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Shootings wound sense of safety in downtown Minneapolis

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An injured pedestrian is loaded into an ambulance on Hennepin Avenue.
An injured pedestrian is loaded into an ambulance on Hennepin Avenue by Hennepin County Sheriff's officers as a Minneapolis police officer keeps watch nearby.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Updated: 3:25 p.m. | Posted: 2 p.m.

Matt Porwall was waiting for his bus near Sixth Street and Hennepin Avenue downtown last week when he was hit by a bullet that wasn't meant for him.

  Two strangers who'd walked past him suddenly starting fighting. As one ran back toward Porwall, the other fired. "I was right there," he recalled, "so it hit me instead of him." 

He felt the pain, lifted his shirt and saw the hole. A .22-caliber bullet had pierced his colon, lodging in tissue near his spine. The surgeon, he said, figured it would be safer to leave the bullet inside him.

    Porwall, a hotel sous chef, said he plans to go back to work soon. Still, after 12 years working downtown, he's not sure where things are headed.

Officers watch the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 5th St. No.
Two members of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Dept. watch the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 5th Street. Officers have increased their presence in downtown Minneapolis.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"I don't know, it seems like it's gotten worse," he said of the violence. "There's always been fighting from what it seems like, but it seems like you hear a lot more about the major stuff, with the guns."

    That violence in the heart of the city's entertainment district is an increasing source of anxiety for police, businesses and the people who work there. Porwall's wounding was especially startling since it happened around 7 p.m. in daylight with thousands of people nearby, and he was an innocent bystander.     

While downtown remains a popular destination for tourists and locals, and police remain a visible presence, some believe the cops aren't doing all they can to keep the peace.     

Friends take photos during a night on the town.
Charity Ntor-Ue, 22, left, takes photos of her friend Norwaseh Gborplay, 21. The two dressed up for a night of fun in downtown Minneapolis.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Officers are often slow to intervene when people fight, even when there are plenty of officers nearby who can stop the trouble before it escalates, said one warehouse district bouncer, who asked not to be identified because he relies on police to help him do his job and fears officers may not cooperate if they find he's criticized them.   

"Anytime you got five cops standing right there and five over there and two right there," he said, "and then you got a couple to zoom back and forth on bikes, if that's not enough presence, then you need to do something else."

Minneapolis police union president Lt. Bob Kroll said he couldn't comment directly on the situations described by the bouncer. But he said it's not uncommon for officers to be a little reluctant to engage in certain situations.  

A Hennepin County sheriff listens as a suspect describes an altercation.
A Hennepin County sheriff listens as a suspect, supported by a female friend, describes an altercation in a bar in downtown Minneapolis, where a wallet was stolen.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"They've been ingrained with de-escalation tactics and when officers get scrutinized the most is when they go hands on too quickly," he said. "Then everybody questions if their use of force is appropriate. Very rarely do they get scrutinized for de-escalating or not engaging."  

Officers who work downtown, both on duty and off, are frequently the targets of disrespectful behavior from unruly revelers, Kroll added.  

A police spokesperson didn't return a call seeking comment on the bouncer's critique.

Gun violence in the city's 1st Precinct, where Porwall was shot, is on the rise. More than 30 people have been wounded by gunfire so far this year compared to 19 at this same time in 2016.   

A crowd gathers outside the Bar Fly on Hennepin Avenue.
A crowd gathers outside the Bar Fly on Hennepin Avenue, awaiting admission to a performance by hip hop artist Mos Def.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

  The precinct includes neighborhoods just outside the central business district, including Cedar-Riverside and Loring Park. However, in two consecutive weekends in August, five people were shot and wounded along or near Hennepin Avenue, which runs through the downtown core. All of them were injured after bar closing time.

A suspect in Porwall's shooting, a convicted felon, has been arrested and charged with assault and illegal possession of a gun. New Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has said the department is focusing resources on preventing gang and gun violence downtown and in other parts of the city.     

Toby Rogers, Sr., waits for customers along Henn. Ave. at a hot dog stand.
Toby Rogers, Sr., waits for customers late at night along Hennepin Avenue at the Nibbles hot dog stand where he works.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

In random, recent discussions, people who live and play in downtown Minneapolis say they feel safe there and appreciate the visibility of law enforcement on the street, but their antennae are up.     

The conversations took place on a night when at least three people collapsed in the area and were taken away in an ambulance.  Along Hennepin Avenue, police officers and sheriff's deputies crowded corners of sidewalks. Earlier, a woman had apparently robbed in the back of a nearby parking lot.

Vietnam veteran Vernon Patterson sits by the Loon Cafe.
Vietnam veteran Vernon Patterson has written three books of poetry, which he sells to passersby.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

  "No matter what city you go to there's going to be violence," said Keith Mercier of Burnsville, who stood outside Sneaky Pete's bar. "You can't stop it. If that were the case, we'd have a perfect world."      

Hot dog vender Toby Rogers doesn't usually work nights, but his boss asked for an extra hand, and he reluctantly agreed. Before he came to work, he prayed for his safety: "Please don't let me die over a hot dog tonight."

He said he was a firm believer in Jesus Christ, "and I feel like if I pray on a daily basis, that he would keep me out of the path of danger."      

Vernon Patterson, 67, said he's been selling his books of poetry downtown for more than 30 years and seen plenty of changes.

"Right now, we're going through a transitional phase, where everybody's juggling for positions," he said. "The new clubs are being opened up. The Super Bowl is coming here. Everybody's looking for a billion dollars. Whenever there's big money, there's big drugs, there's big alcohol, there's big prostitution."     

His tips for visitors: Recognize downtown for what it is, and stay out of anything that doesn't involve you.