Neighbors with the East Bde Maka Ska Neighborhood Association gathered with police on April 17 to discuss public safety strategies for this year. Last year's celebration saw three critical incidents that resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen people.

Discussions about safety procedures for the upcoming events have already begun for both the Minneapolis Park and the Minneapolis police departments. And while the specifics are still in their infancy, a few ideas rose to the top including organizing neighborhood watches, activating spaces and shutting down roads.

“I've worked here for 28 years. I will say that for every one of those 28 years, the Fourth of July is our most challenging day,” Minneapolis Park Police Department Chief Jason Ohotto told a small group of neighbors at the meeting.  “This is not new to the city, it's not new to our police department, the Fourth of July has always been a challenge.”

Last year, people shot fireworks at police officers from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge at Boom Island Park, shootings occurred at Columbia and Harrison Parks and police said a “riot” happened at Bde Maka Ska. That evening, hundreds of people had gathered at the lake to set off fireworks.

“Any one of those incidents have the capability of overwhelming our park police resources,” Ohotto said. “We have 35 total officers that were budgeted for, and all of them are working on the Fourth of July.”

This will also be the first year the city has fireworks at the riverfront since 2019, which Ohotto said makes safety an even higher priority. The city had a laser show last year. Ohotto said he hopes the event will draw larger crowds that can improve safety around the event.

“The crowd that is going to go there is going to provide a level of activation and natural surveillance that I think will deter crime along the riverfront,” he said. “ I think people are excited to have the fireworks back. I'm glad that we're in a position where we can support the fireworks, and I am hopeful that the fireworks are a positive experience for the city.”

Ohotto’s overwhelming message was that law enforcement needs the help of the community, given the staffing shortages among all local police departments. He said that attendees should organize their neighborhoods to activate public space, which could help displacing some of the “negative behavior.”

“I'm not asking you to confront people. I'm not asking you to arrest people. I'm not asking you to get into any sort of confrontation. I'm asking you to take up space,” he said.

One of the specific strategies mentioned by Ohotto was road closures around the lake to help restrict vehicle access to lake parkway. He also said that all 35 parks police officers will be on patrol the night of the Fourth, but noted only two will be at Bde Maka Ska, compared to zero last year.

“What we want to do is stop a circular pattern of people cruising the lake. And we can disrupt that circular pattern through temporary traffic closures on both sides,” he said.

While the fireworks dominated the majority of the conversation, other community members took the time to raise concerns about broader issues at the park and lamented about loitering, loud music and drug use, specifically at Thomas Beach and in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church.

Ohotto recognized their concerns, but said it is not a priority for the park police.

“We live in a dense urban city. There's going to be loud music in the summertime. It's an ordinance violation,” Ohotto said, “but I can't commit to you that we're going to dedicate scarce resources to putting several officers on the West Bde Maka Ska parkway,.”

One longtime community member lamented that officers are not dealing with the issue as aggressively they did in the past. Lt. Michael Frye, with the Minneapolis Police Department, said that policing has changed in recent decades.

“We'll never go back to what you're referring to as the more aggressive style of policing … that is long gone, how we handled crime 20 years ago is the ancient past,” he said. “Now we go into a realm of where we talk more, we work through things more, and we try to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

Neighbors were generally eager to offer assistance, floating ideas like walking groups and obtaining block party permits. They also mentioned a collaboration with the local Islamic Association of North America.

“Each of us has a little piece of the pie we can offer to help you because we know you're understaffed, this has been very well known and it makes us angry” said Mary Ann Von Houten, who has lived near Bde Maka Ska for 25 years. “So if we can do something to help, we’ll be happy to offer.”