Police, security guards and workers say street crime dropped during the bus strike.
But proving that buses enable criminals is tricky.
"You can see it already, it's brought back all the crazies."
Those were the comments of Elliot Park resident Jen Gillingham as she escorted her mother to lunch at the IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St. She was pointing out a man standing in the middle of Nicollet Mall shouting incoherently at the top of his lungs at the buses that were again rumbling past Downtown businesses.
After experiencing six weeks without buses -- or bus passengers -- some Downtowners concluded that crime fell during the bus strike.
"It's been great with no buses," said Frank Ramoter, building engineer for Metropolitan State University, 730 Hennepin Ave. S. and Carmichael Lynch, 800 Hennepin Ave. S. "There's been less loitering outside the buildings and less panhandling."
Both buildings have frequently used bus stops outside their doors. Ramoter added that workers had caught far fewer people urinating outside the building since the bus strike had begun.
Robert Gibbons, Metro Transit's director of Customer Services and Marketing, disputed any correlation between bus riders and the perceived drop in crime -- nuisance or otherwise.
"I completely disagree with the premise that buses are transporting those types Downtown," he said. "I see it that people who would normally be waiting for the buses are being bothered by that element. Since there are no buses, this element cannot bother our honorable customers, so they aren't around."
Police data doesn't tell whether crime is caused by bus passengers or those who prey on them. Comparing March 2003 to this March (when buses were idle), reported crime dropped 7 percent, said Luther Krueger, a civilian crime-prevention specialist with the 1st (Downtown) Precinct.
So buses equal crime? It's not that simple.
Downtown crime reports for 2004 to date have fallen 15 percent -- meaning the March decline was less than in months where the buses did run. (Downtown also has the lowest crime rate among the five city precincts so far this year.)
Krueger believes the January and February declines were steep because of the relatively harsh winter.
He cites one bit of circumstantial evidence linking the buses to crime: "A lot of what we see in 1st Precinct is commuter drug dealing, meaning that a lot of drug dealers we arrest don't come from the 1st Precinct; they live in other areas. We're seeing that activity down. In theory, a lot of drug dealers take the bus."
Krueger also notes that suspicious-person calls are down 24 percent from a year ago. Suspicious-person calls can range from a person jiggling doorknobs in an alley to someone walking up and down a street making handoffs. Krueger said that many suspicious-person calls lead to actual arrests.
"Usually, they are doing something they are not supposed to be doing, selling drugs or trying to break in somewhere," he said. "They exhibit behaviors that lead to probable cause."
The largest categories showing decreases between March 2003 and March 2004 were:
"I can't say that we were happy to see the bus strike happen, but it definitely appeared to have [had] an effect," Krueger noted.
Several Downtown residents and workers noticed a lack of daytime vagrancy on area streets.
"There's been many times where I can't get through a single cigarette without three or four people trying to come up and bum one off me," said Jim Caspar while taking a break from work outside U.S.Bancorp Center, 800 Nicollet Mall. "The thing is, they were always the same people. I don't know what they're doing here, and they don't look like they are working. I just know that they weren't here when the buses weren't here."
Seven security staffers at five Downtown buildings acknowledged that they have not handled as many incidents since the strike began, although numbers were not available.
Krueger noted that the 1st Precinct bicycle unit dealt with drastically fewer cases.
"[During] the strike, a lot of times they were tripping over each other looking for something to do," he said.
With the bus strike at an end, should Downtown expect a rise in crime? It's simply too soon to say. However, Kent Warden of the Downtown Building Owners and Managers Association -- who said that he has heard "anecdotal things" regarding the drop in incidents around member properties -- believes it is something to keep an eye on.
"It does point out that it is certainly incumbent upon the Metro Transit Police to keep a closer eye on the activities that go on around bus shelters, and I know that they have been asked to do that before."
In November, following crime complaints relayed by Downtown Council President and CEO Sam Grabarski, 1st Precinct Commander Rob Allen responded in an e-mail that Metro Transit Police have jurisdiction and responsibility for bus stops and "have not taken that responsibility seriously."
Allen subsequently apologized and said Metro Transit officers "do their job very well." In the wake of the November controversy, Metro Transit and city Police have pledged to work more closely together to target crime near bus stops.
Metro Transit spokesman Gibbons insists that the bus system's police force will be vigilant. "The Transit Police will be watching over buses to ensure that these types of incidents are not happening," he said. "There's a constant policing effort on the part of Metro Transit, and our Police are focused."
Said Warden, "Hopefully, even now with the buses running, we won't have as much of a problem. Either way, it's not a good thing to keep buses off the street."