See more of the story

Stung by budget constraints and growing calls for reimagining public safety since the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis police officials are considering sharp cutbacks to popular community-oriented programs like the Police Activities League and procedural justice to avoid making cuts elsewhere.

At the same time, the department is facing staffing pressures. Since June, 35 officers have retired or been terminated and dozens more may soon be temporarily sidelined on medical furloughs. Officials worry the resulting shortages could affect the department’s ability to adequately police the city amid rising crime.

Budget pressures come as the City Council pushes to shrink or radically restructure the MPD. The figure circulating around precinct houses and at downtown headquarters is that the department will have to cut $8 million to $13 million from its $193.3 million budget. About 80% of the department’s budget is tied up in salaries and benefits.

In Minneapolis, as elsewhere, calls to defund, or even abolish, the city’s police force have grown since Floyd’s death, which prompted nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality. Advocates say it only makes sense to divert some of the millions of public dollars given to police departments to social service agencies and community groups that focus on social issues — like mental health, housing, systemic racism and the opioid crisis — that help crime flourish.

With the recent departures, the number of MPD officers has fallen to about 825 — out of an authorized strength of 888 — which includes a class of 31 rookie officers who just hit the streets. But with the COVID-19 pandemic stretching the city’s financial reserves, the MPD and other city departments face difficult choices.

MPD insiders say this will likely involve scaling back or disbanding the procedural justice and community engagement units, as well as the PAL program — which runs youth sports teams across the city — in order to preserve a more essential function: responding to 911 calls. If those units do fold, most of those officers would likely go back to patrolling the streets, joining school resource officers, who returned to working out of a squad car after the department lost its contract to work in city schools.

Jamil Jackson, who consults for the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said he found the decision to cut programs like PAL “disappointing, but not surprising.”

“Cutting community engagement and cutting the youth programs, which are supposed to be about preventing, that’s asinine,” said Jackson, who runs a mentoring program called Change Equals Opportunity. “Community engagement is what we’re lacking in the most, if you ask me.”

Those efforts have been complicated by a recent surge of gun violence as well as continued calls by some council members to disband the police force in favor of a transformative new public safety model.

On Thursday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced cost-saving measures meant to help fill an estimated $156 million budget hole left by the pandemic. He has signaled that he would seek to minimize cuts for police and other first responders, but he is likely to face stiff resistance from some council members, who may ask to drop the department down to the minimum staffing levels allowed under the city charter.

Shrinking departments

The “abolish the MPD movement” has been around for several years but was thrust into the mainstream only after Floyd’s death. Similar debates have broken out in other U.S. cities, notably Los Angeles, where leaders voted last month to shrink the city’s police force and cut $150 million from its budget, and New York City, which went even further, cutting roughly 20% of its $6 billion budget.

MPD backers say that any cuts would only hurt the crime-fighting abilities of the department, which a little over a decade ago boasted an authorized strength of 916 cops but has shrunk by 28 in the ensuing years, despite the city’s growing population.

Instead of investing more in police, critics say money should be diverted to programs like the Cahoots, a nonprofit intervention program in Oregon that responds to mental health calls. Another widely cited model is Oakland’s Ceasefire program, which targets violent offenders and has been credited with cutting the city’s shootings and homicides nearly in half between 2012 and 2018 using a violence reduction strategy. Minneapolis has developed a similar program, Project L.I.F.E., which enlists police, ex-cons and relatives of shooting victims to try to reach youngsters who are most prone to committing or being victims of violence.

Most officers don’t necessarily want to respond to calls involving mental health and domestic violence, for which they don’t receive adequate training and which are inherently dangerous, says Minneapolis police Cmdr. Charlie Adams, who thinks it’s symbolic of a broader social issue: As social service programs have been gutted over the years, police have been asked to take on a bigger role in dealing with the problems that result.

“We deal with everything that society doesn’t want to deal with, and we’re not trained to deal with it, but we’re trying to figure out how to deal with it,” he said. “They tell us, ‘You guys have gotta make sure they stay away from the downtown businesses, you’ve gotta hide them, we don’t want to deal with them’ — then we become the bad guys.”

The question of how many police officers Minneapolis needs has been raised many times. The city has long maintained around two officers for every 1,000 residents, a ratio that is far eclipsed by other major Upper Midwest cities like Detroit and Milwaukee but is higher than in places like Des Moines and Omaha. Minneapolis’ ratio is about the same as St. Paul’s. A Star Tribune analysis of FBI data found that in the decade between 2008 and 2017, the number of officers per capita dropped about 15% — a bigger decline than in other U.S. cities with similar populations and crime rates.

Options to consider

The city charter requires maintaining a police department and funding a force at a certain level based on the population; based on the latest census data, the city would only be required to have closer to 730 officers.

In some ways, Minneapolis has already moved toward downsizing its police force in recent years, notably with the expansion of its co-responder program, which partners officers with social workers on certain calls involving the mentally ill. In recent months, the council voted to reroute some police funding to the fledgling Office of Violence Prevention, and later some council members balked at applying for a federal loan to hire more officers.

Todd Foglesong, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, suggested that city officials might want to follow the example of the United Kingdom, where in 2010 the recession-ravaged government ordered all law enforcement agencies to cut their budgets by 20% over a decade while adopting reforms.

“First, many police departments tried to shift the demand for police services away by diverting noncritical, non-urgent calls for help to other agencies. Nearly all police chiefs acknowledged that the majority of 911 calls did not require a police response — or, as one chief put it, ‘the armed authority of the state in your living room,’” Foglesong said.

A proposed charter amendment would eliminate the requirement for the city to maintain a police department and would instead create a new public safety department — which could include licensed peace officers, but wouldn’t be required to do so. The city’s Charter Commission faced a similar situation in the late 1980s, albeit from the other side, when then Council Member and former police officer Walt Dziedzic proposed amending the city charter to raise the staffing ratio to 2.35 officers per 1,000 residents. At the time, the force had 722 officers and crime was on the rise. But the measure was defeated.

Sam Sanchez, a longtime organizer with the reform group Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, said he isn’t in favor of abolishing the department but rather putting it under community control, which would allow citizens to have more of a say in policy decisions and make it easier to rid the force of problem officers.

“I’m glad people are thinking about change, but we don’t need to reinforce the mayor and the council’s power, we don’t need to change the name of the department, we don’t need a new department head,” said Sanchez.

Adams, the police commander, says that potential cuts to MPD’s community engagement efforts couldn’t be coming at a worse time.

“So I mean, now we cut out all the engagement pieces, who does that hurt? It doesn’t hurt anybody in southwest Minneapolis, right?” he said. “It hurts Little Earth. It hurts north Minneapolis, with all the programs that PAL provides there.”

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany