Rethinking Dinkytown security

Minneapolis police are asking businesses to foot the bill for more security, but stakeholders are at odds.
Late-night traffic fills the intersection of Fourth Street Southeast and 15th Avenue Southeast during Homecoming weekend.
November 15, 2012

On homecoming weekend, the Dinkytown McDonald’s almost shut down. 

Nine squad cars swarmed the scene, responding to fights among patrons. Police considered shutting the late-night hotspot’s doors after one fight got out of control.
 
The incident was symptomatic of far-reaching security issues that are coming to a head in Dinkytown, the University of Minnesota’s weekend watering hole.
 
Police are worried that the escalating crowd control issues could spark a repeat of the 2009 Spring Jam riot if Dinkytown doesn’t reassess its security. 
 
“A riot is something that I vowed would never happen during my tenure,” Minneapolis Inspector Bryan Schafer said. 
 
Shafer brought his concerns to Dinkytown businesses in September, saying he doesn’t want to shut them down but will if the problems — like unruly lines, littering and poor supervision of crowds — continue.
 
He said he would use any means necessary to make sure businesses are following city ordinances.
 
“It’s a last resort because nobody wins,” he said. 
 
Police are asking the bars and restaurants to hire their own security, ideally off-duty police officers, but reluctant business owners are looking to share or avoid the extra cost.
 
Businesses and police are working to compromise but face looming deadlines, like the on-campus Vikings games that could begin as soon as fall 2013.
 
“Right now, the most likely place in the city for a riot to happen is in Dinkytown,” Schafer said. “This is no joking matter; it’s real.”
 
‘A target-rich environment’
 
Police once considered Dinkytown a quiet, traditional college neighborhood separate from the rest of the Minneapolis late-night scene. 
Not anymore. 
 
Dinkytown has undergone a major transformation over the past decade, and Schafer says the neighborhood’s security plan should resemble that of an entertainment district. 
 
“I think the businesses have transformed,” Schafer said. “But the area has not transformed from a public safety standpoint, and that’s a leap that has to be made.” 
 
Schafer said he’s also concerned about the crowd Dinkytown is starting to attract. Since the area has grown into an entertainment district, it has become a hotspot for students from other colleges, non-students and criminals who see students as easy targets for robberies and other crimes. 
“I hate to say it, but it’s a target-rich environment,” Schafer said.
 
Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said he’s eager to work out a solution with the inspector, acknowledging that as Dinkytown has grown, it has become “too welcoming” of a criminal element.
 
“There’s too many things going on that invite people here,” he said. “Bars that serve cheap drinks and don’t monitor anything — whether that’s IDs or problems going on outside — and there are plenty of tables to set up shop and sell drugs or just fall asleep.”
 
Matt Tomkins, general manager at Mesa Pizza, said Mesa rarely faces security issues that can’t be handled by the restaurant’s two bouncers. However, he acknowledged that any serious violence in Dinkytown would start an “avalanche.”
 
Crime Prevention Specialist Nick Juarez says that’s the problem.
 
“If we don’t have a major incident, we don’t have a problem,” he said. “Unfortunately, that line of thinking will come back and bite you.”
 
Johnson said he’d like to see security folded into an in-the-works master plan for Dinkytown. This will give the association teeth when negotiating with incoming businesses, he said, and encourage them to prioritize security from the get-go.
 
Police want businesses to think proactively so they can prevent issues from arising in the first place. 
 
“We’re trying to get people to think in prevention mode,” Juarez said. “If another riot happens, I can guarantee you some of those businesses are not going to make it out of there.”
 
Patrolling the precinct 
 
For police, Dinkytown is a perfect storm at the heart of an already difficult area.
 
While most precincts patrol more during the summer months, the nature of University life forces 2nd Precinct officers to refocus their efforts again in the fall. 
 
“We don’t have the whole precinct ramping up at the same time,” Schafer said. 
 
The 2nd Precinct doubles in size during the school year, Schafer said, but its police presence doesn’t.
 
The precinct, which spans the northeast quarter of the city, has the fewest police in Minneapolis with about 65 total officers who patrol a total area of 7,900 acres.
 
While most other precincts have major events scattered throughout the year, the academic calendar demands markedly heightened police coverage with spikes during big weekends like homecoming and Spring Jam. 
 
“You won’t find that anywhere else in the city of Minneapolis,” Juarez said. Though Minneapolis police are set to hire 56 new officers by 2013, they will primarily replace officers set to retire within the year, so there won’t be a large net increase.
 
Meanwhile, the University and Dinkytown make up only a fraction of the area in the precinct that police need to patrol. With other emerging entertainment districts and crime hotspots around the precinct, Schafer said his forces are stretched thin. 
 
“We’re always barebones,” he said.
 
University police also help patrol Dinkytown, but their official jurisdiction does not extend past University property. Schafer said the help University police provides is invaluable, but they do not usually respond to calls in Dinkytown unless Minneapolis police ask them to or they witness a crime taking place.
 
The 2nd Precinct is not the only area struggling with a lack of resources. Since 2007, the entire Minneapolis Police Department has decreased from 915 officers to about 850, even with the anticipated 2013 new hires. 
 
Schafer said the high volume of students distorts the department’s normal methods of measuring crime, making tough distribution decisions even more difficult.
 
“I’m not complaining about it because we’ve at least held our numbers,” Schafer said of his precinct. “But it’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
 
Sharing the cost
 
At an average of $50 an hour, paying off-duty cops to oversee late-night restaurants and bars can add up.
 
It’s not much compared to what the businesses take in on busy nights, but owners say the costs are unjustifiable.
 
Tomkins said he’s reluctant to hire off-duty officers because security concerns aren’t serious enough. 
 
“I’m not saying it’s the cops doing a money grab for some overtime,” Tomkins said. “But it seems kind of ridiculous for the cops to say ‘You guys need more policing, but we can’t do it, you have to pay us to do it.’”
 
The Loring Pasta Bar and Five Guys Burgers and Fries already hire police on weekends, but with pressure to step up security several businesses hope to share police with neighboring businesses. 
 
Schafer said he’d be open to businesses sharing off-duty police. Two officers, for example, could float between the Library Bar and Burrito Loco.
 
Management from McDonald’s, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have in the past suggested hiring four to six police officers that would patrol all of Dinkytown, with the number increasing on especially busy weekends, like homecoming.
 
Five Guys general manager Richard Dortch said his restaurant won’t participate in any sharing, since he’s happy with the current arrangement.
 
“We’ve got our off-duty officer. He takes care of our area and what we’re doing,” Dortch said. “We don’t ask for any help from, like, McDonald’s. It’s our business.”
 
He said if bars and a couple late-night restaurants simply hired their own off-duty officers, all of Dinkytown would be covered because those officers could respond to other issues in the neighborhood.
 
Tomkins echoed this resistance to a sharing arrangement or any plan where the DBA is “making the decision for us.”
 
But Tony Nicklow, owner of the neighboring Tony’s Diner, has said he’s supportive of a sharing arrangement.
 
‘A whole different Dinkytown’
 
In his time at Espresso Royale, associate manager Rex Vogen has had two female staffers request to be pulled from the coffee shop’s closing shift, which goes until midnight. One staffer even quit because of the harassment she faced from the bar crowd, Vogen said.
 
“There is kind of a general atmosphere of insecurity [in Dinkytown],” he said. “If you’re working alone at night — because all of our closers work alone — if you feel a lack of security, that can be an awful thing.”
 
Dinkytown business owners are divided over how to pay for shared off-duty police. Some, particularly those whose businesses stay open late, want daytime businesses to share in the cost. Others say it’s unfair to ask businesses to pay for police protection they won’t even see.
 
“I think it’s a community issue,” said Mike Mulrooney, the owner of Blarney Pub and Grill. “If there’s a late-night crowd, all of the businesses in the area benefit from that because it’s driving people to the area.”
 
During an October DBA meeting, Mulrooney and other late-night businesses argued that stores and restaurants that are closed late at night benefit from Dinkytown’s burgeoning reputation as an entertainment district.
“I think a lot of the daytime businesses … have no idea what goes on at night,” Johnson said. “It’s a whole different world, a whole different Dinkytown.”
Johnson said he sometimes worries about his windows being broken when he leaves Autographics Printing at night. Late-night business owners have argued a police presence would deter property damages at daytime businesses.
 
“That’s a somewhat specious argument,” said James Sander, a member of the Dinkytown Advisory Board, which creates the budget for Dinkytown’s special city district. His wife, Georgia, is the owner of Kafé 421.
 
“What they’re saying is that I should be concerned that someone from their businesses would come and do damage to my property in the middle of the night when I’m not there,” he said. “Frankly, it’s kind of offensive.”
 
Other late-night businesses oppose the plan.
 
Dortch called the idea “absolutely ridiculous.”
 
Tomkins said he’s also against asking daytime businesses to fund late-night security.
 
“Exactly how many windows have been broken in Dinkytown in the past year?” he said. “To me it sounds like a solution looking for a problem.”
 
Becoming a liability
 
On two Thursday nights this fall, Johnson stayed after work to get a feel for Dinkytown’s late-night crowd. What he saw shocked him.
 
Johnson said he saw rowdy people jumping on top of cars and pulling down the tree lights outside of the Library Bar.
 
“Things started to make sense — we’re always replacing the lights in those trees,” Johnson said. “Now we know. The security guys at their door did nothing.”
 
Johnson and other business owners have pointed to the Library as a possible source of Dinkytown’s security problems. Management from the Library has been absent from meetings discussing the security issue.
 
“I’ve always had the strong feeling that one of my duties here is to protect all of the businesses in Dinkytown,” Johnson said. “I try to stand up for them whenever they’re in trouble, but I’ve decided I’m not anymore.”
 
Joe Berg, the Library’s general manager, said his security staff have been told by police that they cannot engage non-customers out on the sidewalk.
 
“It’s really tough, because there’s a real gray area that we can’t get involved in,” he said. “There’s a point when it becomes a liability.”
 
Johnson and Blarney owner Mulrooney have pointed to the Library’s dollar drink nights as a specific issue.
 
“Now you have people binge drinking because it’s possible,” Johnson said. “10 bucks for 10 drinks? That shouldn’t be on a college campus.”
 
Mulrooney said he’s concerned with over-served customers leaving the Library and causing troubles at his bar.
 
“It has nothing to do with competition,” he said. “It has everything to do with dealing with the aftereffects of having 10 beers in an hour for $10 and them assuming … that kid isn’t going to cause a problem for anybody else.”
 
Berg declined to comment on concerns businesses have about the Library.
 
‘The presence is enough’
 
One night earlier this fall, a man who had been picking fights all night attacked a bouncer at Blarney, but the bouncer had to wait for police to arrive to finally throw the man out of the bar.
 
Mulrooney has expressed frustration that his bouncers cannot be more proactive in engaging unruly guests, saying the bouncers are too often “waiting to be punched.”
 
Some business owners have argued that private security is sufficient to deal with late-night crowds, but police say bouncers and off-duty officers don’t compare.
 
“The crap that you think you can pull with a private security guard is not going to cut it with a cop,” Schafer said.
 
He said a police officer’s ability to arrest, detain and use force are crucial to keeping Dinkytown safe. 
 
Mesa and Qdoba hire their own security, and the restaurateurs argue that since they’re not serving alcohol, private security is sufficient. 
“A lot of times, just the presence of security people is enough,” Tomkins said. “A stern attitude, that’s usually enough.”
 
Tomkins said he also prefers hiring his own security because he can assign them specific tasks, like line-management and cleaning tables, something he says off-duty police won’t do.
 
But police have made an example of the Dinkytown Five Guys, which hired an off-duty police officer to provide security when it expanded to late-night hours a year ago.
 
General manager Dortch said the decision to spend the extra money for a police officer was a no-brainer.
 
“You know what to expect when you’re going to be open late in a college town with, like, three bars within a block of each other,” he said. “You know exactly what you’re going to get at 3 o’clock in the morning, so there’s no sense in not preparing for it.”
 
Dean Kriegel, an off-duty officer who works late-night shifts at Five Guys, said he thinks the presence of an officer deters trouble. He said he only has to deal with one or two incidents per weekend because people know they can’t push him as far as they can push a private security guard. 
 
“I just think having a police officer there takes care of the problem without having to do anything,” Kriegel said. 
 
Looking Downtown
 
Police in the 2nd Precinct are using the way businesses and police cooperate downtown as a model for their plan for Dinkytown. 
 
When Schafer worked as a patrol officer downtown, he said the area had only four squad cars working at a time and had no headquarters. Now, downtown has more officers and resources than any other precinct in Minneapolis. 
 
Courtland Steele, head of security at the downtown club Epic, said his security staff works closely with the area’s beat cops. There are two to six police assigned to the club for each event, he said.
 
“We work very well with them,” Steele said. “They’re just there to assist us if we have something that gets out of hand.”
 
Schafer said in the future he would like to explore creative solutions from downtown, including wireless communication between security and using police and painted lines on the sidewalk to direct crowds.
 
“We’ve got to think outside the box here,” he said. “Anything is possible and workable if people want to climb on board.”
 
‘Give me something’
 
Dinkytown businesses need to solve the issue before an entirely new layer of problems is added to the mix. 
 
Schafer said he would like to see a plan ready in time for Spring Jam so Dinkytown’s security can be tested before the Vikings begin playing at TCF Bank Stadium, which could be as soon as next football season.
 
For police, the Vikings represent looming headaches from traffic problems and larger unruly crowds.
 
“We need a good relationship with the businesses to prepare for that,” Juarez said. “It’s going to be crazy.”
 
Johnson said businesses are coming close to having a pilot plan, which he plans to finalize at a special DBA meeting this week.
 
“We got to get something done before the end of the year,” he said. “We don’t want to test the patience of anybody.”
 
Johnson said businesses will likely share off-duty police but in smaller groups. These arrangements will be more individualized with reduced focus on Dinkytown-wide sharing.
 
Schafer said he’s open to working with any proposal the businesses present, and he is willing to let businesses take their time crafting it.
 
“I’m all ears,” Schafer said. “Give me something because right now we have nothing.”

 

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