Will Cooley Q&A: What the Murderapolis years can teach us about today’s rise in violent crime

By: - August 30, 2021 7:00 am

1990s era Minneapolis. Photo by Charles Bjorgen/Star Tribune via Getty Images.

Memorials of the so-called Murderapolis years when violent crime hit its 1990s era peak are scattered across the city. In the courtyard outside the Hennepin County Government Center stands “Phoenix Rising,” an abstract sculpture made in 1996 from melted guns.

Several blocks away is an unassuming red-brick building, the Jerry Haaf Memorial Parking Ramp, named for a police officer executed by gang members in 1992.

On Chicago Avenue across the street from the Midtown Global Market, stands a row of single-story brick buildings. One, which is now a Somali grocery store, was Koscielski’s Guns and Ammo from 1995-2016. The year it opened, Mark Koscielski began selling a t-shirt out of the shop. Its words, dripping blood red, said, “Murderapolis: City of Wakes 1995.” 

Across the country, violent crime had fallen after peaking in 1991, but Minneapolis saw 97 homicides in 1995, the most of any year before or since. The Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post and the New York Times all highlighted Koscielski’s t-shirt in their coverage of Minneapolis, and the moniker stuck.

Now, homicide rates are spiking again (84 in 2020,) and writers across the political spectrum have invoked the memory of 1995.

The Reformer spoke with Metro State University professor Will Cooley about how that era is different — and similar — to the current moment. Cooley teaches U.S. history and is currently researching a book or article to be called “the Making of Murderapolis.” He is the author of “Moving Up, Moving Out: The Rise of the Black Middle Class in Chicago” and his article, “The Work: Dealing and Violence in the War on Drugs Era” won the best article prize from the Labor and Working-Class History Association in 2019.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your research.

I’m trying to figure out the making of Murderapolis. 1991 is roughly the beginning of the great American crime drop, so that’s when most cities’ homicides started to decline. Minneapolis saw a spike after that, in that 95-96 period.

What caused the spike in violent crime here?

I think there are three factors. First, the decentralization of the crack trade led to a chaotic marketplace after busts of men like Plukey Duke. Second, demographic changes in Minneapolis caused a law-and-order backlash. Last, the murder of Jerry Haaf in 1992 threw the MPD and local gangs into a period of low-grade war.

Who is Plukey Duke?

He was the major crack importer and dealer in Minnesota until his bust in the late 80s. He kind of became a notorious gangster during this period, but Duke was a businessman who was interested in making money and keeping a lid on things. I haven’t seen anyone attribute much violence to him. When Duke and a couple other major dealers got busted and the minor players took over, things got chaotic.

The second point you had was the demographic changes in Minneapolis that caused a law and order backlash. Which demographic changes are you referring to?

There was a large rise in the minority population, especially African Americans. Now, plenty of research shows that when demographics change, there’s a bit of a white freak-out. There were all these articles about people from Gary and Chicago who are getting on buses to come to Minnesota for welfare, almost always it would be connected to “they are bringing their gangs with them.” The mayor of Minneapolis, Don Fraser, was a stalwart liberal who all of a sudden became anti-welfare. It was language like “this is a hammock and people aren’t working.” It’s surprising coming from a stalwart Minnesota liberal, but both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party got really tough on crime in the late 80s, early 90s. 

Let’s move on to the third one, the murder of MPD officer Jerry Haaf.

This is something that I think a lot of progressives don’t want to touch. In 1992, four gang affiliated guys executed Haaf at a restaurant. Supposedly, because they were angry about the mistreatment of an African American man. Prior to this, there’d been some innovative things going on between leaders in the Black community and Minneapolis police. Those just disappear after Haaf was murdered, and the thumpers rise to the fore.

The thumpers?

It’s a group of people that Tony Bouza, the reformist police chief, identified: the 5-10% of the force that were out-and-out brutal. They were sort of unleashed in these street-level narcotics raids on homes. They’d blow the door open, come in yelling, just tear the place apart and taunt suspects, you know, tune the radios from rap to country. Take Mike Sauro, for example. He’s got a long streak of police brutality, and instead of being disciplined or marginalized, he became a lieutenant.

Promotions like that happened after Haaf’s murder?

Yeah, but more importantly, those are the guys other officers got behind. People like Sauro really set the tone of the entire police department and set the stage for people like Bob Kroll because they had that masculine ‘get tough’ image.

The law and order backlash and the unleashing of the MPD — how did that contribute to rising crime?

It escalated things. Police were constantly told that minorities are a problem, we need to crack down on minorities. Young African American males, young minority males, lost any sense of the police having legitimacy. You know, if you call the Minneapolis police there’s a good chance they’re going to make matters worse rather than better, so you handle things yourself. 

In discussing the drop in crime that followed, you talk about something called  the “little brother effect?” What is that?

Crack was a devastating drug. Foster care rates went up. Prostitution went up. Young men were making more money than their parents, so the parents had to look the other way. This destabilized families a great deal. However, at some point in the early 90s, the crack market collapsed. The biggest factor, I think, is younger people coming up. They see their mothers addicted, or older brothers, and they want nothing to do with it. 

You also talk about the rise of cell phone and beeper use. It counteracted that decentralization of the crack market, right? I mean, it was still decentralized, but here’s this technology and a new way to organize things.

Exactly. I mean, nobody stands on the corner anymore. There’s still some open air markets here and there, but nothing near what we had in the early 1990s with these major drug dealers. You just call your dealer, it’s so easy. There’s no use fighting over turf at all.

You’ve also talked about the realization by many workers in the drug trade that they were being exploited by the higher-ups. Explain that.

The market collapsed, right? At some point, you get more crack dealers than buyers, but people higher up the hierarchies are still making a lot of money. Take Willie Lloyd, a famous Chicago gangster who would come and tax people. He’s called a gang leader, but he’s more like an extortionist and eventually the younger guys realized that. There’s a famous chapter in the book “Freakonomics” about Chicago, “Why do drug dealers make three bucks an hour and live with their mothers?” Dealers realized all that glitz and glamour they were promised doesn’t exist.

The gangs, the drug market, the demographic changes — it sounds like the Murderapolis years were very different than today.

There’s a lot of similarities. The drug thing has cooled, but people are still involved in underground economies, right? You can’t call the police and say “someone stole my cocaine.” Minnesota’s racial disparities have been compounding so long that people believe the system is working against them, not for them, and the police have completely delegitimized themselves. That video of George Floyd — it’s gonna take decades to build that legitimacy back. You don’t have legitimacy, then you have people handling these things on their own. So I think there’s a lot of similarities to that period. 

What lessons from the Murderapolis years could inform the current public safety debate?

The drug trade is not what it used to be, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s still all sorts of illicit money flowing through the system. People cannot turn to the legitimate authorities to settle disputes, so then they settle it on their own. Somebody shoots your friend, somebody shoots your cousin, a stray bullet shoots somebody; once those cycles of violence start, we’re talking about years of grudges. If we’re serious about rebuilding the legitimacy of the system and getting people to trust authorities, we have to deal with the underlying issues.

In Minneapolis, there are ridiculous disparities — in poverty, in education, homeownership and more — they’re obvious to anyone.

*This story has been updated with the correct spellings of Don Fraser and Willie Lloyd.

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Logan Carroll
Logan Carroll

Logan Carroll is an independent journalist reporting on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and co-host of the Unbalanced.MN podcast.