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Minneapolis police staffing levels reach historic lows amid struggle for recruitment, retention




Some days, the Minneapolis Police Department’s ranks are so thin that just four officers in a given precinct are expected to patrol wide swaths of the city during their shift.

There’s often no one available to work the front desk at police stations, so residents seeking assistance with a report are greeted by a locked door. Handmade signs instruct them to dial 911 in an emergency.

Staffing shortages plague law enforcement agencies nationwide, as overall interest in the profession has plummeted amid heightened public scrutiny following a series of high-profile police killings. But the problem is particularly acute in Minneapolis, where the police force continues to hemorrhage officers faster than it can replace them.

Over the past three years, MPD experienced the most significant exodus of uniformed personnel in its history and, last month, dipped to the lowest level in at least four decades.

With 585 sworn officers, the department hovers just above that of the St. Paul police department, an agency that serves roughly 120,000 fewer residents. That decline means Minneapolis holds among the lowest ratio of police officers to population served out of 22 sampled American cities, according to a Star Tribune analysis. Only Portland had a lower officer-to-resident ratio by the end of 2022 with 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents, compared to 1.4 in Minneapolis. That’s significantly lower than the national average of 2.4.

Rapid attrition resulted in ballooning overtime costs, longer response times and a precipitous drop in proactive policing. Every day requires a form of triage, as top brass examine citywide staffing levels to determine whether to reassign officers to a neighboring precinct that’s running short.

“This is absolutely not sustainable,” Chief Brian O’Hara said of continuing to operate without additional manpower. “Thank God for all these other agencies that are filling this gap.”

He credited law enforcement partners, like the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, for helping drive down violent crime this summer following three of the bloodiest years in the city’s history.

In recent months, the department has also leaned on temporary civilian analysts to mine video and assist with clerical work on pending criminal investigations. But MPD is unable to spare officers to restart the disbanded community engagement unit, long seen as a critical tool in building trust.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the stuff that goes away first,” O’Hara said. “We’re never going to change people’s perception of us — and we’re never going to establish meaningful relationships with people — if the only thing we’re doing is responding from emergency to emergency to emergency.”

Unprecedented departures

A decades-old city charter sets a minimum requirement for staffing based on population levels, equivalent to about 723 officers.

For years, Minneapolis employed far more than what was obligated, logging around 900 at the time of George Floyd’s murder. But MPD experienced an unprecedented wave of resignations, retirements and disability claims, mostly related to post-traumatic stress disorder, in the months that followed.

The issue of police staffing became a political lightning rod almost overnight — as homicides surged to the worst in a generation — sparking intense public debate about how best to transform public safety amidst a global racial reckoning. In 2021, voters rejected a proposal that would have eliminated that quota and allowed officials to replace MPD with a new agency.

“We gotta be able to call somebody — and the way the system stands right now, that’s the police,” said Audua Pugh, one of eight North Side residents who sued the city in 2020 demanding they hire more officers. At the time, gunfire was so common in her Jordan neighborhood that she contemplated moving.

Police reform advocates saw that ballot measure as a chance to shift its reliance from a militarized police response toward alternative approaches for certain 911 calls, like mental health crises. Some question whether MPD needs to maintain peak staffing levels when pilot programs like Minneapolis’ Behavioral Crisis Response (BCR) teams are successfully diverting thousands of calls traditionally handled by police.

“There are functions for which you simply don’t need sworn, armed officers,” said Dave Bicking, vice president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. He called the 1960s-era charter minimum “a historical artifact,” which failed to take into account modern technology that make officers more efficient.

Crime rates are driven by a multitude of social and economic factors that cannot be predicted by the size of a police force alone, said Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies policing. Research shows that bolstering department ranks can bring modest reductions in homicide rates, but also result in a surge of lower-level arrests that disproportionately impact people of color.

“Even in the best-case scenario, … [hiring more officers] is obviously not a panacea,” Phelps said. “I think our police department is going to have to figure out how to operate at a smaller scale.”

Last summer, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that City Council members had fulfilled their responsibilities to the Charter by funding the authorized 731 officers in the annual budget, but said Mayor Jacob Frey must ensure that the minimum number of positions were filled.

Despite lofty goals to hire some 200 officers, recruiting efforts haven’t kept pace with the wave of retirements. Each month, the police force continues to dwindle and the city remains in violation of the court order.

“It’s a self-induced problem,” said Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center, which represented the group that sued. “They’ve created the mess that has resulted in some of the reticence to join up, or apply for, those police positions.”

Minneapolis has not done enough to entice new recruits through signing bonuses or other means, Seaton said. His clients are prepared to intervene again should the city fail to meet its legal obligations long-term.

Waning interest in policing

Police applications and overall interest in law enforcement has been waning for years, though experts say that Floyd’s murder marked a turning point for the profession.

A 2021 study of nearly 200 U.S. law enforcement agencies found that the rate of retirements at some departments rose 45% compared with the previous year, a dramatic increase that the report’s authors blamed on mass protests and calls for defunding the police, as well as the pandemic.

“The risks associated with the job have never been higher,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.

Every police department in the country is competing for the same ever-shrinking pool of candidates. Some, like Alameda, Calif. are offering $75,000 signing bonuses to help fill critical vacancies. In Minnesota, even small suburban agencies are dangling $2,000 to $10,000 to incentivize lateral transfers and new recruits.

Fierce competition has forced officials to get creative. This year, an MPD recruitment team went door-knocking in diverse North and South side neighborhoods to try and drum up interest. But replenishing the ranks is a tall order. City records show that the department has lost 45 sworn officers so far in 2023, and hired just 15 to replace them. (Eleven more are expected to graduate from the academy later this month.)

“The aura of working for a larger city with vastly more opportunities than neighboring suburban departments is no longer enough when weighed against the political nonsense within Minneapolis, coupled with low pay and two consent decrees,” said Minneapolis Police Federation President Sherral Schmidt. “In order to add to our ranks, the city needs to offer competitive wages and benefits.”

Staffing has emerged as the highest priority for the police union amid ongoing contract negotiations with the city this fall. Of the 585 officers, at least 30 remain on continuous leave. An estimated 284 are currently able to answer 911 calls, Schmidt said.

As of Sept. 1, the department had already racked up a record-high $14.3 million in overtime costs — more than half of which was paid under “critical staffing overtime,” better known as double time.

Overtime helped most MPD employees make more than six figures last year, according to payroll data obtained through a public records request. Two sergeants managed to pull in over $350,000 during that time, well surpassing O’Hara’s annual salary of $271,721.

The police budget has continued to climb even as the department atrophied. Frey’s proposed 2024 budget allocates $218 million to MPD, a record-setting sum meant to fund dozens of new positions tasked with carrying out court-mandated police reforms.

Escalating overtime hours are fueling concerns about burnout and the potential for officer error. In an interview, Frey agreed that the current situation is untenable and the city must rebuild staffing so officers have the ability “to recalibrate” between shifts.

“It’s a fact: Use of force goes up for every hour of overtime,” he said. “That’s not because they’re bad people; it’s because they are people.”

The department must constantly balance shortages, as officers call in sick, take vacation time or fulfill mandatory training requirements. They do so by holding over earlier shifts, tapping response cars from neighboring precincts and putting out citywide bids for overtime to backfill positions.

Yet, the department is frequently unable to meet minimum staffing goals for each shift, which often results in the decision to leave front desks vacant at local precincts.

Those closures frustrate residents, who say it’s difficult to rebuild trust with a department that isn’t available to interact with the citizens they serve.

“It tells me that the people of Minneapolis are not a priority to the Minneapolis police department,” said Colin Planalp, a public health researcher who drove to three separate precincts to turn in a lost wallet and keys earlier this spring. He found each one locked.

In response to complaints about locked precincts, O’Hara countered: “I think it’s worth more to have that person on the street.”

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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Star Tribune

Foundations invest $6 million into new fund to support local journalism in Minnesota




Some of Minnesota’s largest foundations are backing a new local news fund that’s collected $6 million so far in a five-year effort to bolster local journalism across the state.

Press Forward Minnesota, which launched last January, has raised $6 million in donations so far from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media Group in St. Paul and the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

Mukhtar Ibrahim, who is a consultant on the initiative, said Friday he hopes to get more foundations to support the fund.

“We want to keep the momentum going,” said Ibrahim, former CEO of the Sahan Journal in St. Paul and a former Star Tribune reporter.

The effort is part of a national Press Forward coalition that started last year, aiming to invest $500 million in newsrooms nationwide. Other regions have their own chapters, including Chicago, which has raised about $10 million.

Since 2005, more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the U.S. — almost a third of all newspapers — with Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota losing the most newspapers per capita between 2005 and 2023, according to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

That’s leaving a growing number of communities without any local news source. Research has shown that, when local newspapers close down, fewer people vote or run for local office and cities approve higher bond spending. In Minnesota, eight weekly newspapers closed earlier this year, some after operating for more than a century.

Minnesota’s fund will be administered by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, which will start accepting grant applications this fall. Ibrahim said it’s too early to say how much grants will be, but for-profit and nonprofit news organizations statewide will be eligible to apply.

“This will benefit the whole state,” he said. “We need to see journalism as essential [to fund] as much as public works … it affects the health of a society.”

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Star Tribune

Shooter fired from behind fence, killed north Minneapolis man in his car




A Bloomington man was charged with murder Friday after police said they used surveillance video to place him behind a fence where shell casings were found at the scene of North Minneapolis shooting last month.

Dameon Markese Collins, 23, of Bloomington faces second-degree murder charges in the death of Carl Maurice Woodard, 55, of Minneapolis and is being detained in Hennepin County jail on $1 million bail.

According to the charges:

Police were dispatched to a shooting on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. N. a little before 11 p.m. on June 28. They found a parked car with 13 bullet holes in it. Woodward was in the driver’s seat, unresponsive. His death was later ruled a homicide.

Officers determined the shooting likely came from a hole in a fence that was situated directly next to the passenger seat of the car where Woodard was found. The Minneapolis crime lab found 23 shell casings behind the fence.

Surveillance footage from the area later identified a white Chevy Tahoe that was parked two houses down from Woodard’s car. Police say Collins got out of the car and proceeded to navigate to a nearby alley before walking between two houses on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. to a fenced area near the victim’s car.

The video then shows several muzzle flashes. Shortly afterward Collins is seen running from the scene and getting back into the Tahoe. Phone records also place Collins at the scene of the crime.

After being placed under arrest, Collins gave a statement to police where he acknowledged that he drives a white Tahoe, was wearing the same clothes as the man seen in the surveillance videos and that he knew there was a hole in the fence on the 3500 block of Penn Ave. Collins stated then when he got out of his car it was because he was going to talk to a girl.

Collins is also charged with possessing a pistol without a permit, a misdemeanor. He is due in court next week.

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Star Tribune

Rare officer v. officer lawsuit over Hennepin County K9 mauling ordered thrown out by federal appeals court




A rare excessive force lawsuit pitting Minnesota law enforcement officers against each other after one officer was mauled by another’s K-9 must be dismissed, a federal appeals court ruled this week.

A three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith McNamara in his bid to dismiss a civil suit filed against him last year by a former Champlin police officer attacked by McNamara’s K-9 as the two pursued a suspect together.

Daniel Irish, who now works as a police officer in Brooklyn Park, had alleged that McNamara did not warn others that he had released the K-9 named Thor as police tracked a suspect who had led them on a pursuit into Osseo in March 2022. Irish sued over his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force and unreasonable seizure.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery in August 2023 denied McNamara’s request to dismiss the complaint after he argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity. Montgomery noted that the mauling was a “highly unfortunate accident” but concluded that it was “clearly established” that a seizure occurred within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Irish had argued that McNamara willfully deployed Thor during the pursuit and “objectively intended for him to bite the first person he encountered.”

McNamara countered that he did not “subjectively” intend to seize Irish and that because “the law is unclear as to whether subjective or objective intent should be considered,” it was not clearly established that Thor’s bite was a seizure. The Eighth Circuit panel this week agreed with McNamara and reversed Montgomery’s ruling. The lawsuit now goes back to Montgomery with instructions from the appellate court to dismiss.

Megan Larson, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said Friday that the office was “satisfied with the court’s decision and we have no further comment.”

Irish’s attorneys said he still suffers from the effects of C. difficile and other gastrointestinal ailments brought on by antibiotics taken to treat a deep skin infection caused by Thor’s attack.

“Officer Irish did exemplary policework that day,” said Andrew Noel, an attorney representing Irish. “He is disappointed by the court’s ruling but he continues to serve the people of Brooklyn Park every day.”

Writing for a panel that included Judges Ralph Erickson and Duane Benton, Judge Jonathan Kobes concluded that this case “fits best in the unintended-target line of cases.”

McNamara commanded Thor to go after the fleeing suspect less than a minute before the dog bit Irish. He repeatedly ordered Thor to disengage from Irish and refocused the K9 toward the suspect.

“All told, we cannot say that it was ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official [in Deputy McNamara’s shoes] would understand’ that he acted unlawfully — or even within the scope of the Fourth Amendment. Contrary to Officer Irish’s warning, our decision today does not mean that one police officer could never seize another,” Kobes wrote in the 9-page ruling. “We hold only that it was not clearly established as of March 2022 that an officer in Minnesota could seize a fellow officer with a K9 without subjectively intending to do so.”

The ruling was the second order issued this week from an appellate court regarding a police K-9 attack. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered that the State Patrol can be sued for liability after an unprovoked attack by one of its K-9s on an Owatonna car dealership employee, saying that qualified immunity for the agency does not apply under the state’s dog bite statute.

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