputies made.
"The bottom line, really, is the community continues to be a safe place," Harris said.