The Star Tribune Editorial Board (“Most in Minneapolis want more cops,” Sept. 9) cited a study funded by the Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce that was designed to show political support for an increase of 250 police officers to our sworn force. The Editorial Board closed with a criticism that some council members are listening to “the loudest voices in the room,” implying that an activist minority is having an outsized influence on policymakers.
That narrative dismisses not only those who speak up at council meetings, but also the hundreds of quieter conversations I have had with constituents in which even those who say they support adding officers also express concern about the way the department operates. In my experience, it is a mainstream view to want our Police Department to be better, and not just bigger.
I am on record supporting a higher number of police officers than we currently have. I voted in last year’s budget process to approve a sworn force of 888 officers. For too much of the year, however, we have been below that number because of an unpopular truth: The way we manage police staffing in our city is badly broken. We need structural change in our Police Department to make it more effective at addressing our public safety needs.
Staffing levels fluctuate widely throughout the year as we move recruits through a rigid, nine-month academy and field-training process that can produce two or maybe three classes a year. We cross our fingers and hope that each class includes enough new officers to fill the need when they graduate.
During the last two years, through a combination of bad luck and bad planning, our active force has fallen significantly below our sworn complement at times as our recruit classes failed to keep up with attrition. At the time the chamber poll was conducted, the Police Department was significantly short of its authorized force unless you count field trainees and recruits still in the academy. In that context, it is understandable that people saw a need to add officers. The department is struggling to manage the flow of retirements; parental, medical, and military leaves; suspensions; and other forms of short-term attrition. If too many of these happen in one precinct on one shift, it puts significant strain on our system, and Minneapolis residents feel it.
Unfortunately, and perhaps most maddening, an inflexible police union contract leaves police leadership with a limited ability to move resources where they are needed to address short-term imbalances without a burdensome citywide bid process. This has, at times, left some shifts very short, which impacts our ability to respond promptly and puts a strain on our officers. We cover these gaps with overtime and rely on privately funded policing to smooth over our staffing gaps through “buyback” and “off-duty” arrangements.
Mayor Jacob Frey has proposed 14 new officers in his recommended 2020 budget, and has expressed an intention to assign them in ways that may or may not be allowed by the current union contract. While those assignments may seem politically popular today, they would not fix our broken staffing system. I am hoping to work with the mayor and with Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to come up with proposals that would.
Reasonable people can disagree about what the “right” police staffing level is. For example, I and other council members are interested in how we could respond to some calls for service differently, and in doing so decrease the workload of the Police Department. Regardless, precinct inspectors need to be able to plan their shifts with greater staffing consistency. Watching our downtown precinct struggle with shortages in the heat of summer this year has been scary at times. They have managed it with overtime, with very hard work by the officers on duty, and yes, with degraded response times to some calls.
When I express skepticism about the mayor’s proposal to increase the police force without any systemic fixes, some people assume I am OK with this status quo. I am not. Officers and residents alike deserve better. We need to do the hard work to fix the Police Department’s problems instead of relying on what polls tell. I intend to start by insisting that increased resources invested in the department be accompanied by structural reforms that will increase the department’s effectiveness and improve public safety outcomes. With both the budget and a new union contract to approve in the coming months, now is the time for our city to insist that we expect better before we fund more.
Steve Fletcher represents the Third Ward on the Minneapolis City Council.