Minneapolis police have made fewer arrests in 2021 for most violent crimes and property offenses, a trend that began with the onset of the pandemic.

Arrests for robberies have plummeted by nearly two-thirds this year. Arrests for nonfatal shootings and other aggravated assaults are down by a fifth, while arrests for rape have dropped 70% compared to five-year averages in recent years.

The drop in arrests comes during a year when violent crime has surged in Minneapolis and many other big cities across the country. Meanwhile, the force in Minneapolis has been stretched thin by hundreds of officers taking medical leave or resigning after the killing of George Floyd and civil unrest.

Arrests in homicides have increased by about 50% from last year, though the department did not specify how many of those cleared this year's more than 90 killings, vs. deaths in previous years.

Asked about the arrest trends at a news conference Thursday, Mayor Jacob Frey said the directive to officers "is always to focus on the most violent and significant crimes first, especially when you have limited resources. You need to focus on crimes where there's potential for significant injury or loss of life."

Department spokesman Garrett Parten said in a statement that the compounding effect of fewer officers responding to more 911 calls has resulted in less officer-initiated activity and the reduction or elimination of several units dedicated to proactive policing. Most investigative units have reduced their staff while the homicide division has maintained its investigative staffing, he said.

The Police Department did not make the chief, assistant chief or deputy chief of investigations available for interviews.

In response to staffing reductions, Minneapolis police have also scaled back traffic stops. The volume of stops fell by half following Floyd's death, and has remained significantly lower since, mostly from fewer stops for moving or equipment violations.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and co-chair of Frey's new public safety commission, was not surprised that police activity has declined considering the staffing shortage. "I think the question is whether or not MPD has deployed the officers who are remaining differently in terms of prioritizing homicides, and other Part 1 [the most serious] crimes," she said.

Answering that question will be part of the commission's work, she added. The group met for the first time Wednesday and, over the course of a four-hour meeting, heard presentations from "government stakeholders," including the mayor, about current challenges and priorities for public safety, she said. The meetings are closed to the public.

Council Member Andrew Johnson, who represents the Twelfth Ward, said he's been asking Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for data on the department's operations for over a year. "Things like the workloads per investigator, the investigation-closure rates, the speed to resolve. … A lot of these important operational metrics help us understand how the department is performing, because when you hear about the staffing attrition crisis that the department is in, it's critical that we all understand how that translates into actual workloads and performance."

"There are these indicators around, for instance, arrests, but it's missing so much of the story," he said. "The data is so limited in helping us understand what's actually happening, which allows for narratives then to be filled in."

Last year, the City Council directed the nonprofit CNA organization to do an independent study of MPD staff, but the study has yet to be released. The city expects to receive the report in mid-January, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie wrote in an e-mail.

Arrest data is an important, but incomplete performance measure, said Philip Cook, a criminologist and professor of public policy at Duke University. "It's of course not perfect, because you need to understand that the circumstances, the case mix, has a big effect on how hard the cases are to solve," he said.

"I think it's really important to look at arrests and not only the likelihood that a serious crime will result in an arrest, but the likelihood that it will be prosecuted … [and] that it will be deemed of sufficient quality by the district attorney to go forward with. … That's a big part of the job that the police have. It's what the public expects, and it's a very important part of crime prevention."

It's also a key part of the police maintaining a relationship with the community, he said. If cases aren't solved, "the conclusion is often that police don't care."

In recent months, Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the Thirteenth Ward in southwest Minneapolis, said she has had more constituents reaching out to her about crime than ever before — victims and neighbors who no longer feel safe.

Decreased police activity is concerning because "when people call for a police response, they need to be able to receive a police response in a timely manner," she said. "Most of them are very well aware of our current staffing situation and our current reality, but it still is not helping to build trust within the police departments, that they're not getting what they asked for in their time of need."

On a recent Sunday, a stranger followed one of Palmisano's constituents into their home. Julie Wicklund was inside having lunch with her daughter when the man approached them with a gun and demanded the keys to her car. Wicklund's dog attacked him.

"At that point, things kind of changed in the dynamic," she said. "I was screaming."

The intruder left with her purse, phone and laptop. No arrests have been made.

Three days after the invasion, Wicklund still hadn't heard from the MPD investigator assigned to her case, so she called and left him a voice mail. When he got back to her, he apologized for the delay. He had been tied up with a missing-persons case, she said.

Staff writer Susan Du contributed to this report.