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Should you be scared to go downtown? Not really

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.

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.”

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 06/01/2012 - 10:25 am.


    There’s a reason to go downtown? Not for many years. The warm embrace of the urban core is not to be found in Minneapolis. If the debacle of block E had actually been handled intelligently, we’d have an open urban space where one was sorely needed. Additionally, you have the class defining skyways you thought were so cool. Skirting downtown is the way to go, and has been for years. Look to local neighborhoods for worthwhile atmosphere.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/01/2012 - 10:48 am.

    “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.”

    It’s a surprise to be told that the First Precinct doesn’t have the monthly and YTD crime stats maps that MPD does for neighborhoods. In color: yellow marks–differentiated by type of class I crime–for daytime, black for nighttime occurrences.

    Maybe there are just too many crimes for downtown to put on a map? But, they do them, and by time of day.

  3. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 06/01/2012 - 10:58 am.

    Love downtown

    For 26 years I lived in downtown Minneapolis – first at Loring Green East and then in Grant Park. While recently moved to a first ring western suburb, I still find myself going downtown daily. I love the vibe, big city restaurants, the diversity of people, the entertainment and culture that exists downtown. Those that are afraid of downtown or diss it really should think about becoming more open-minded. Populations in the United States and worldwide are becoming more and more urban and as urban populations grow, so do creativity, culture and education. The suburbs are nice, but very isolating, leading to isolation of thoughts and ideas. When living in condo in Minneapolis, I always knew many people in my building – now, I only have one neighbor friend and don’t see the rest of my neighbors – even my gay neighbors, whom I thought would become natural friends. My point being that downtown offers people an opportunity to mix with others – those different than ourselves and opens up new ideas, thoughts and beliefs that make our cities and world a better place.

  4. Submitted by Sheryl Evelo on 06/01/2012 - 12:38 pm.

    Dangerous Downtowns

    And lets not forget how the media heightens the perception of a dangerous downtown. Last week the local TV news began with breaking news of a shooting, followed with “violent crime is up 50% in Minneapolis” Last year at this time there was one murder, now we have two! There was not much of a follow up on how low the crime statistics are in general or how safe and well patrolled the city is.

  5. Submitted by Chuck Johnson on 06/01/2012 - 01:15 pm.

    I was last downtown on Sunday April 15th…

    …to pick up my tax return at 4PM in the afternoon, at Nicollet and 8th St.

    As I walked out of the building with my wife and tax return, a group of 7 or 8 younger, hats pointed sideways black folks were huddled between me and my waiting vehicle. My wife and I endeavored to walk around them. While pretending not to see us, they just happened to ‘accidentally’ back up into the path between us and our vehicle. When we attempted to get back on our original path toward the vehicle, they again endeavored to block our way.

    Now these punks had no useful purpose in hanging out on the Nicollet Mall, except for making trouble. I have no time for these lowlife troublemakers and can’t help but wish they would disappear completely. In the meantime, I will avoid places they congregate whenever possible. The highest names on my list of local places to avoid are downtown Minneapolis, Mall of America, and the LRT which is their criminal transport system.

    I suspect most white folks in the Twin Cities agree with me, even though they won’t admit it. Suburban schools are lily white because people vote their real feelings with their feet. That includes hypocrites like Bill and Hilary Clinton who refused to send their daughter to public school while occupying the WHITE House.

    • Submitted by Matt Bowers on 06/01/2012 - 02:23 pm.

      Why is this racist drivel being tolerated at MinnPost? I thought you had some standards–apparently, you have devolved into the comments section of the Pioneer Press. Thanks to Chuck for providing a list of places where we can avoid him.

      • Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 06/03/2012 - 08:34 am.

        Re: racist! racist! racist!

        Mr. Bowers:

        Is your accusation of “racism” against Mr. Johnson a legitimate counter argument?

  6. Submitted by Daniel Olson on 06/01/2012 - 02:40 pm.

    Wow, you saw blacks milling around on a public sidewalk?

    My goodness. Their hats were pointed toward where? Any other fashion criticisms? “Thug” pants perhaps? And they obstructed your most direct path to your vehicle without even paying you mind? Can you imagine if those kids would have looked at you? Or *gasp* spoken to you? I’m sure you were right “they had no useful purpose on Nicollet Mall”. I always make sure to judge other folks useful purpose after just a glance.

    This is what bothers me about the “real problem” of the perception of crime. I was involved in a downtown neighborhood association and was aghast at the “urbanist” Grant Park condo owners who bought into a fortress surrounded by a diverse working class neighborhood. According to fellow Condo owners, many of the residents were afraid to cross the street into the area East of Portland Ave. They had a perception of crime based on their own prejudice and fears that was completely unfounded by facts or statistics. But to make themselves feel safer, they successfully demanded that the Mpls police step up uniformed and undercover patrols. Over the next several weeks, I watched as police harassed and intimidated black and brown neighbors as they went about their business. It was all for the benefit of their well-heeled neighbors comfort level.

    It’s one thing when folks like Chuck quietly make negative assumptions about people that don’t look like them and pass that prejudice down to their children. But when folks use their out-sized political clout to demand this stop-and-frisk police oppression based on their misguided perceptions, the rights of others suffer unjustly.

    I lived downtown for two years and have worked downtown for five. The crime issue is laughably overblown. Local TV News have fostered this stranger danger fear of ‘those people’ to the degree that many folks are convinced there’s thugs hiding in the bushes in front of their house. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so corrosive to our sense of community.

    So guess what people, it’s safe to walk downtown! You wanna know where I’m scared to walk? Commercial areas in the suburbs. With an environment built solely for car transport, the dangers of walking in the suburbs are supported by facts.

  7. Submitted by r batnes on 06/01/2012 - 05:21 pm.

    Wow…Nicollet and 8th!

    You’re lucky to be alive. By the way, do the rest of us “white folks” a favor…. don’t ever attempt to speak for us. Your post served one purpose however, it did provide the opportunity to show my kids a snapshot of what bigotry and xenophobia looks like.

  8. Submitted by Julie Sandburg on 06/01/2012 - 05:21 pm.

    Why is it that the people “afraid” to be downtown seem to be racists?

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/01/2012 - 10:06 pm.

    Fear is a funny thing

    My wife and I go downtown regularly, and never found downtown to be any more dangerous than my suburban paradise. I think the big problems happen after midnight in the warehouse district. We’re usually of there by 10:00.

  10. Submitted by Kyle Shiely on 06/02/2012 - 12:43 am.

    Timing is everything…

    I couldn’t help but laugh about this article being published the same day that the Star Tribune published the story with the headline: “Downtown crime wave has police gearing up: Robberies, assaults way up, with summer club season just starting.”

    From the Strib article: “Robbery has climbed 105 percent in the city’s First Precinct, which covers downtown, from 54 cases between Jan. 1 and May 28 last year to 111 cases in the same period this year. Reported rapes climbed from 27 to 37, and aggravated assault from 69 to 87 for the same time period. Violent crime overall, which includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and aggravated domestic assault, has climbed 56 percent so far this year, according to city statistics.”

    Violent crime is up 56% from last year! But hey Downtown is perfectly safe and you must be a racist if you think otherwise, right?

  11. Submitted by Tim Droogsma on 06/02/2012 - 02:09 am.

    Star-Tribune headline…

    …on their web site tonight says, “Downtown crime wave has police gearing up. Robberies, assaults way up…..”

    Perhaps the police should have talked to Marlys and all of these caring, sensitive comment writers, and they could have learned that there’s nothing to worry about, it’s all just media hype.

    I guess the only people that worry about the 105% increase in robberies (Jan. 1 – May 28, 2012 vs. 2011), the 37% increase in reported rapes and 56% increase in overall violent crime are a bunch of knuckle-dragging racists who value their own personal safety more than exposure to the “new ideas, thoughts and beliefs” that are only found in enlightened downtown Minneapolis.

    And perhaps these same folks can explain to Marcell Patterson – shot in both legs less than two weeks ago, with a friend shot at the same time – that he and his friend probably just have a “perception of crime based on their own prejudice…”

  12. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/02/2012 - 07:26 am.

    “Robberies, assaults way up”

    Strib 6/2: “Robbery has climbed 105 percent in the city’s First Precinct, which covers downtown, from 54 to 111 cases. Reported rapes climbed from 27 to 37, and aggravated assault from 69 to 87 for the same time period. Violent crime overall, which includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault and aggravated domestic assault, has climbed 56 percent so far this year, according to city statistics.”

    “When you go down there to have fun, you pretty much know there’s a pretty good chance something bad is going to happen,” said the 24-year-old Minneapolis resident.

    I love it. Whenever a young liberal is mugged a new republican is created.

    • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/04/2012 - 09:18 am.

      You know…

      The countries that have considerably lower crime rates than we do also tend to have “soft on crime”, liberal, rehabilitation-focused criminal justice systems and strong social safety nets. So even if I were to ever be mugged – and I take comfort in knowing Mr. Tester is hoping for it – I would still know that the way to reduce crime is not the policies conservatives push. It’s the consequence of thinking rationally instead of emotionally.

  13. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 06/02/2012 - 02:16 pm.

    How Could There be More Crime?

    With the open carry law on the books, I thought crime would go the way of the dinosaurs.

  14. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/02/2012 - 05:24 pm.


    It’s a shame that you get pleasure from anyone being mugged.

  15. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 06/03/2012 - 09:36 am.

    What,,,no street psalms for downtown metro anymore…?

    Foot beats, heart beats;

    silent curses and courtesies

    echo down Main Street…

    who’s going to sing the

    song of small

    celebrations and benedictions?

    …be somebody new. hey?

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/04/2012 - 08:54 am.

    I’m a afraid of trailer homes…

    Actually, per capita Hilltop is the most dangerous city in MN, almost three times as dangerous as MPLS.

  17. Submitted by John D Sens on 06/08/2012 - 12:55 pm.

    Fears of Downtown

    There are several factors in play that cause concern. (1) because of the legal situation, aggressive, in-your-face, panhandling is permitted as a form of “free speech.” Being accosted by robust men is scary for many, particularly women. In this regard, the presence of a large number of loiterers is also disconcerting. There isn’t much the city can do about this, as the loiterers are on public streets and have a right to be there. They can’t be eased out as would be the case at a suburban mall. (2) parking, while ample, is expensive and often requires travel though parking ramps that many find uncomfortable. (3) Minneapolis is known to be a sanctuary city that welcomes types that some suburbanites find alarming. (4) My own resistance to going downtown is mostly fear for my wallet. Prices at retail establishments, particularly restaurants, are significantly higher than in the suburbs. By the time you pay for the parking, the additional Minneapolis taxes, and the higher menu prices, a reasonable dinner can cost half again as much or more as it would in the suburbs. (5) with a few notable exceptions there are few things downtown that can’t be found in the suburbs.

  18. Submitted by Terry Elliott on 06/08/2012 - 10:24 pm.

    Please, do the numbers again

    You say:
    “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.”

    What the????

    It’s not just that “there are more people out on the streets,” but the very statistics you quote show the RATE of crime (the rate per 100,000 residents) is over twice as high in cities than in suburbs.

    Geez someday there’s going to be a reporter who understands math, but not yet!

    Terry Elliott

    • Submitted by Daniel Olson on 06/11/2012 - 04:26 pm.

      I would agree with your point Terry, but…

      The rate of crime is given per 100,000 RESIDENTS. You see Downtown Minneapolis has 140,000 workers commute in everyday from outside the city that are not included in the per capita figures. Downtown is the temporary home to destitute drifters, grifters, squatters, and ramblers that are not included in the capita. (I welcome the drifters and ramblers — not to be confused with grifters and squatters). Everyday downtown is full of out-of-town tourists who are counted in capitas from Dubuque to Toyko, but NOT Minneapolis.

      Most of all — every weekend downtown is flooded with suburbanites who come to party like drunken frat boys. They drink until they puke on the sidewalk and start a fight with some other blacked-out suburbanite. I can only imagine they behave better down at the Lakeville Applebees.

      Not that I’m complaining about being an entertainment center. We like you’all to come pay our Wilf taxes. It’s just that if you were trying to assess the safety of walking down the street, wouldn’t you divide the number of crimes by the number of people walking down the street? What does the number of residents (crimes per capita) signify when they are just a small percentage of the population sample? If 1 in 4 people walking downtown live in Minneapolis and 3 in 4 people walking in a suburb live in that suburb, wouldn’t you need to adjust per capita statistics for an even comparison?

      I imagine when Marlys said “there are more people on the street” she meant “more people not included in the per capita population sample.”

      Aren’t statistics fun?

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