MINNEAPOLIS -- Mayor Betsy Hodges and her top five rivals in the 2017 mayoral race debated public safety Thursday at a candidate forum sponsored by business groups.

Joining Hodges on the panel were Rep. Raymond Dean, City Council Member Jacob Frey, theater executive Tom Hoch, attorney and civil rights activist Nekima Levy-Pounds and filmmaker Aswar Rahman.

They covered topics ranging from affordable housing to the city's $15 per hour minimum wage and the pursuit of Amazon's HQ2 project. But the issue of safety, especially in the downtown entertainment district, evoked some of the strongest words.

"I hear people say to me 'I don’t go downtown anymore because it’s too dangerous'," Hoch, the former president of the Hennepin Theater Trust, remarked.

"We can’t have that. This is the center of our city!"

Frey cited a significant increase in shootings in downtown over the previous year, including some high-profile cases in which bystanders were struck by stray rounds.

"You don’t have a world class city without a world class downtown, and you don’t have a world class downtown unless it’s safe," Frey asserted. "We have a real problem here."

Rahman recalled riding city buses downtown when he was younger, but said it wouldn't advise it in the current atmosphere.

"If I were an elementary or middle school student right now I could not take the bus. It is simply too dangerous," Rahman said, complaining that the city isn't adding new officers at a fast-enough pace.

Mayor Hodges said the city has added officers, and her 2018 budget calls for putting more on the streets especially in volatile areas such as the warehouse district during bar closing times.

"I asked Chief Arradondo what he needs. He said, 'Yes we need more officers and we get to stay on that plan, but what we really need right now are more community liaisons,' people based in the precincts to be the face of the police department, or one of the faces of the department."

Levy-Pounds, who formerly headed the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, said adding more officers to the equation will only be effective if they reflect the communities they serve or at least have a degree of cultural competence.

"And it can’t just always be white male officers, or officers on horseback," Levy-Pounds said. "You need a diverse, well-trained set of officers walking the beat."

Rep. Dehn, an architect who represents part of north Minneapolis in the Minnesota Legislature, was asked if he truly supports disarming Minneapolis officers, as has been reported. He said some of them wouldn't need to be armed, at least in all situations.

"You don’t always have to have a gun to respond to force," Dehn said. "We know in other parts of the world officers are more likely to respond by deescalating a situation."

He said he believes officers would make a better impression at neighborhood events, such as National Night Out block parties, if they left their firearms in their squad cars.

All six of the candidates called for a multi-pronged approach to policing, one that stresses building relationships with business owners and people in the areas they routinely patrol.

Levy-Pounds said many of the "nuisance crimes" that draw complaints from visitors are a result of homelessness, which is why addressing the needs of the homeless and highly mobile residents of the city should be a priority.

Dehn was asked what he meant by previous statements that crime can be "a consequence of scarcity in society." Dehn gave the example of destitute parents who steal groceries to feed their children when they've run out of other options.

Rahman, a former aide to Mayor R.T. Rybak, pushed back against the narrative that crimes can be attributed to underlying financial conditions, saying that he grew up poor but his family never resorted to stealing.

Election Day is Nov. 7 but early absentee voting begins Sept. 22, so candidates are doing all they can to reach voters and stake out distinct positions on issues.

There's no primary election in Minneapolis because the city uses a ranked choice voting system. Voters will choose from a slate of 16 candidates, including the that appeared at Thursday's forum.

Thursday forum at the Radisson Blu was one of 18 scheduled joint events for the candidates, was sponsored by the Minneapolis Downtown Council, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, Meet Minneapolis, BOMA Greater Minneapolis and the Greater Minneapolis Hotel Association.