For the first time in three years, Minneapolis saw a drop in homicides, shootings and carjackings in 2022, a sign that the deadliest wave of violence to hit the city in a generation may be cresting.

The killing of Jeremy Demond Ellis, a 26-year-old found bleeding out from gunshot wounds in a car idling outside U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 30, capped the city’s homicide count at 82 for the year — a marked decline from 2021’s record-tying 97. These figures come from the Star Tribune’s homicide database, which counts murders, killings deemed legally justifiable and fatal police encounters. It excludes cases of negligent manslaughter.

The number of shots recorded in the city fell 20%, resulting in 100 fewer victims compared to 2021. Carjackings, which peaked in 2021, also dipped about 20%.

These declines, which occurred as staffing for the Police Department remained hundreds of officers below the city’s mandatory threshold, still don’t put Minneapolis anywhere close to its public safety baseline in the decade prior to 2020. Before these past three years, the city averaged about 40 murders per year and half as many gunshot victims. Killings hadn’t surpassed 80 since 1996.

“It’s clear we’re going in the right direction, but this is absolutely not a victory lap,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara, who started in November after a national search that took most of the year. “Thank God we’re not still on the trajectory that we were before.”

It’s not exactly clear what’s driving the decline. In the last few months of the year, Minneapolis officials lauded the results of its violence-reduction campaign “Operation Endeavor,” developed by the city’s first community safety commissioner, Cedric Alexander. But data show some crimes started declining by August, the month before the city announced the creation of Operation Endeavor, according to data analyzed by the Star Tribune, suggesting other factors are at play as well.

One piece of national trend

Minneapolis is not alone in seeing violent crime decline in 2022.

Homicides fell 17% in Cincinnati, 12% in Indianapolis and 14% in Chicago.

The FBI is months from releasing its annual crime statistics that will offer a more complete national picture, but the Star Tribune found 50 major cities in the United States that saw homicide rates drop last year, evidence that Minneapolis is part of a greater trend.

Criminologists are wary about drawing conclusions too quickly They are still debating what caused crime to spike, then fall in the 1980s and 1990s. But this decline comes as the world begins to return to normalcy after a global pandemic upended everyday life and protests against police and riots broke out after the murder of George Floyd. The pandemic also led to record gun purchases.

“If you think that 2020 was a perfect storm of many factors that contributed to rising violence, if those have started to recede, then you’d expect the same thing to happen to crime trends, too,” said Ames Grawert, who analyzes crime patterns in America as senior counsel for the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

Despite 2022’s declines, violent crime still disrupted normal life, prompting residents to call on their leaders to do more.

After July 4, more than 150 residents packed a deli in northeast Minneapolis to ask police why they didn’t break up the scattered mayhem that disrupted the holiday, including a deadly shooting on nearby Boom Island. In a townhall meeting later in the summer, a group of North Siders vented their frustrations with the city’s ongoing inability to control the corner outside Merwin Liquor and a Winner Gas Station — an area a Star Tribune analysis found to be the epicenter for 1 in 10 killings in Minneapolis in the past dozen years.

Public officials in Minneapolis responded to criticisms with several strategies to curb the violence. To help offset the city’s depleted resources, police say they worked more closely with federal law enforcement and prosecutors, and Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced he’d devote the “entire weight” of his office toward an effort to tamp down carjackings and gun violence.

O’Hara believes there is reason for optimism that 2022’s declines will carry on to 2023.

Crime data show a significant reduction in overall reports of gunfire detected in 2022 of about 8,000 fewer rounds. “That’s 100 fewer families who had a [loved one] struck by a bullet,” he said.

In order to sustain that progress, O’Hara said the department must find a way to recruit officers and civilian support staff to keep up with current call volume. More personnel also will be integral to jumpstarting police reform efforts ahead of an anticipated federal consent decree. Every cop is performing multiple functions, he said, yet the community remains frustrated by lagging response times and a lack of investigative resources.

“Everything is being triaged right now,” O’Hara said, noting that the department relies heavily on overtime each day to fill shifts. “This is just not sustainable over the long term.”

Is Operation Endeavor responsible?

In the meantime, O’Hara credited targeted enforcement efforts with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, such as Operation Endeavor, for recovering 1,097 illegal firearms in the city last year in a department record.

Mayor Jacob Frey announced Operation Endeavor in late September in what he described as a strategy to use data to more efficiently deploy depleted resources into high-crime areas as part of a partnership of police, prosecutors and violence interrupters.

At the time, Minneapolis already was seeing crime decline. By the end of August, homicides had fallen 3%, gunfire reports were down 12% and 50 fewer people had been shot. On the flip side, robberies and aggravated assaults were each up about 6% compared to 2021.

Alexander said “we don’t know” exactly how much of the crime decline can be attributed to this new operation, but he believes it’s making a significant difference.

“I’m not holding Operation Endeavor as being the end all to be all,” he said. “What I’m holding Operation Endeavor up [to] is a plan that was not in place [before]. … It was a response to an urgency by people in this community that was not in place. And I put something in place for these guys to carry out, and they carried out this mission.”

A 28-day snapshot of Operation Endeavor beginning the last week of October, provided by the city, credits the initiative with confiscating 76 guns, $22,000 in illegal cash and 10,331 Fentanyl pills. Almost half the calls the officers responded to were labeled proactive, rather than reactionary to emergency reports.

In that same 28-day period, the city recorded 44% fewer gun-related calls and a 67% decline in carjackings compared to the same timeframe in 2021, according to the data.

“At the beginning of the year it felt like nothing was going to change, it would just get worse and worse and worse,” said Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw, who represents the Fourth Ward on Minneapolis’ North Side and serves as chair of the Public Health and Safety Committee. But after the operation launched, “word got out that police were starting to make arrests, starting to make busts and it really helped the numbers.”

Deadly start to new year

The positive statistics are little consolation for grieving family members of the victims, like Katrina Mendoza.

Her 23-year-old son was shot and killed while working security at a packed Uptown bar and restaurant on Oct. 16th. The commercial area is blanketed in surveillance cameras, yet none captured a clear image of the assailant who fired a round into Gabriel “Dino” Mendoza’s neck. Investigators never identified a suspect.

“He was a bright light that got dimmed out that day,” Katrina Mendoza said in an interview, recalling her son’s ambition and protective nature. “This is an epidemic of young people not seeing each other as human. There’s no value for life, but there’s also no accountability.”

Last weekend, as others celebrated the ringing in of a new year, Mendoza’s family hired an LED truck to park outside the site of his death broadcasting the offer of a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction. “WHO KILLED ME?” the massive sign greeted patrons entering the Firehouse Uptown, next to an image of Mendoza in his security uniform.

The family has vowed to erect a billboard on Lake Street and continue scattering fliers around the metro until there’s a break in the case.

Heading into 2023, Alexander said he hopes the city can build on its progress by investing in crime-solving technology like drones.

Vetaw expressed a similar sentiment, saying that in addition to more beat cops, Minneapolis must get creative to bolster public safety through nontraditional forms of policing, such as repairing broken street lights and adding portable cameras in crime hotspots. The 2023 MPD budget earmarks $500,000 for community safety pilot projects, including the hiring of violence interrupters that police can dispatch to help diffuse tensions.

“There’s just so many components to this violence and to preventing it that, at this point, we need all hands on deck,” she said.

Less than four hours into the New Year, shots rang out in the Camden Industrial Area, where revelers had rented warehouse space on N. 42nd and Lyndale avenues for an after-hours party. Police found 28-year-old Deleon D. Davis gunned down inside a vehicle. Another man arrived at the hospital seeking medical care for a gunshot wound.

That morning, Vetaw’s phone rang with news from Fourth Precinct Inspector Charlie Adams, detailing the latest tragedy.

The count began anew.

Statistics:

According to the data:

A gun was used in the vast majority — at least 66 — of last year’s homicides.

The median age of victims was 29 years old, with the oldest being 67 and the youngest an infant.

The victims were male in all but five killings in which gender was identified in the public record.

About 71% of victims were Black or African descended when race was identified, despite being only 18% of the city’s population. Conversely, only 6% of victims were white, though 63% of Minneapolis is white.

About a third of victims were killed in city’s North Side.