Pack hunters push robberies up 53 percent in downtown Minneapolis

A victim is left unconscious after being beaten in a pack robbery in downtown Minneapolis.

A victim is left unconscious after being beaten in a pack robbery in downtown Minneapolis. Minneapolis Police

Police say it's called “finessing.” Packs of teens begin their late-night hunts in downtown Minneapolis, looking for lone drunks, people distracted by cell phones, prey that won't fight back.

One person will strike up a conversation with a target. A moment later, the victim will be jumped, punched, and kicked into the pavement by the others.

It is the ultimate moron crime. In exchange for the risk of felony assault and robbery charges, all they're usually walking away with is a cellphone and a wallet already emptied at a bar. The phones are later sold at automated kiosks like ECO ATM, the cops believe. Once the money is divvied, a major score might come to $50 each.

Yet security video suggests this is less about money than violence for violence's sake. Footage shows teens taking turns jumping on an unconscious victim, riding a bike over a prone body. The weak are enjoying their power over the helpless, emboldened by safety in numbers. (Note: The video will briefly leave camera range, then return:)

While the crime itself may be small and ugly, the price to downtown Minneapolis grows higher. Robberies are up 53 percent this year in central downtown. In one 20-day stretch last month, 47 people were attacked. Much of that figure is attributable to pack hunters.

So Minneapolis police sent three dozen cops to do some hunting of their own. They bagged 16 suspects. Half were juveniles, one a mere 13. Police believe some were responsible for multiple robberies, and the attacks seem to have at least temporarily subsided.

Downtown merchants have been complaining about quality-of-life crimes for years. They say suburban residents are becoming too afraid to visit, and bargoers are bailing early to avoid becoming marks.

“By midnight the place is almost empty because people are trying to get out of Dodge,” Jay Ettinger, part owner of the Pourhouse, recently told WCCO. “It’s the wild, wild west out here.”

“All of a sudden it's 12:30 and they’re like, ‘You know what? We don’t want to be part of the shenanigans down here,” the Loon Cafe's Tim Mahoney told the station. “We’re going home.”

Much of the blame is being directed toward the City Council. Gavin Rydell, an owner of Infinite Vapor, posted a Facebook video showing gunfire on Hennepin Avenue.

His accompanying commentary likely spoke for many downtown merchants:

“Thank you, Minneapolis City Council, for focusing on bike lanes, banning e-cig flavors, raising taxes, raising wages to a point that businesses will eventually fail. You guys are about the worst policy makers in the country. I am adding a video of what happens in Minneapolis every single weekend. The media doesn't cover it, the state doesn't talk about it. Minneapolis after dark is one of the most dangerous cities there is.”

That last part is a bit of hyperbole. When 24/7 Wall Street crunched FBI crime data for the most violent cities in America, Minneapolis ranked 20th. But bragging that we're still well behind Detroit doesn't offer much comfort when you're getting your face kicked after a pleasant night at the bar.

Still, Rydell does have a point. Though council members can surely work on crime and bike lanes at the same time, they haven't shown much urgency in addressing the city's cop shortage.

Over the past two decades, Minneapolis' population has grown by 60,000 people. But there are now 30 fewer officers to serve them. The fallout has begun to reveal itself in hard numbers.

According to Chief Medaria Arradondo, the department had no one immediately available to respond to 6,776 emergency calls during a recent 12-month period. Those include shots fired, assaults, domestic violence.

Arradondo wants to hire 400 new officers by 2025. Economically, that's not especially realistic. Yet Mayor Jacob Frey is pushing for 14 more to work in traffic, sexual assault, and neighborhood outreach.

The council originally balked. Many want to pursue the grander notion of a kinder, gentler police department, one that's as much about social work as it is crime fighting, one that can better deal with things like overdoses and mental health crises. The hope is to move away from the lock-'em-up days of minor possession busts and police shootings.

It's a noble idea. The problem is that, with the existing force, it's impossible to do neighborhood outreach when you can't even answer emergency calls. The stats and security videos have begun to drive that reality home. So some council members are now showing an eagerness to hire as many as 30 new cops. 

This should offer at least some comfort to those 60,000 new residents. They came for the quality-of-life things like bike lanes and rising wages. They also came because, across the country, violent crime rates are now half what they were in the '70s and '80s, reversing the migration outward to the suburbs.

But unless the city acts, police don't have the manpower to keep 36 extra cops on downtown pack hunter duty. Nor will the influx of residents last if no one's available to speed toward rapes-in-progress.

Under conditions like these, a condo in Eagan and Saturday night at Applebee's starts to gather a whole new shine.

UPDATECharges were filed against 18 people arrested for the violent muggings, including one man who is accused of participating in both attacks.