Under a tent on a blazing hot morning, Minneapolis officer Mike Nimlos described a police force that is overwhelmed.
“We need to get out there and do more proactive work, but we don’t have the bodies,” Nimlos told several dozen North Siders gathered in a backyard. “We barely have enough time to answer calls — we’re going from one call to the next call to the next call. Officers are getting burned out. They’re getting tired.”
From the side of the garage, resident Dave Haddy countered that the lack of response sent a message: People can light fireworks, run red lights and shoot guns all they want.
“It’s sickening!” he said.
The exchange last Tuesday captured the tensions between officers and those closest to the surge in shootings in recent weeks as Minneapolis City Hall discusses how to overhaul law enforcement following the police killing of George Floyd.
Witnesses, victims, neighbors, peace activists, community leaders: All are reckoning with how to ensure public safety at a time when many feel their security is shaken as much by police as it is by criminals.
While they recognize the limits of the police in addressing crime, they are calling for civilians to take more responsibility — and finding that, too, is not always enough.
“After my house was struck by gunfire, I’m not going to feel safe no matter how many cops go past,” said Crystal Rosebear of north Minneapolis.
Last month, she discovered a bullet lodged in her 11-year-old son’s mattress under his Ninja Turtles blanket after he showed her a hole in his bedroom window. They figured it blasted through overnight while he was sleeping.
Rosebear doesn’t think there are enough police now because of how long it takes them to show up when she calls 911. She’s trying to find the money to move away.
Shot Spotter activations and 911 calls about gunshots in the city have more than doubled from a year ago. Nearly half of 3,218 such shots-fired calls this year came after Floyd was killed on May 25.
Farji Shaheer was driving downtown on June 20 when he saw young men chasing someone near Target Center. He pulled over and yelled, “Stop fighting! Leave the man alone!”
They ignored him and ran up the street. Gunfire erupted, killing 27-year-old Cody Pollard. Shaheer, who wants responsible, community-engaged policing, wonders if officers at the scene could have deterred the shooter.
“I think overall, in general, these guys are going to sit back,” said Shaheer, who works at Hennepin Healthcare on an initiative to aid shooting victims. “The city is talking about defunding them, so the only way to seem necessary is to allow things to happen so that people really need you.”
On June 22, James Upshaw heard shots as he walked out of Winner Gas Station with a bottle of water. He grabbed the Glock 40 he was carrying for self-defense, but the force of gunfire knocked it to the ground.
“I’m shot! I’m shot!” he cried. “I’m hit! I’m hit! Help!”
Fearing an approaching cop would mistake him for the shooter, he told the officer to check his wallet for the gun permit. Upshaw was taken to North Memorial, where doctors treated gunshot wounds to his wrist and Achilles tendon.
Two days later, he was hopping on crutches down Plymouth Avenue to the Fourth Police Precinct to retrieve his belongings when he came upon a stretch that was blocked after yet another shooting. A man was injured.
Upshaw, who works in a rubber factory, says he had been roughed up by police before. He just wants to get rid of the bad cops.
“A lot of [police officers] just want to do their job … and the neighborhood is not making it easy,” said Upshaw. “Nobody wants to come to work to shooting and domestic violence and see dead bodies, see people like me being shot.”
“We’ve been having a lot of killings and a lot of shootings because of no police presence,” said Vaughn Pollard, a volunteer at youth violence prevention nonprofit We Push for Peace, who visited the scene with more than a half-dozen peace activists. “So we need ... their presence, but we have to make sure that [law enforcement] is what they’re doing and not taking part in other things.”
Advocates of defunding the police want to divert more police department funding into violence prevention and community programs, and Vaughn Pollard sees a strong role for those organizations to play.
“We need to be able to start having some patrol in our own community,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace anything. ... Doing it on our own, we can only get so far — just like [cops] doing it on their own, they can only get so far. They have to work with the community and the community has to work with them.”
“I’m upset about these cases of police officers killing people, but I’m upset with the Black community as well,” said Pollard, who is Black, like the other volunteers that day. “Because we want to see our community do better. We want to see all people do better.”
Some of them continued to the edge of North Commons Park, where they prayed and rallied at the spot where four people had been shot days before. Then they went to 41st and Aldrich avenues, where 25-year-old Antonio D. Taylor was gunned down June 23. Peace activist K.G. Wilson gazed somberly at the blue balloons tied to a signpost.
“It didn’t make world news,” Wilson lamented, as about a dozen people gathered for the prayers to begin. “They’re not going to put no mural up, none of that. There’s no rally, no protest, no march.”
He wants to see the community step up to stop the homicides, the leading cause of death for young Black men. But he described it as a lonely fight in the shadow of major protests over police brutality.
Feeling under siege from the shootings, Cathy Spann proposed a drastic idea to a group gathered Tuesday in a backyard to discuss the crime at an emergency meeting of the Jordan Area Community Council. They had invited several cops, including Nimlos.
Spann, the council’s executive director, said she was talking to lawyers about suing the city for trying to disband the Police Department without ensuring public safety in violation of her civil and human rights.
She was ill; the heat was unbearable. Spann summoned her strength. Her voice rose until she was almost yelling.
“We know we need change, but you’re not going to leave me unprotected in my streets and on the bus and in my house!” Spann said to applause.
She urged residents to tell their neighbors enough was enough with the gunshots.
“Enough is enough!”
“Turn to your neighbors!”
“Enough is enough!”
Fourth Precinct Inspector Kelvin Pulphus told the group that for officers in the area, it was “all hands on deck,” but he said police often can only be reactive on calls for shots fired.
Without details on suspects, he said, “we’re going to come there, take pictures, pick up the pieces and move on to the next call.”
College student Aniya Spears said tough-on-crime policies don’t work and echoed a point of defund-the-police advocates: “Police come after the crime has happened. ... They don’t prevent crime.”
The evening after the meeting, about a half-mile away, a boy was struck in the foot in a drive-by shooting as he walked out of E & L Deli with his father.
Among the onlookers who gathered afterward was Divar Kemp, a North Side bishop who has worked with St. Paul police as co-founder of the God Squad, dealing with crime victims and suspects. He said such organizations could use more money for violence prevention, but stressed that they are not cops.
“I’m mad as hell,” Kemp said. Two teenagers, one holding a basketball, walked by and asked what happened. “A 7-year-old got shot,” he replied. “Y’all be careful.”