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Minneapolis Police's Staff Shortage Could Pave The Way For The Future Of Policing

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What happens when a quarter of your police force quits? That unintentional experiment's underway now in Minneapolis. More than 200 officers have left their jobs there since last summer's protests over the killing of George Floyd. Now the city and its residents are trying out different ways to try to get by with fewer officers. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: These days, the Minneapolis Police Department is conspicuous by its absence from certain places...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get the [expletive] out of here.

KASTE: ...Such as this open-air memorial to a man killed by law enforcement near Lake Street in June. Last year's big protests may be over, but pockets of activists are still openly hostile toward cops, also sometimes toward reporters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm asking you to leave. I'm asking nicely, and I can turn it into me screaming and making it seem like I'm being attacked, and we could get the whole crowd over here. Leave. This is not - you're not allowed to come here and record trauma. Leave.

KASTE: But even as the police make themselves scarce from places like this, elsewhere, the demand for their services is growing. All you have to do is monitor dispatch radio.

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UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Seven-five-five Vincent Avenue North for the sound of shots fired, heard 20 shots from the east.

KASTE: The Minneapolis Police Department would not talk to NPR about how it's handling this increase in serious calls. Their spokesman says they're too busy for interviews. But people in other parts of city government are willing to talk about it.

SASHA COTTON: There's a notable difference in the ability of the police department to respond.

KASTE: That's Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention. It's part of the city's health department. When it comes to the roots of the current violence, she points to society.

COTTON: The vast majority of violence is out of desperation, that people feel like their basic needs aren't being met, things are unmanageable. The resource need and the deprivation of that need leads to extreme choices.

KASTE: Her department is in the business of finding more of what she calls nonenforcement forms of public safety, especially given what she sees as the city's new eagerness for change.

COTTON: A community that's really taking a stand and saying, like, no more, we're not going to do it this way anymore. And although they're prepared to say, we don't want this, the answers to what we want as a community aren't clear, and we're going to have to try things. And that means we're also going to have to grapple with doing things that ultimately don't work in order to find what's going to work.

KASTE: And there's already quite a list of things that the city is trying out. For instance, it's now having people report property crimes to 311 instead of 911, which leaves the police out of the loop. There's a plan for a new 24-hour mental health response system, again to avoid sending out cops. The city has also moved its long-standing crime prevention program out of the police department. And finally, probably the most visible of the new efforts, there's the violence interrupters.

MUHAMMAD ABDUL-AHAD: We out here till 11 p.m. at night - downtown, uptown, cover a lot of ground.

KASTE: Muhammad Abdul-Ahad leads a crowd of young men and a few women down the street. They're all wearing bright yellow T-shirts, and they're here to interrupt violence.

ABDUL-AHAD: 'Cause we're trying to prevent it before it even happens. So us being there to help mediate, de-escalate - when we show up, we're for the community.

KASTE: The city has contracted with his nonprofit to do this. He's one of several. He, in turn, pays the people in the yellow T-shirts $30 an hour to walk around, build relationships and try to head off trouble. It's not a new concept. The interrupters model has been tried off and on around the country for years.

ABDUL-AHAD: And you don't know if it works or not. But in this case, I can say it actually has been working 'cause we interrupted countless situations that could've escalated and ended very badly.

KASTE: But up in north Minneapolis, which has seen some of the worst violent crime recently, Sharif Willis is skeptical.

SHARIF WILLIS: It don't make a difference if you walk a hundred miles up and down the street with a thousand guys with different-colored shirts on. That's not going to make a difference.

KASTE: Willis is an example of a volunteer effort to stop the violence. He's sitting in a lawn chair at the intersection of Lowry and Logan, close to where he lives.

WILLIS: At any one time, you might've had 50 guys over there shooting dice, four or five other cars around here where individuals selling drugs and what have you. And just recently, a young Somali girl just right down the street was killed.

KASTE: Willis and other people organized by local churches have made a point of hanging out here and at other hot spots recommended by the local police precinct.

WILLIS: We've claimed this and let it be known that here, the community is still watching.

KASTE: And murders around here have been dropping. But this is also kind of risky. A few weeks ago, a stray bullet injured one of the women in their group. Willis says they can do this mainly because they have an informal understanding right now with a local drug dealer. And he says in the long run, there's no way church volunteers can take the place of cops.

WILLIS: If they were to defund the police, I would get me a SS-23, a AR-47, a AK-15 because these people who are running around talking about defund the police don't have a clue. They don't live in this environment here for the most part, you know?

KASTE: He's referring to a citywide ballot initiative that's coming up this November. It proposes replacing the traditional police department with a Department of Public Safety. The idea is to have civilians do more of the work traditionally done by the cops.

Without taking a side on that upcoming vote, the city's director of violence prevention, Sasha Cotton, says it is important to understand why some people don't want more police around.

COTTON: In some communities, police make people feel very safe. And in some communities, police make people feel very unsafe. And that is usually determined by whether the police are called on you or you're the person that usually is calling the police.

KASTE: But it's precisely this philosophy that worries Brian Herron.

BRIAN HERRON: This us-against-them mentality has to go.

KASTE: Herron is senior pastor of Zion Baptist Church, also in north Minneapolis. He's dismayed by those who want to make cops less visible and present in everyday life. He's still a believer in the community policing idea promoted during the '90s and 2000s.

HERRON: We invited the patrol officers to block club meetings, and the patrol officers were surprised by the response they got. We have to transform policing from an occupational force.

KASTE: If you remove the police from that everyday stuff like property crime and keep them in reserve for just when there's violence, Herron wonders, won't that just alienate the officers even more from the people they serve?

KIM LUND VOSS: There was more hatred than I've ever felt in all of the 37 years that I've been a police officer.

KASTE: That's Kim Lund Voss, one of the more than 200 Minneapolis officers who've quit, retired or taken disability since last summer. She's bitter about her final year as a cop. First, the department demoted her because people got angry about a joke she posted to Facebook. Then two months later, there were the protests, and her precinct building was torched.

VOSS: The stuff we saw during those riots, the people sneaking up on us, the people lobbing stuff at us, shooting stuff at us, that was a war.

KASTE: Asked if she'd recommend a young person become a Minneapolis officer, she says she'd say to go in with eyes open in part because of this new push to distance cops from everyday community interactions.

VOSS: I really enjoyed going to community meetings. I enjoyed getting to know our community. And to take that away is sad because then you only get over and over and over the bad stuff. And you can't expect officers to always be dealing with the bad stuff and then turn around and be compassionate and caring individuals.

KASTE: But given all that's happened, is the community policing idea still possible? How much do people really want to see uniformed cops in their daily lives? With the expected ballot initiative and citywide elections this fall, the voters in Minneapolis will soon have their first real chance to answer those questions since the death of George Floyd.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.