FARGO — Business owners in downtown Fargo voiced concerns and frustrations during a meeting with police officials Tuesday evening, Sept. 15, with several stating that a change has occurred in recent months that leaves them feeling increasingly worried about the safety of their staff and customers.

Sally Loeffler, who operates Beyond Running, said she's never felt so unsafe downtown, where businesses have reported an increase in gatherings of homeless people drinking, using drugs, fighting and harassing passersby.

"I think there are people being lawless," Loefller said during Tuesday's discussion, which was guided by Interim Fargo Police Chief Ross Renner, who said the event was an opportunity for business owners to share with police what they feel will help improve downtown safety.

The gathering was also a chance for police to let store owners know what is and isn't possible from a law enforcement perspective, Renner said.

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Josie Danz, whose family operates the Zandbroz Variety gift store, appeared to speak for a number of business owners when she said one thing that seems to help with disruptive individuals is a strong police presence, regardless of whether interactions result in arrests or citations.

"It's starting to feel like it's not safe," Danz said.

Renner said the police department is doing what it can to put officers downtown, an area he said already has the strongest police presence of any beat in the city.

"We can continue to do some of that, but presence doesn't do it all," Renner said, noting that without the threat of consequences like jail, it is difficult to convince some people to behave.

He added that the jail option itself has become severely limited because of COVID-19 concerns.

Renner said businesses can get more help from law enforcement by reporting problems when they happen and by going to court if charges are filed.

He added that the department is working on ways to improve communication with businesses, including finding ways for businesses to contact police without going through dispatch.

Business owners described seeing people injecting heroin on Broadway and tearing up citations after officers write them up for various offenses

Mayor Tim Mahoney said behavior like open drug use downtown should not be tolerated and that making downtown feel safer is the city's No. 1 priority.

Mahoney said the city is exploring changes to ordinances and efforts to secure funds to build more space at the Cass County Jail.

Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said that while there are capacity issues at the jail that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 worries, the sheriff's office works daily with Fargo police to make the best use of what space is available to keep the city safe.

Several at Tuesday's meeting talked about the role alcohol plays in problems downtown and changing rules regarding things like off-sale are a potential option, Renner said. Still, he stressed the public has to make that case to policymakers, not the police.

Renner said perceptions about downtown can vary, but he stressed it remains a safe place.

"Downtown is safe, but at times people can be uncomfortable," he said.