Minneapolis police face staffing challenges as violence rises

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, left, and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. - Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis police are down at least 100 officers since the killing of George Floyd — more than 10% of the force — straining department resources amid a wave of violence and adding extra urgency to the political debate over its future.

Over the past two months, 40 cops have resigned, been fired or are in the process of leaving the force, and another 75 have taken a medical leave for post-traumatic stress disorder they say was caused by the riots that followed Floyd’s death. Dozens more are expected to file for leave in the coming months.

MPD officials not authorized to speak publicly estimate the department, which is budgeted for 888 officers this year, could lose as much as a third of its workforce by the end of the year.

The shortages highlight the challenge facing the city’s beleaguered police force as it faces calls for its defunding, or even abolishment.

Residents say that police are taking longer to respond to emergency calls, even as homicides, shootings and robberies have all increased by double digits from last year.

Some of that frustration surfaced during Friday’s City Council meeting, when Council Member Andrea Jenkins questioned officers’ apparent reluctance to enter the area surrounding Floyd’s memorial at E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue, a long troubled corner that has been the site of several shootings in recent weeks.

“People in this area, they’re not experiencing slow response, they’re experiencing no response. They’re being told that this is called a no-go zone by MPD,” she said in the meeting broadcast on Zoom.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo defended the department’s responses near the blocked-off intersection in the meeting, explaining that officers must respond to calls, and if they don’t, the reason is documented.

“In and around that intersection when a violent incident had occurred, in order for officers to try and safely get in there, that officers had to have some communication of they could meet right outside the barriers, I know there are a couple incidences where that had occurred.”

Although total reported crimes were down 31% in June and 4% by July’s end, gunfire incidents, which tie up multiple squads, soared 224% and 166% during the same period, according to MPD records.

More recently, the city’s South Side has been hit with a string of armed robberies and carjackings, which police say are the work of the same crew. The Third Precinct recorded 100 robberies and 20 carjackings in the month of July alone.

Meanwhile, police stops are down more than 50% each of the last two months.

Department officials declined to make Arradondo or Assistant Chief Mike Kjos available for comment Friday, but a spokesman insists that the department has enough officers on the streets to adequately patrol the city.

“Right now we have reduced numbers of sworn people due to COVID, midyear retirements and medical leaves. The vacancies are being filled by other sworn personnel,” said spokesman John Elder. “Whereas we have less sworn people than six months ago, we are not seeing staff shortages on any sort of a routine basis.”

The decreased staffing levels among the MPD’s five precincts is a dilemma for the department, as it grapples with COVID-related budget cuts and sinking officer morale. For instance, a recent Monday night found just six officers patrolling the 14.5 square miles of the Third Precinct, according to MPD officials.

The department must constantly balance shortages, as officers call in sick or take vacation time. They do so by holding over earlier shifts, using response cars from other precincts at particularly busy times, and offering so-called “green days” — putting out a citywide bid for officers to work overtime to backfill positions.

Meanwhile, officers from disbanded units like the Police Athletic League, procedural justice and community engagement have been reassigned, with some sent back to the streets, as have former school resource officers.

Officials would not disclose which units the departures are coming from, but MPD insiders say the Second Precinct was particularly hard hit. Investigation units haven’t been spared either, with the juvenile crimes unit losing several detectives in the exodus.

The deployment picture has worsened as the department tries to dig itself out of the budgetary hole it’s been in since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While a recent class of recruits hit the streets last month, another class that was scheduled to start training in August has been canceled. And with a citywide hiring freeze in effect until at least the end of the year, there are no replacements in sight.

The MPD uses a formula to figure out where to place its officers, based on such factors as the size of the precinct, time spent on each call and the number of calls for assistance, according to former Assistant Chief Kris Arneson. Precinct inspectors choose their staffing minimums at the start of each year and make small adjustments in deployment during the year, as new recruits or cadets graduate, replacing the roughly 40 to 50 officers the department loses to attrition most years.

“That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the officers who’re left to handle calls,” said Arneson.

The departures come at a crucial moment for the MPD. Faced with a state investigation into its practices, several council members have put forth a charter amendment that would lead to the MPD’s dismantling.

Complaints about slower response times have gone up, which police say is a direct result of patrol squads throughout the city being increasingly stretched.

In a class-action lawsuit against the city, a group of East Phillips neighborhood residents alleged that it had been deprived of adequate policing, and regularly were told to call 311, instead of 911, whenever there were shots fired but no victims.

“The City of Minneapolis is not offering equal protections in it’s distribution of services and funding to its low wealth neighborhoods,” the lawsuit said.

After months of what they saw as neglect by City Hall and the police, Maria Gali and her neighbors blocked off their street and organized armed patrols in an effort to take back their block from the drug dealers and prostitutes who seem emboldened by the lack of police presence.

“Sometimes they showed up after one hour. Sometimes they didn’t,” said Gali, who isn’t part of the suit. Alondra Cano, the council member who represents the area, told residents and business owners in the 2900 block of S. 18th Avenue that officers were deliberating bypassing the area to protest a proposal to dismantle the police and replace it with a new public safety system.

“And we are in the middle,” Gali said. ”OK, this is your battle, and you didn’t ask us if we agreed to cut the police — maybe it’s a good idea, but not right now. Maybe it’d be a better idea with a plan.”

Leslie Bowden, born and raised in south Minneapolis, can see the Floyd memorial on 38th and Chicago from her front yard. The intersection has turned into a pilgrimage site for countless visitors, but has also long held a reputation as a hotbed for gang activity. She said she calls police as a last resort, mostly when she hears gunshots, but it seems like police rarely respond, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

“Police murdered a man in our neighborhood and then they just all fell out and left us alone to figure out our own as far as protecting our neighborhoods,” she said. “You feel isolated, like you’re in a war zone sometimes, but there’s no one helping us.”

Others have raised the possibility that officers are engaged in an unofficial work slowdown in response to the proposal to disband the department.

D.A. Bullock said that rising crime is concerning, but it shouldn’t take away from the current conversations around reimagining public safety.

“When crime goes down, there’s not a call to reduce the number of police, because it’s viewed as effective,” said Bullock, a local filmmaker whose works touch on criminal justice issues. “But when crime ticks up, you have the opposite argument, saying well, we need to increase staffing because we don’t have enough officers to respond to calls.”

Anika Bowie, vice president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, agreed, saying the focus should be on making long-term investments in “housing, in quality education, in access to food, in access to affordable health care.”

The issue will be scrutinized anew in the current, politically charged debate around the department’s future.

University of Minnesota sociology professor Michelle Phelps says that other cities experienced unrest after a controversial police killing, not because police were being less proactive, but because a lack of community confidence created an atmosphere of lawlessness. Slower response times only further chipped away at public trust, she says, creating a “self-fulfilling cycle.”

“When precincts are short-staffed, often the first things that are affected are response times and that in turn can fuel this sense of declining legitimacy,” she said.

The department’s size peaked in 2008 at 916 officers, but the numbers started dropping that year as the city dealt with the recession and a hiring freeze. As far back as 2012, former Chief Tim Dolan warned the council that an aging Police Department might see retirements start to pick up in the coming years.

Arneson, who retired as assistant chief in 2017, said she believes the city will see “a slimmer MPD in the future” as certain calls, like those involving mental health and drug addiction, will out of necessity be diverted to social service agencies with the proper training to handle them.

“But, I think there’s a dangerous thinking to abolish or get down to where the numbers are so tight that it’s hard to ensure public safety,” said Arneson.

She said she recalls working out of the Fifth Precinct during the late 2000s, when the cash-strapped city was forced to lay cops off and the department’s head count dropped into the mid-700s.

“It was really hard to keep crime down, to keep the community happy and to keep everybody safe,” she said. “And it takes a hit on morale not to have enough officers.”

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(Staff writers Kim Hyatt, Liz Navratil, Jeff Hargarten and Abby Simons contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)