Posted on September 14, 2021

After Floyd’s Killing, Minneapolis Police Retreated

Brad Heath, Reuters, September 13, 2021

Bullets crashed through the walls of Brandy Earthman’s house on Minneapolis’ north side one evening this summer. The shots sheared through the door of the living room where her children were playing. One severed a bone in her 19-year-old son’s arm.

The gunfire was part of a wave of shootings this year in Minneapolis, where killings are on the rise and, Earthman and others complain, the police are frequently nowhere to be seen.

“They don’t care anymore,” she said. “They’re just going to let everybody kill themselves.”

Policing in Minneapolis changed dramatically in the year since a white police officer murdered George Floyd. The video-recorded killing of a defenseless Black man touched off rioting, rekindled a national debate about racial inequities in law enforcement and launched scattershot efforts to strip funding from police. In the months that followed, few cities wrestled more with the question of what the future of American law enforcement should be than Minneapolis. Officials here floated attempts to overhaul, shrink or even abolish the city’s besieged police force – so far with no success.

In the interim, an examination by Reuters found, Minneapolis’ police officers imposed abrupt changes of their own, adopting what amounts to a hands-off approach to everyday lawbreaking in a city where killings have surged to a level not seen in decades.

Almost immediately after Floyd’s death, Reuters found, police officers all but stopped making traffic stops. They approached fewer people they considered suspicious and noticed fewer people who were intoxicated, fighting or involved with drugs, records show. Some in the city, including police officers themselves, say the men and women in blue stepped back after Floyd’s death for fear that any encounter could become the next flashpoint.

“There isn’t a huge appetite for aggressive police work out there, and the risk/reward, certainly, we’re there and we’re sworn to protect and serve, but you also have to protect yourself and your family,” said Scott Gerlicher, a Minneapolis police commander who retired this year. “Nobody in the job or working on the job can blame those officers for being less aggressive.”

In the year after Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, the number of people approached on the street by officers who considered them suspicious dropped by 76%, Reuters found after analyzing more than 2.2 million police dispatches in the city. Officers stopped 85% fewer cars for traffic violations. As they stopped fewer people, they found and seized fewer illegal guns.

“It’s self-preservation,” said one officer who retired after Floyd’s death, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said the force’s commanders didn’t order a slowdown, but also did nothing to stop it. “The supervisor was like, ‘I don’t blame you at all if you don’t want to do anything. Hang out in the station.’ That’s what they’re saying.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the force encountered many challenges since Floyd’s death drew national scrutiny to officers’ conduct. “Our city and our officers are having to handle a host of issues that no other jurisdiction wants to touch with a pole,” he told Reuters.

The mayor said much of the change in policing stems from a shortage of officers so severe – about a quarter of the city’s uniformed officers have retired or quit since Floyd was killed – that he had to pull some off investigative duties to make sure 911 calls get resolved. “Cities do need police officers, and yes there are severe consequences when the numbers get as low as ours,” he said.


Nonetheless, Reuters found, the drop in police-initiated interactions was steeper and more sudden than the drop in the number of officers. By July 2020, the number of encounters begun by officers had dropped 70% from the year before; the number of stops fell 76%.


“The evidence that proactive policing works is pretty solid,” said Justin Nix, a University of Nebraska Omaha criminologist. More frequent stops make it riskier for people to carry guns illegally. And residents might be less willing to call for help if they think officers won’t respond.


Interactions between officers and the public typically start in one of two ways: either someone calls seeking help – usually by dialing 911 – or an officer sees something and acts. To measure the change in policing, Reuters examined millions of dispatch and crime records from the city’s police force that track how officers spend their time. The pattern was stark: Within days of Floyd’s death, the number of stops and other encounters initiated by city patrolmen plunged to their lowest point in years.


But records show the pullback continued long after the unrest ended. In May, the most recent month for which complete records were available, officers initiated about 58% fewer encounters than they did in the same month the year before.

The number of traffic stops they conducted was down 85% over the same period. Business checks — in which officers stop at a business to talk to employees and customers — were down 76%. The number of people the police stopped for acting suspiciously also dropped 76%.

Fewer stops led to fewer people being searched for guns or drugs. The month before Floyd was killed, police made 90 drug arrests, police records show. A year later, they made 28. The number of people charged with breaking gun laws dropped by more than half, even as shootings multiplied.


{snip} Between retirements and a surge of officers taking medical leaves, the city had 200 fewer officers to put on the streets this year than it did in 2019, a drop of about 22%. A judge this July ordered the city to hire more officers, but officials have said it will be difficult to make that happen because the embattled department has struggled to attract new recruits.

The increased workload — fewer officers, more crime — played a role in making police less proactive, said one officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But the officer said patrol units also now choose to ignore minor violations that they might previously have used to attempt to stop someone and search for guns or drugs. The officer added that police sometimes deliberately take a longer route than necessary to respond to calls – mostly in the hope that whatever the problem was, it will be resolved by the time they arrive.

In April, the average response time to priority 911 calls was 40% longer than it had been a year earlier, Reuters found.

All the while, the number of murders in Minneapolis is on track to reach a 20-year high. In the 12 months after Floyd’s death, the number of outdoor shootings detected by specially designed microphone arrays set up in two of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods more than doubled, dispatch records show.

So far this year, 65 people have been murdered in Minneapolis. Police fielded 91 reports of shootings in May, nearly double the number the previous year, dispatch records show. Violent crimes shot up in June 2020 and have remained more frequent.