Students growing wary after man poses as cop, sexually assaults student

Folkens (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

University of Minnesota students say they're unnerved by a recent rash of crimes -- especially a sexual assault Sunday in which the man appears to have posed as a uniformed officer.

The early-morning assault prompted the third crime alert for the university community since the attempted daylight robbery of a student in Anderson Hall on the West Bank about two weeks ago.

Even though overall crime at the U appears to be down, some students say they feel less safe -- and are taking precautions they haven't taken before.

"We're vulnerable," said nursing senior Sasha Orange of Minneapolis. "We're easy targets."

According to police, the student was walking alone about 2:15 a.m. near 15th Avenue SE and 8th Street SE when a man driving a black, unmarked SUV slowed down to talk to her.

He warned the woman about walking alone and offered her a ride.

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Minneapolis Commander Bruce Folkens told reporters the man didn't actually tell the student he was a police officer. But he was wearing a dark jacket with a badge on it, and dark pants.

The SUV, he said, probably had a large GPS screen in the dash. That glowing screen may have led the student to believe it was a laptop similar to what law enforcement officers have in their cars.

When the student got in, the man allegedly locked the doors, drove to a remote location and sexually assaulted her.

Folkens said it was unclear from the description whether the clothing matched that of city or campus law enforcement or that of a private security firm:

"There's such a multitude of private security in and around the metro area and the greater Minnesota area. We don't want to speculate where -- if, in fact, they were involved at all in security role. You can buy that stuff online anywhere."

He said there was no indication the man was an employee of either police department.

The Anoka County Sheriff's Office said today a similar incident happened at 1 p.m Saturday in Fridley.

A man there was driving a dark SUV and had a similar description -- but was in plain clothes. He identified himself as a police officer to a woman, then kidnapped her and sexually assaulted her.

Sheriff's personnel say the two crimes are most likely related, but Minneapolis police say it's too soon to tell.

Minnesota law doesn't mention what someone has to say or wear to be charged with impersonating an officer. Folkens said that would be a call prosecuters would have to make later. If police catch the man and charge him, Folkens said, it would be an aggravating factor in the assault case.

This idea that someone passed himself off as a police officer is concerning, Folkens said. He told reporters he hasn't really seen anything like it here.

And it has unnerved some University of Minnesota students. They say students see police and security personnel as authority figures and trust them.

U philosophy junior Kaylin Burton of Weyauwega, Wisc., says the ploy disturbs her:

"He had the intelligence to put on a suit to make him look like an official, and trick her -- manipulate her. That's scary."

Students interviewed at the U and near the location where the student entered the SUV said they'd received crime alerts about the sexual assault. And they'd heard about the on-campus robbery the night before -- as well as the early-morning off-campus armed robbery the previous Wednesday.

Those occurred after an attempted daylight robbery at Anderson Hall earlier this month.

At the time, police said they were concerned over the growing number of robberies committed by groups of men targeting several people — usually students — walking together. The robbers usually look for iPhones and, to a lesser extent, laptops.

Students said they realize crime at and around the U may be elevated because the campus is in an urban setting.

And yet psychology senior Sophie Alfano, who lives near Loring Park, says she felt safer when she was attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis.

There, she said, crime was "random."

But like Orange, the nursing student, she said, "It feels like people around here are targeting U of M students."

Seth Larson of Eau Claire, a senior studying audio engineering, said, "You can spot them a mile away."

Campus officials acknowledge what students are feeling.

Pamela Wheelock, vice president for university services, wrote Monday in a public safety update:

"This fall semester has seen a concerning rise in the number of crimes on- and off-campus, and in the increasingly brazen nature of the criminals."

She said robberies are up in Minneapolis, and are not limited to the U:

"The uptick in crime we've seen is not a problem unique to the University of Minnesota. It's a city-wide and even a metro-wide issue. The University of St. Thomas has issued 10 Public Safety Alerts since the beginning of the school year; a Hamline student was robbed at gunpoint in September; just last week, an armed robbery was reported in Murphy Park in the heart of the Augsburg Campus."

Crime on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods is not necessarily up.

Not all statistics are in for this month -- such as for sexual assaults -- but data so far suggests that the U is at or below normal in violent crime.

Police say they've stepped up patrols. And the Gopher Chauffeur safe-ride-home service transported a record 559 students this past weekend.

Minneapolis police said anyone can text anonymous tips to police with their cell phones like this:

Text in your anonymous tip (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Still, students such as Burton say they've started to avoid going on campus at night, especially on weekends, and carry laptops only when they have to.