In recent years, some of the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Minnesota – along with the city as a whole – have seen upticks in criminal activity and calls from residents to do something about it.
This summer, for example, the Dinkytown area of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood has seen chaotic spurts of teens lighting off fireworks, harassing passersby and assaulting pedestrians in some cases.
Last week, the Minneapolis Police Department and the University of Minnesota Police Department began a joint effort called Dinkytown Safe Streets — an extra enforcement campaign on weekend nights targeting the increased activity in the area.
University officials say they have significantly upped their efforts in recent years to focus more energy on the neighborhoods around campus. Those efforts include the more immediate enforcement and violence prevention like the Safe Streets program, as well as long standing lighting infrastructure issues, to help keep students and other communities around the institution safe.
Following the release of its Twin Cities Campus Plan at the end of 2021, the university shifted its strategy around crime prevention and response from one that focused on the campus proper – like university buildings and residence halls – to one that expands those efforts into the off-campus neighborhoods where many students live, said Myron Frans, the university’s senior vice president for finance and operations. Upticks in crime in recent years in areas close to campus like Dinkytown, the Marcy Holmes neighborhood’s eastern portion adjacent to the university campus, have prompted that shift, he said.
“We needed to think about being more strategic neighbors and partners with communities around the university, and we get that things have changed so we needed to look at our neighbors and our neighborhoods in more of a partner kind of way,” he said in an interview. “We want to help the city of Minneapolis respond to these changes in crime (off-campus).”
Since around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, neighborhoods citywide have experienced rolling surges in criminal activity. This prompted Minneapolis to launch Operation Endeavor, a campaign involving city, state and federal law enforcement agencies to reduce violent crime.
In the Marcy Holmes neighborhood, motor vehicle thefts are up nearly 30% compared to last year and vandalism is up nearly 18%, according to Minneapolis crime data, but most other crimes like assaults, burglaries and larceny are down.
In the last few months, however, Dinkytown has become a center for rowdiness — especially on weekends, with law enforcement scrambling to deal with calls related to assaults, harassment, vandalism and other disruption.
To that end, the university has implemented a variety of measures to prevent crime and help police respond to criminal activity in those areas. Those efforts include the Dinkytown Safe Streets program to target the increased activity in the area.
“Safe Streets was designed to deal specifically with this most recent situation where we’ve had large groups coming over at one time and causing disruption using fireworks,” Frans said in an interview. “That is MPD’s primary jurisdiction and their primary responsibility, but we’re trying to help by supplying more overtime to our officers so they can help support MPD in those areas.”
The university has added eight new officers to the UMPD ranks with plans to add six more before the year ends to augment MPD response, hiring more security officers and doing safety walks with parents, students and other residents around the neighborhoods with the university’s Department of Public Safety to offer tips and bring attention to specific safety issues.
They’ve also created a Dinkytown Alerts program, which allows people in and around the university to opt-in to a system that sends out a notification when a crime occurs. The university is required under federal law to have a system like that in place for its campus, but this new alert program expands to the off-campus neighborhoods.
Other efforts involved town halls with police officials like MPD Chief Brian O’Hara, and a contract with Block by Block, a program that provides ambassadors on the streets that report crime, provide directions, walk people home and interact with people experiencing homelessness, among other duties.
The university also received $1 million from the Legislature in ongoing public safety funding, as well as an additional $8 million over the next two years in one-time funding. Frans told the Board of Regents the university plans to use the ongoing funding to boost staffing, pay for overtime hours and add an additional K9 unit for special events, while the one-time funding will be used to replace outdated security equipment and building access technology.
“Our initial reaction was what do we do to respond to the crime once it happens,” said Regent Janie Mayerson. “Now what it has evolved into, the significant role the university is playing in trying to prevent crime from actually happening on our campus as well … to try and stop it before it begins is absolutely critical.”
As part of its public safety efforts, the university also did a lighting audit to determine where the dark areas were around the neighborhoods, and presented those findings to city officials. That campaign so far has yielded 100 new street lights installed in the Southeast Como neighborhood and 75 lights in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood.
Minneapolis Ward 2 Council member Robin Wonsley, whose ward includes much of the university campus and parts of the off-campus neighborhoods where students live, said lighting has been a chief priority of hers since coming into office in late 2021. She said students and other constituents would tell her repeatedly that an important way to increase public safety beyond policing would be to replace street lights in dark spots, which would drastically improve how safe residents feel walking around their neighborhoods.
After several meetings with city staff and university officials, she said she learned the issue wasn’t limited to her ward but there were many dark spots citywide, prompting Wonsley during budget negotiations last year to advocate for more street lighting. That resulted in just over $5.5 million allocated for installing and replacing lights citywide.
“When you do have that high level of visibility in your neighborhoods, that does deter certain types of crime because people are afraid they’re going to be seen or easily reported,” she said. “Something as simple as increasing the amount of lighting that reaches both our sidewalks and our streets allows for better and safer conditions.”
The city’s public works department now has a webpage dedicated to its street light improvement project, which Wonsley said will be used to provide a plan for addressing outages, the status of improvements and maps that identify areas that need work. She said the city is looking into further improvements that will help illuminate sidewalks and bike lanes.
“The sidewalk piece is going to be important,” she said. “We want to make sure there’s lights in the streets but if we want to encourage people to walk or use public transportation, we need to make sure our sidewalk passages and bike lanes are also visibly lit.”