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Should you be scared to go downtown? Not really

Crime rates generally are low in both downtowns. And Minneapolis just launched its annual SafeZone program.

The numbers in no way suggest that downtown Minneapolis should terrify you. Yet people are still scared.

Recently, when I had dinner with some of my suburban relatives at a downtown Minneapolis eatery, they seemed surprised at how civilized everything was. We were, after all, in what they would consider the city’s heart of darkness — Washington Avenue.

One of my cousins looked around apprehensively. “I almost never come here, but it’s kinda nice,” he said.

Suburbanites voice plenty of objections to visiting either Twin Cities downtown: They don’t like the driving or having to pay for parking. But what I hear over and over again is that people are scared of becoming victims of crime.

They fear getting bopped on the head or worse. Recent brutal attacks by “flash mobs” — roving bands of kids who beat up randomly selected pedestrians in downtown Minneapolis — haven’t done much to ease their minds.

“I only go to Orchestra Hall,” said one friend. A skyway connects it to the parking ramp, and crowds of other symphony-goers surging back and forth ensure safety.

As for myself, well, I live downtown, and it seems pretty safe to me.

Occasionally seedy and/or drunken crowds roaming Hennepin Avenue on Saturday nights give me pause, but so far, none of these threatening-looking folks has asked me for so much as the time of day. But that could just be the intimidating John Gotti stare I perfected during the years I lived in New York City.

Crime statistics

So what’s the real story?

As you’ve probably read and heard, crime rates in the U.S. (and worldwide) have dropped drastically in the last 20 years. The murder rate plunged to 5.0 per 100,000 in 2009 from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991, according to the FBI. Although you would think that crime would have risen in the recent recession, the downward trend has continued. Robberies in 2010 had fallen by 10 percent from 2009; in 2009, they had already dropped 8 percent from 2008.

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What you may not realize — I didn’t — is that the largest reductions in violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and assault) occurred in cities. According to a paper from the Brookings Institution, the 100 largest cities saw violent crimes drop 21 percent between 1990 and 2008. Crime fell in the suburbs too, but not as dramatically.

Of course, crime rates are still higher in cities than in suburbs. In cities, for example, violent crimes diminished from 3,000 per 100,000 residents to about 2,370 over the 18-year period. Suburbs dropped from about 1,250 to 1,100. There’s still greater risk in a city than a suburb. That makes sense. There’s going to be more street crime where there are more people out on the streets.

So what about Minneapolis and St. Paul?

The FBI’s Uniform Crime reports show that from 1991 to 2010, the number of violent crimes in Minneapolis fell from 5,888 to 4,064, a reduction of 31 percent. St. Paul had a smaller decrease, from 2,731 to 2,112 or 23 percent. In between, in the mid-90s, violent crimes spiked to nearly 7,100 in Minneapolis and 2,700 in St. Paul, but now the trend is moving in the right direction.

Still, the CQ Press 2010-2011 city crime rankings (PDF) (which include property crimes, as well as violent ones) put Minneapolis at 48th most crime-infested and St. Paul 102nd. That’s not so hot when you consider that supposed cauldrons of crime like Los Angeles and New York City now rank 159th and 269th respectively. Maybe that John Gotti stare will be more useful here than I thought.

As for the downtown areas, “We don’t have all those problems like you do over there in Minneapolis,” says Sgt. Paul Paulos, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. (Huh! Apparently, rivalry between the two cities is alive and well.)

One reason: St. Paul’s downtown is tiny and less populated. The department’s crime maps back him up. In March of last year, there were five aggravated assaults; this year, there were four. That same month there were only two (person-to-person) robberies downtown; there was no record of any robbery in 2011.

According to Paulos, the department has worked closely with homeless shelters in the area and stepped up street patrols to keep crime to a minimum. “Realistically, a panhandler might bother you,” he says.

Looking at crime maps of Minneapolis’ first precinct which covers downtown (and excluding Cedar-Riverside, which is really a residential area — and has less crime than I expected), I came up with a total of 16 aggravated assaults and 24 robberies for March this year and 14 and eight for March of last year.

Presumably, the higher numbers in 2012 were because of warmer weather that brought more people out on the streets. Or, conversely, there were fewer crimes last year because it was so abominably cold that even criminals stayed indoors. Many of the crimes occurred along Hennepin Avenue, but there’s no way to tell whether they happened at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning.

The numbers in no way suggest that either downtown should terrify you. Yet people are still scared.

“Perceptions have not caught up with reality,” says Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor with a specialty in criminology. “Fear of crime does not always map well onto victim risk.”

But, he adds, one horrible incident — say, an assault after a Twins game or some such — can be hard for people to keep in context. They won’t think of declining crime rates; they’ll be preoccupied with the frightening event, especially if they see news about it repeatedly on TV and in newspapers.

Minneapolis downtown ramps up efforts

Mark Stenglein, the former Hennepin County commissioner who today takes office as the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, says the perception problem is “a little bit concerning.” His tone of voice suggests that by “a little bit,” he means “a lot.”

“When a suburbanite gets tagged by a flash mob, the word goes out to a hundred people in Eden Prairie,” he says. “It’s very unsettling.”

He’s vowing that downtown Minneapolis will be safer by July 1. He’s pinning his hopes on the annual SafeZone program — beefed-up patrols for the summer months conducted by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office with the Minneapolis Police Department and the Metro Transit Police.

The program, which started a couple of days ago, lasts until the end of August. However, the extra manpower is brought to bear only on weekdays (Tuesday through Friday) and not after 7 p.m. (If you’re going downtown outside of those times, put on that John Gotti stare and leave your diamond tiaras and other valuables at home.)

The fear may not be justified by the statistics, but that doesn’t matter, says Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek. “Perceptions are real,” he says. “We have to deal with them.”