Scott Nadeau worried something like this could happen.
Two Fridays ago, when his 24-year-old son Jack said he planned to meet friends at the Gay 90s nightclub, Nadeau cautioned him to be vigilant. The retired suburban police chief had seen reports of violence in downtown Minneapolis, and he feared the city's dwindling police staffing levels are exacerbating lawlessness.
The next day, Nadeau sat in the emergency room with Jack, who had a fractured skull. It happened after bar close, and the details were mostly lost to the head injury. The perpetrators had taken Jack's phone and drained his bank account through his apps. Police told him they'd seen a string of similar crimes lately in the area.
"He's got a traumatic brain injury," Nadeau said in an interview last week. "To have something like this happen over a phone, and then to know that this has been happening to other people, it's just — I don't even have words for it. It's just terrible."
In the first two years of the pandemic, as violent crime in other areas of Minneapolis surged, the city's downtown core saw the rate of homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults freefall by about one-third to the lowest numbers in a decade. This summer, as business and nightlife returns to a semblance of normalcy, crime is back too.
The downtown west neighborhood — bound by the Mississippi River and Orchestra Hall, and including Nicollet Mall, the Target Center and areas of concentrated nightlife and government buildings — saw a 25% increase in violent crime so far in 2022, driven mostly by robberies and aggravated assaults, according to data analyzed by the Star Tribune.
Gunfire in the area is up about 40%, according city data. The neighborhood also has seen a 65% increase in property crimes this year compared to last.
Historically, downtown west clocks some of the highest volumes of violent and property crimes of any Minneapolis neighborhood. The area saw crime begin to tick back up in April. The statistics still lag behind 2019's higher-than-average numbers, but the neighborhood accounts for about one-third of the 4% increase in citywide violent crime this year over 2021.
Some downtown business owners say they worry the brazenness of the crime threatens a much-needed return for the downtown economy, still recovering from pandemic depression.
Tim Mahoney, owner of the Loon Cafe, said he's waiting for the City Council and mayor to introduce a plan to curb the violence. Mahoney recalled a night this summer when he came down from the bar's office after closing time to discover two of his employees holding firearms. "Tim, multiple shots were just fired," he remembered them saying.
It was Pride Night at the nearby Twins stadium. Earlier, crowds had flooded downtown like they used to. "It was awesome," Mahoney said .
But downtown changes around midnight. A fight broke out on the street and three people were shot in front of the Loon, with stray bullets shattering the window of the business next door.
Mahoney stepped outside to find officers rushing toward the melee, shouting for him to go back in. "They recovered 50 shell casings," Mahoney said. "It was chaos."
One person died. The other two were shot in the face but survived. Minneapolis Police Lt. Mark Klukow said the shooter was using an auto sear. Also known as a "switch," this increasingly popular gun modification turns a handgun into an automatic weapon capable of spraying an entire clip in seconds. "That's the venom of the switch: These bullets are going all over the place," Klukow said.
David Fhima, chef for the Timberwolves and Lynx and owner of Fhima's and other downtown businesses, said safety is a real issue downtown and the community and elected officials must confront it. The perception of increased violence is enough to hurt businesses like his, which in turn ripples across Minnesota.
"As downtown Minneapolis goes, so does the rest of the state," he said.
Fhima blamed some of the crime on large corporations with downtown offices that remain empty, leaving a vacuum. He said he still believes in a vibrant downtown community and he's optimistic about the future. He is looking to expand his businesses to more downtown locations.
"I wouldn't do that if I thought — excuse my French — all hell was about to break loose," he said.
Violence this summer includes an argument that erupted in a large crowd just down from the First Precinct around 1:30 a.m. last Thursday, near the corner of 1st Avenue and 4th Street N. It escalated into a shooting with at least one automatic weapon. Officers were near the scene when it happened. One person died. Two others were injured, including a parking lot attendant who was shot in the chest.
"It's really sad when it's an employee, just trying to make a living," Klukow said .
The next night, a group gathered around the same spot to hold a vigil for the homicide victim, which ended in more automatic gunfire, according to department spokesman Garrett Parten. Police arrested four people, one of whom punched an officer in the face, and confiscated a handgun with a high-capacity drum magazine.
In a separate incident two weeks ago, two bullets hit the Minneapolis Children's Hospital. On July 20, police say they recovered 150 shells in front an apartment building just outside of downtown.
Paramedics responding to shootings have also been caught up in the violence, said Shane Hallow, president of the Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs, who shared a photo of an ambulance pocked with gunshots.
"Over the last month our ambulances have been struck by gunfire and liquor bottles which have shattered our windows," he said. "Shots have been fired extremely close to our paramedics while they have been caring for patients, causing them to leave the scene immediately for fear of their safety. Our members will continue to respond and provide the best patient care possible but it makes our job extremely difficult to perform effectively when our safety is in question."
Staffing down, arrests up
Over the past two years, homicides and gun assaults trended upward across America, according to a Council on Criminal Justice analysis of 23 cities, including Minneapolis, with readily available crime data released this past week.
The number of homicides declined by 2% in the first half of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, but that's still 39% higher than it was during the first half of 2019, the study found. Aggravated assaults and robberies both increased in the first half of 2022 compared to the first half of 2021 in the cities analyzed.
At the same time, police staffing levels in Minneapolis remain far below the funded threshold. As of Memorial Day 2022, downtown's First Precinct counted 76 sworn officers, down from 111 the same time in 2020, said Klukow. That translates to 49 patrol officers, compared to 81 two years ago.
Klukow said police use tactics like "crime prevention through environmental design" and "area denial" — obstructing sidewalks and other hotspots where dangerous crowds tend to gather. Lower staffing means triaging police resources, he said, and officers don't have time to respond to non-violent calls like cat-calling, noise complaints or public urination.
Still, Klukow said the First Precinct is surpassing the norm on making arrests, and city data show arrests are up 10% in that area for violent offenses. "Our cops aren't giving up," he said.
That includes in the assault of Jack Nadeau.
On Wednesday, prosecutors charged 19-year-old Kevron Gray with aggravated robbery and theft in the case. According to the charges, a group of men approached Jack Nadeau and his friends and said they wanted to add their rap collective's account to his Instagram. Gray snatched Jack Nadeau's phone. He asked for it back, but Gray refused. Another man approached and punched Jack Nadeau out cold, then sifted through his pockets. They spent more than $1,700 in unauthorized transactions using the phone.
Scott Nadeau praised police for their quick work in making an arrest. His son was released from the hospital this week with brain bleeding in two spots, he said. "He has made some improvement," he said. "It's gotten better from day to day since he's been attacked."