Twelve North Loop neighbors, all dressed in matching orange shirts, were out for an early Sunday stroll as part of a new safety campaign when they stumbled across an injured man. His head was bleeding. He wasn't speaking.
Recalling tips they had gotten from Minneapolis police, the group asked him whether they should call for help. He nodded. They stayed with him until officers arrived a few minutes later, then it was back to their walk.
In the North Loop and other neighborhoods across Minneapolis, residents are looking for ways to address violence in the city. The North Loop safety block club started with a few members in April and has now grown to just under 70. Not all of their walks are as eventful as that Sunday stroll. Most of the time, the group hands out fliers, picks up litter and chats with passersby.
The grassroots movement stresses getting out and walking with neighbors. Not only do they hope to deter crime, but also encourage a spirit of community.
"We don't feel afraid. We feel responsible," said Aileen Johnson, who has helped several clubs get organized. "We feel like we have a civic responsibility to help."
Loring Park and the Mill District both created their own walking clubs this summer, and the East Hennepin neighborhoods are gearing up to start their own groups.
Violent crime in Minneapolis has surged since George Floyd's murder and is at its highest level in decades. Meanwhile, the city is facing a legal battle over police staffing shortages — which will take years to resolve, said Council Member Michael Rainville, whose Third Ward includes portions of the North Loop.
Public safety alternatives such as violence interrupters and resident-led efforts like the walking clubs are crucial amid the crime surge, he said.
"We're seeing the concept of policing change before our very eyes," Rainville said. "We have to try everything."
"America, we like to outsource everything," said Patrick Dawson, one of the lead organizers of the North Loop safety block club. "And we've outsourced maybe our vigilance to the police, and suddenly there aren't as many police, so now we're doing something small to augment that. And hopefully building back some relationships that came out of a terrible event."
Following pandemic-related lows, North Loop violent crime started rising again in 2021. Reports of gunfire in the area are slightly outpacing last year.
Violent crimes in Loring Park increased starting in 2020 and remain above average this year. Reported gunfire in the neighborhood jumped 150% compared to pre-pandemic levels. The Downtown West neighborhood saw a 25% increase in violent crime so far in 2022.
Rainville has been instrumental in the creation of the neighborhood watch groups and other public safety efforts. He was involved in a similar effort 25 years ago in northeast Minneapolis. He said there's been a growing interest among residents to start walking clubs, which he adds restore trust in police besides deterring crime.
"[The walking club] works," Rainville said. "The basis of public safety is for us to know each other and have that friendship and relationship."
Rainville recently triggered public outrage after he blamed Somali American youth for a rash of violence on July 4. He has since apologized, but his comments reverberated through a city working to quell racial tension and rebuild trust between the community and law enforcement.
"Every time I go to one of these neighborhood meetings it all comes down to crime, whether it's a car break-in or an assault or shooting," Rainville said.
Johnson, who started the North Loop and Loring Park block clubs, said one goal was to help neighbors feel empowered.
"People felt kind of helpless, that they couldn't do anything," she said. "The turnout has been fantastic."
The North Loop, a big entertainment district, is mostly a safe neighborhood. But the presence of the watch group adds an extra set of eyes, putting residents and visitors at ease, Dawson said. They walk in teams of about 12 for two hours each weekend, carrying flashlights and phones in case they need to call for help.
During the group's first weekend shift walking the neighborhood, they saw a woman who appeared distraught and injured and called police to get her help. Those are rare occurrences, Dawson said.
The group, made up mostly of seniors, also fields questions from curious people.
"We're not exactly a physically deterrent-looking group," said Dawson, 69. "But if you come into the community to do harm, know that there's more eyes on you than you might suspect."
Benefits of working together
The block club members are not violence interrupters, but they do weekly check-ins with the police department's crime prevention specialist assigned to the area to learn what issues they should keep an eye on, among other things. The block clubs also organize and attend public safety meetings every few weeks with the police department and elected officials.
Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman said walking clubs are an important way to build connections between neighbors, who can then inform MPD and the city about problems , such as graffiti and broken street lights.
"It creates more activity on the street, more eyes on the street," she said.
Dawson, who serves on the North Loop Neighborhood Association board, said the block club is independent from the neighborhood association, but its efforts are incorporated into the organization's greater plan for neighborhood safety and livability.
Johnson said any neighbor can start a walking club in their own community by contacting their neighborhood crime prevention specialist. Contact information can be found on the city's website.
While the police department does not require groups to register, spokesperson Garrett Parten said MPD likes to to know who leads each group to help with organizational efforts.
Organizers provide club leaders with training, from crime prevention tips to lessons on running effective meetings and how to organize neighbors.
Interactive data journalist Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.