Minneapolis homicides: Murderopolis redux?

Minneapolis Murder Rates 1994–2009

Minneapolis Murder Rates 1994–2009

Just six days into 2010, neighbors, city officials, and police swarmed the Seward neighborhood in south Minneapolis. Three men lay dead at the Seward Market on Franklin Avenue. The temperature hovered around 0 degrees as neighbors huddled in shocked silence.

Mayor R.T. Rybak arrived on the scene to meet with the victims' families and encourage the crowd to help bring the murderers to justice. When he started addressing reporters who had gathered to cover the story, one asked the question Rybak had been dreading: "How does this affect your campaign for governor?"

"I just saw three dead bodies, and the last thing I was thinking about is how this will affect precinct caucuses," Rybak says. "I am obviously running for public office, but even more serious is when something bad happens in our community."

By January 20, seven people had been killed in Minneapolis. That's more than 36 percent of the 19 murders in all of 2009.

The spate of killings came at an unfortunate time for Rybak. The bad news makes an effective talking point for his rivals, especially considering that Rybak has touted the city's drop in crime among his accomplishments.

"As mayor, you are held responsible for how your constituents are doing," says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political-science professor. "The sense that he made crime a priority makes it fair game."

Just two days into the new year, Dontae Johnson, 31, was shot and killed minutes after dropping off his seven-year-old son at a sleepover. Police say the Champlin man might have been involved in a marijuana sale gone bad.

On January 6, three men were shot to death at the Seward Market. Two 17-year-old boys have been charged in connection with the crime, which led to the deaths of Abdifatah Warfa, his cousin Mohamed Warfa, and customer Anwar Mohammed.

The next day, Rybak had planned a press conference to celebrate the dramatic drops in crime. In a scramble, the event became a somber recap of the triple homicide.

"We had intended to have a press conference this morning to talk about crime trends," Rybak said as he took the podium. "We've had several good years followed by several very bad nights. We'll talk about trends another day."

Walter Lee Dolley Jr., 19, was killed January 15 walking back from a store with friends. The Edina High School student died just four blocks from his home in south Minneapolis.

Marvin Maynard, 16, was gunned down in north Minneapolis around lunchtime two days later, begging for his life before he was shot.

Police were called to a townhome just north of downtown on the evening of January 20 on a report that someone in the residence had a gun. Orlando Keith Nunn, 21, was found dead from apparent gunshot wounds, marking the city's seventh homicide of 2010.

"The media in general was seizing upon these stories," says Eric Ostermeier, author of the University of Minnesota Smart Politics blog. "People started to wonder if we have really turned the corner to Murderapolis or is this just a front-loaded beginning of the year?"

K.G. Wilson, founder of Hope Ministries, visited all seven scenes to assist the families of victims, and he worries that this could be a sign of a bad year to come.

"This could be a trend unless we see an immediate outcry to stop the violence," Wilson says. "Are we up against drugs? Are we up against gangs? Are we up against territory? We need answers and we need to collaborate to bring an end to this."

Minnesota Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton says Rybak took a risk using crime numbers and now it's appropriate to question what he's done to improve city safety.

"I think it's curious the mayor will take credit when crime goes down, but when crime goes up, he stays quiet," Sutton says. "He's playing games with public safety as a tax-and-spend liberal and doesn't get it. Spending more money doesn't make things efficient."

Luke Hellier, a blogger at Minnesota Democrats Exposed, says even the positive numbers Rybak parades as success stories are far from a closed case.

"While some numbers have dropped, it's not enough to claim victory," Hellier says.

Homicides dropped to just 19 in 2009, compared to 40 in 2008. That's a big improvement over 2002—Rybak's first year in office—when there were 47 murders.

Violent and property crimes fluctuated since 2002, when the city recorded 27,202 incidents. In 2009, there were 22,474. But violent crime incidents alone are up 3 percent since 2002. If murder rates were to stay constant the rest of the year, Minneapolis would have 122 homicides. That's 25 more than the record of 97 set in 1995.

Extrapolating from just a month of data, however, isn't always a good idea. Minneapolis experienced a similar rash of homicides in 2007, with five in the first two weeks of the year. If those numbers held up, the city would have been on pace for 122 homicides that year. The city tallied only 47.

In January 2008, there wasn't a single murder in the city. Did that mean the city recorded zero murders the rest of the year? Of course not. There were 40 homicides that year.

"These are random events that happened in the beginning of the year," Ostermeier says. "We have to back up and think about what really changed from the last month of 2009 to the first month of 2010. It's clear nothing is actually different that can explain this."