How Minneapolis policing changed during a historic summer of turmoil

Minneapolis police say there has been no deliberate slowdown in responding to 911 calls since George Floyd's death, yet concerns from residents, advocates and lawmakers linger as summer draws to a close.

A Star Tribune analysis of Minneapolis Police Department daily call volume shows significant changes in its response – all while challenges of elevated violence, staffing issues, budgetary holes, widespread criticism and a global pandemic took a toll on the department’s resources and shifted its attention.

Typically, police activity rises with summertime crime waves, but this year saw less energy poured into everyday policing. Riots, shootings and homicides resulted in cops simultaneously tackling more violent crimes while responding to fewer calls overall.

Here are some of the key ways policing changed over the last few months.

Staffing shortages, decreased activity

Service calls for police response either through 911 or other dispatches noticeably declined since the unrest that rocked Minneapolis ended, in part underscoring the department's staffing and budgetary problems. After Floyd's death, the force lost more than 10 percent of its officers through resignation, termination, retirement or medical leave – and could shed more employees by year’s end.

Recorded police activity fell around 30 percent in each June, July and August compared to a year earlier. Activity was also down compared to April of this year, bucking the typical escalation in summer crime response Minneapolis often sees.

A separate analysis of various police and crime measurements tracked by the city shows some of these trends continued after Downtown Minneapolis riots in late August and into September.

Even considering citywide and nationwide declines in crime rates and police calls over the years, these dropoffs are more stark. Police activity similarly slowed after Jamar Clark was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2015, despite violent crime persisting in that incident's aftermath.

Dr. Ronal Serpas, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans who spent 34 years in law enforcement, attributes such declines to a “hangover effect” that often follows a high-profile police killing, like in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Overtime hours worked, officers being reshuffled and squad car staging could also affect what the department handles. For months after the Third Precinct was burned in South Minneapolis, for instance, patrol cars staged at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

“For the many days following the death of Mr. Floyd, a significant percentage of the police department was likely taken away from its normal proactive duties,” Serpas said.

More reactive, less proactive

Those logistical challenges, the ongoing pandemic and surges in violence appeared to shift the focus of Minneapolis police, making the department more reactive than proactive.

This summer, gunfire reports increased by considerable magnitudes and violent crime jumped overall, with the city reaching 56 murders before Labor Day. Renewed rioting after a homicide suspect killed himself on Nicollet Mall led to another round of curfews and the return of the National Guard.

Meanwhile, nearly every other metric of police activity fell sharply compared to last year, and across every precinct.

How police activity in 2020 compares to 2019
Some measures of police activity have declined throughout a year of pandemic lockdowns, but many metrics plunged dramatically starting in June. Violent crime indicators, by contrast, have swelled.
+ show more
- show less
Note: statistics run through August 19 for both years.

Police stops and officer-initiated calls dropped more than half, use-of-force incidents fell by about two-thirds while traffic-related incidents and patrols became far less common.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a large role. For instance, the Downtown West neighborhood in the First Precinct historically clocks the most police incidents as a commuter and entertainment destination, but quarantine lockdowns triggered steep crime dropoffs starting in April.

Officer safety has been another concern, both in terms of coronavirus and community hostility. Derek Iverson, a supervisor with Minneapolis 9-1-1, said instances of “fake 911 calls” may also have officers avoiding calls where “people try to bait them into confrontation or attack them.”

“We’re not doing anything different in terms of how we take calls or enter calls," he said. "The only real difference is sometimes the way in which officers are having to be careful.”

Strained responses and relations

Residents have described slow police response times since the end of civil unrest, even as cops seemingly focused more on 911 calls than other activities and overall emergency demand remained similar to last summer.

Members of neighborhood groups online complained about slow or non-existent emergency response. A class-action lawsuit alleged inadequate policing and that 911 callers were reportedly told to contact 311 instead. Minneapolis City Council members expressed concerns about delayed or missing service, particularly around the Third Precinct where Floyd died.

Police have said stretched patrol squads are a factor driving complaints about dragging response times. And data suggest they have focused more on keeping up with 911 calls than other activities.

An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety shows 911 calls routed to the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center (MECC) – the public safety access point that dispatches the city's police, fire and ambulances – mostly evened out starting in early June.

Note: weeks run from mid-March through mid-August. Emergency calls routed to MECC compiled by CenturyLink.

Across those same weeks, 911 calls serviced by the Minneapolis Police Department flattened and stayed about 12 percent lower than last year's levels. Simultaneously, calls that were self-assigned by officers reduced significantly, suggesting greater focus on emergency response during times of strained resources.

Note: weeks run from mid-March through mid-August.

By contrast, 311 requests spiked this year.

Some are reluctant to call police at all amid ongoing city council and advocate efforts to disband or defund the department, further altering the relationship between police and communities they serve.

Tabitha Montgomery, executive director of Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, said there is a spectrum of people hesitating before calling 911 for different reasons, such as trying to weigh the importance of the call against what could happen if a situation escalates, or “communal shame or blame” for placing that call.

But Montgomery doesn’t believe that hesitation will continue if alternatives to 911 aren’t communicated.

“Residents and the police department and elected leaders are all beginning to rethink, reconsider how policing is approached in Minneapolis,” she said.