Loring and East Phillips top the list of most violent Minneapolis parks in any given year, with Loring notching 13 and East Phillips reporting five serious incidents including homicide, rape and aggravated assault in 2021.
Major crimes also shot up at Stevens Square following the social unrest of the past two years, rising to seven in 2021. The park experienced virtually no activity in 2019.
This spring, park police shifted their strategy for summer's inevitable increase in crime. New data analysis is used to identify crime hot spots where officers can spend more time in between emergency calls on "proactive policing" — patrolling, stopping in recreation centers and meeting the community.
So far this year, Loring Park has experienced just one serious violent crime, while East Phillips and Stevens Square have had none.
Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said the 2022 park crime rate is on pace to meet its 10-year average of 92 violent crimes per year. There were 130 such incidents in 2020, when parks briefly offered sanctuary to numerous homeless encampments.
"What we're seeing is those violent crimes are probably more spread out across the park system and less concentrated in parks like Loring and Steven Square and East Phillips," Ohotto said. "It becomes a little more challenging when crime ... become[s] less predictable, so we can't respond as easily, but I think it's a good sign that we're headed back to what I would call a more normal crime pattern."
Large summer gatherings are proven drains on police resources.
Despite there being no July 4 fireworks show for the third year in a row, a mass shooting in the Boom Island parking lot injured seven people. All survived, but investigators have received zero tips from the public, Ohotto told park commissioners at their last meeting.
Aquatennial fireworks did go on, taking up 25 park police officers of the department's 30.
Park Commissioner Billy Menz proposed permanently retiring the Park Board's Independence Day Red, White and Boom fireworks show, while Commissioner Becky Alper suggested redirecting fireworks money to other priorities, such as youth recreation.
By the end of August, park police will have filled all 33 positions provided for in its $6.3 million budget, including four officers in training. Park police staffing is at a 20-year low. The Park Board this month voted to request a tax levy increase of 6.16%, which includes adding two more officers.
With staffing levels as they are, park police must limit extra patrols to only the highest crime areas.
Strategy paying off
While patrolling Loring Park on May 20, officer Karl Zabinski spotted a 29-year-old man masturbating beneath a tree.
The man ran, so Zabinski chased him down on foot. Zabinski recovered a loaded pistol that the suspect wasn't allowed to have due to a felony warrant out of Dakota County. He was charged and released from jail last month.
Thursday afternoon, Zabinski again started his shift with a stroll around Loring Pond. He told a visitor to put out a cigarette, said hi to people he recognized and some he didn't, and checked on a man sleeping under a tree who didn't need any help.
He prefers to meet people on foot, Zabinski said. "I don't know the psychology of why that is, but it's hard to walk up to a squad car. ... It just doesn't give me a good level of interaction. And it feels lazy sometimes. If I'm talking to someone from a seated position, it's not respectful to them, so I try to get out."
Cynthia Bryant, an outside supervision staff member at Loring Park, has noticed a difference.
"This summer has been a little bit more quiet," she observed. "Really, it's been a good year. Especially since they redid the park, a lot more kids are coming."