Minneapolis violence surges as police officers leave department in droves
MINNEAPOLIS - The sound of gunfire has become so familiar across North Minneapolis that Cathy Spann worries she has grown numb to it.
Day and night the bullets zip through this predominantly Black neighborhood, hitting cars and homes and people. The scores of victims have included a 7-year-old boy, wounded in a drive-by shooting; a woman who took a bullet that came through her living room wall while she was watching television with her family; and a 17-year-old girl shot in the head and killed.
Spann, a longtime community activist who works for the Jordan Area Community Council, cannot recall another time when things were this bad - not even when the city was branded "Murderapolis," during a spike in violence in the mid-1990s.
The police are not as much a presence as they used to be, Spann said, noting that sometimes when neighbors call 911, officers are delayed in responding or don't come at all.
"If you want to talk about pandemics, we're dealing with a pandemic of violence," Spann said on a recent afternoon, just as word came of two more nearby shootings. "We're under siege. You wake up and go to bed in fear, because you don't know what's going to happen next. . . . And our city has failed to protect us."
Nearly six months after George Floyd's death here sparked massive protests and left a wide swath of the city burned and destroyed, Minneapolis is grappling with dueling crises: an unprecedented wave of violence and droves of officer departures that the Minneapolis Police Department warns could soon leave the force unable to respond to emergencies.
Homicides in Minneapolis are up 50%, with nearly 75 people killed across the city so far this year. More than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many as in 2019. And there have been more than 4,600 violent crimes - including hundreds of carjackings and robberies - a five-year high.
Most of the violence has happened since Floyd's death on Memorial Day, which some experts attribute in part to the lingering anger over the slaying and the effects of the coronavirus, including job losses and the closure of community centers and other public spaces.
Minneapolis police say they have struggled to respond. They have faced a surge of officer departures in the wake of Floyd's death and the outcry against police. In June, a city council majority vowed to defund and dismantle the department and replace it with a new agency focused on a mix of public safety and violence prevention - a move that could go before voters in 2021.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said more than 100 officers have left the force - more than double the number in a typical year - including retirements and officers who have filed disability claims, some citing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the protests over Floyd's death.
In a recent meeting with the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which is studying police staffing as part of the city council's efforts to remake policing, Arradondo told members he had been forced to deactivate several divisions inside the department and put those officers back on patrol because of staffing shortages.
He told the commission the department has about 735 sworn officers - down from the city's budgeted 888 positions - of which about 500 were on patrol, he said. He warned that dropping below 500 officers on the streets would jeopardize the city's crime response and that he and Mayor Jacob Frey had started to develop "contingency plans" that would include "triaging calls" for help, something he said he believes will erode public trust further.
"It's creating a police department that I did not want to have, and that's one-dimensional," Arradondo said. "Our core focus is patrols and investigations."
On Friday, the city council voted to allocate nearly $500,000 for the police department to temporarily hire officers from neighboring law enforcement agencies to help patrol city streets from Nov. 15 until the end of the year.
"Our city is bleeding," the chief told members of the council on Tuesday. "At this moment, I'm trying to do all I can to stop that bleeding."
But the plan to hire temporary officers does not address the department's uncertain future, with even more officers considering departing.
Ron Meuser Jr., a Twin Cities personal injury attorney, said he represents 175 Minneapolis police officers who have left the force or are in the process of filing disability claims that would allow them to leave their jobs permanently, many citing PTSD from recent civil unrest.
One officer said he is in the process of leaving the force after he suffered physical injuries, including cuts and burns, during the days of unrest after Floyd's death. While inside the city's 3rd Precinct building as it was overtaken by protesters and subsequently burned, he recorded video messages to his wife and children because he thought he might not make it out alive.
"After that, I wasn't me anymore," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. He said he had nightmares. He couldn't sleep. He had panic attacks.
In training, he had been taught to listen to his body when arriving on a scene, to pay attention when the hairs stood on the back of his neck. Sitting in his squad car, he constantly felt physically sick and found himself unable to focus, second-guessing every decision. He later was diagnosed with PTSD and is receiving treatment.
"I was paranoid. I was anxious. I was depressed," he said. "This made me into a person who wasn't good to be a cop."
Meuser said his firm recently met with another 100 officers who are considering leaving the force, some citing mental exhaustion and fears of further civil unrest, including protests linked to the trial of the four former police officers charged in Floyd's killing, which is scheduled for March. The officers have expressed a fear that the city will suffer "Portland-style riots during the entire trial," he said, referring to extended unrest in the Oregon city.
Low morale is rampant, Meuser said, and he expects the exodus could extend to hundreds more officers by summer, perhaps as many as a third of the department's positions.
"You have a lot of officers come in and say, 'Why am I doing this?' They sit there with their spouses and say, 'Is this worth it?' "
The absence of officers on the streets has been noticeable, especially in South Minneapolis near where Floyd was killed. Dozens of Minneapolis residents spoke before the city council last month, many complaining of trauma from the constant gunfire and violence and robberies.
"Since the unjustified and unfortunate death of George Floyd, the city council has engaged in rhetoric that has emboldened criminals, the proof of which is in the unprecedented spike in crime," said George Saad of southwest Minneapolis, describing himself as an immigrant and a "child of war" who came to the city because of its rich diversity. But now Saad says he feels terrorized in his own community, afraid to walk down the street.
"You guys have had years to address any culture problems within the Minneapolis Police Department," he said. "You have failed to do so. Instead, you embark on a campaign against your own police department, fighting and demonizing an entire internal city organization instead of making it better."
Karen Forbes, of South Minneapolis, told council members how bullets burst through her living room wall on a recent night, narrowly missing her head. "I have relived that night many times, hearing the sounds of the bullets hitting my radiator and drywall spraying everywhere," Forbes said.
Like many during the hearing, Forbes questioned the lack of police officers on the street and blamed the city council for pursuing what she described as a "sociology experiment that obviously doesn't work." She and others called for a surge of law enforcement into the city.
But it's not clear that the city can do that: Facing an economic fallout from the coronavirus, Mayor Frey recently unveiled a budget proposal that includes a $179 million budget for police, a nearly $14 million cut from the department's approved 2020 budget. But Frey has asked the city council to fund three new cadet classes in 2021 - about 104 officers - including one to replace a 2020 class scheduled for this fall that was canceled.
Frey said in a statement to The Washington Post that he remains concerned about "capacity challenges" facing the police department. But he said the new cadet classes would allow the city to "bring in new officers who ascribe to our vision for the department."
Yet because of the city's police training policies, members of those cadet classes, if approved by the city council, would not become full-time officers for more than a year.
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the city's police union, has said officers face a new level of danger and "intense scrutiny" since Floyd's death, something that is driving potential recruits away from the profession. Kroll did not respond to requests from The Post for comment.
Arradondo has taken to comparing what is happening now to "the Murderapolis years" in the 1990s as he agonizes over the city's homicide rate.
"We're at a critical juncture right now," the police chief recently told one neighborhood group. "I will move heaven and earth to make sure all of our communities are safe, but I'm going to need resources for that."
The mayor's proposed budget boosts funding for the Office of Violence Prevention, a city effort that has put groups of activists on the streets to de-escalate tensions between gang members and other groups that many blame for the escalation in violence. But some residents question whether that's enough.
In August, community activist Spann and seven other residents from North Minneapolis sued the city, arguing that the declining number of police officers is in violation of the city charter, which requires a minimum number of officers based on population - what they estimate to be a sworn force of at least 743. The city says the case does not have merit because there are enough officers based on the city's last official census results - in 2010, when Minneapolis was substantially smaller.
The city also downplayed police officer departures, presenting staffing numbers that include more than 90 officers who have been on long-term leave and remain on the payroll. Those officers, a recent court filing from the city pointed out, could still return to full-time status.
"This is fundamentally a political dispute between parties who disagree about policing now in Minneapolis and its future," assistant city attorney Gregory Sautter wrote in court filings. "Resolution of this dispute would best be served through the political process."
Arradondo has asked for about $500,000 to hire temporary officers for the rest of the year, and he said he probably will ask for similar funding for temporary officers in 2021 - leading to an angry exchange with city council members questioning why the police department needs more funding while criticizing the department's overall strategy in dealing with the crime surge.
"With over 70 homicides in our city, what is going to work?" said Jeremiah Ellison, a council member who represents northern Minneapolis. "All I'm hearing is, 'We don't need a strategy, we don't need a plan, shut up and pay us.' I'm sick of it."
Steve Fletcher, who represents an area that includes downtown Minneapolis, asked why the department needs money to hire temporary officers "given how much less policing" the city had seen under a department with "the highest funding it has ever had." Fletcher questioned Arradondo's spending, prompting an angry response from the normally staid police chief.
"I have 74 people who are no longer alive in this city because they've been killed. I've got almost 500 people who have been shot and wounded in the city," Arradondo said, noting that budget debates won't stop "the bloodshed" in Minneapolis. "It's not like I'm sitting on a treasure chest of an exuberant amount of money that's not being utilized."
Council member Lisa Goodman, who also represents part of downtown, described the contentious back and forth between her colleagues and the police chief as "embarrassing."
"It's pretty simple," Goodman said. "This is an effort just to get a few more feet on the street, and those feet on the street, to a lot of victims, really, really matter."
The city council voted 7-6 to fund temporary officers in Friday's city council meeting.
Amid concerns about civil unrest, the city has pointed to its existing mutual-aid agreements with several regional law enforcement agencies. Three times in the past two months, Gov. Tim Walz, D, has deployed members of the Minnesota National Guard and the Minnesota State Patrol to help guard the city, including last month when a judge threw out one of the murder charges against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee to Floyd's neck and is now charged in his killing.
State officials have been wary of commenting on Minneapolis's dwindling police staff and whether that raises larger public safety issues for the region. But the state has sent in reinforcements before. In 1996, Gov. Arne Carlson, R, angered Minneapolis officials when he ordered dozens of state police officers and other law enforcement officials to the city for two months to help reduce the crime rate, even though the police force at the time was fully staffed.
Last month, several law enforcement agencies, including Minneapolis police, the state patrol and other departments in Hennepin County, began a coordinated effort to stop drag-racing in downtown Minneapolis. More than two dozen people were cited or arrested. The announcement was met with mixed feelings as residents in neighborhoods hard hit by violence wondered why a similar plan of action couldn't be deployed to stop shootings and carjackings.
"You can put together that team to go address drag racing, but you can't put that team together to address the fact that young Black and Brown lives are being lost and killed and murdered and maimed over here in north Minneapolis?" Spann asked. "Why do those people matter and we don't?"
Spann has tried hard to stay strong for her community, a low-income neighborhood of mostly Black residents who are among the poorest in the city. Of the more than 500 people shot in Minneapolis, more than half of the cases happened on the city's north side.
Spann used to walk around the neighborhood for exercise and to stay in touch with people. But in recent weeks she has been too scared to go to the park, where gun battles are frequent. Inside her house, she tries to keep up, phoning neighbors and residents to make sure they are OK. Sometimes it's so relentless, so overwhelming, that she just has to sit for a minute in silence and try to calm her nerves.
"This isn't just my work," she said. "This is my life."
She worries about the lasting trauma on the community - how it might manifest in children who have been shot and survived and what effect gunfire and the fear of getting struck by bullets is having. "What is this doing to us as a community, as human beings?" Spann said. "We are all secondary victims."
Among some Black residents, she said, there have been conflicted feelings about the push to abolish the police. Many have been harassed by officers, but they also live in a neighborhood that on some nights feels like a war zone.
"Why can't I have police reform? Why can't I have law and order? Why do I have to pick and choose? I should be able to have both," Spann said.
In addition to the small boost in temporary outside officers, city council members are considering a public safety pilot program that would partner police with community groups in an attempt to stop the violence on the city's north side. But Spann has lost confidence in city officials who she said haven't acted quickly enough to stop the shootings that have terrorized her community.
Neighbors have started talking about patrolling the streets on their own - as they did in May when arsonists set fire to multiple buildings in the area and police and firefighters never came. Spann has reached out to state officials and federal prosecutors to ask what law enforcement agencies can do for them, since she doesn't believe the city will ask.
"The city has failed us," Spann said.