Mayor Betsy Hodges’ proposal to hire 15 more police officers in Minneapolis has run into vocal opposition.
At a public hearing last week, 27 people stepped to the microphone with a simple message: No more cops.
“To allow this item to pass is not only an insult to a lot of the folks in this room, but it’s an act of violence against people of color,” said Sam Dunn of south Minneapolis, one of a succession of people who filled council chambers to oppose the hiring of more officers.
Hiring cops isn’t usually controversial. With violent crime rising citywide and the number of victims wounded by guns up 27 percent this year, the proposal enjoys broad support on the City Council.
But enthusiasm for the move in Minneapolis has been called into question as groups like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) assert themselves at City Hall. The resistance reflects national ambivalence about increasing police head counts in the wake of the fatal shootings of unarmed black men, and a desire for measures that treat crime like a public health problem that can be prevented before it happens.
“There are a growing number of places across the country that are questioning putting more resources into policing when there are so many other community needs,” said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who teaches criminology.
Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in July that police are being asked to do too much. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” Brown said.
Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have shifted emphasis into programs that focus on youth development and violence prevention.
The Minneapolis Police Department is working on a series of reforms aimed at regaining public trust and training away officer bias.
“The MPD has, and will continue to, put significant resources in community policing and crime prevention efforts,” Chief Janeé Harteau said in a statement. “However, I have also been clear that we need significant resources to address the current cycle of violent crime in order to provide public safety services and justice for residents affected by violence within the city.”
Officers or programs?
Big city police departments across the country have fewer officers than they did before the recession, and chiefs have long argued their officers have too much responsibility for problems beyond law enforcement, but neither of those factors should be mistaken for an admission that any city has too many police officers, said Darrel Stephens, director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“It’s lack of resources,” Stephens said. “It’s not a desirable thing.”
In Minneapolis, the call to halt police hiring has gotten little traction with a council that’s set to approve the 2017 budget Wednesday night. The city is now authorized for 862 officers, which is 100 fewer than before budget cuts in 2009. The proposal prompted an angry response from Council President Barb Johnson, whose Fourth Ward is in north Minneapolis, the scene of a disproportionate number of the city’s shootings and where violent crime this year is up 10 percent.
“It is ridiculous to talk about cutting police officers in this budget, and it’s easy for people who don’t deal with people calling them and saying they’re afraid to let their children walk around the block,” Johnson said.
A proposal to shift $400,000 away from the police department into domestic abuse and youth violence prevention — which would have eliminated four of the new officer positions — was voted down 9-3 in a budget meeting Friday. Council Members Lisa Bender, Elizabeth Glidden and Cam Gordon voted for the measure.
“What is the best, most effective way in the long term to use tax dollars to prevent and reduce crime?” Bender asked. “In addition to adding officers, we need to add additional investment in prevention of crime.”
The council ultimately decided to shift money from public works into domestic abuse and youth violence prevention programs. But their attention to the message reveals, with an election less than a year away, the increased clout of NOC, a north Minneapolis advocacy group that turned out most of those opposed to hiring more police.
Tony Williams, an organizer for NOC, told the council he is glad the 2017 budget includes more than $1 million combined for group violence prevention, young male sexual health outreach, collaborative community safety strategies in north Minneapolis and near south Minneapolis, and a mental health co-responder program.
But he believes the police have failed to keep minority communities safe, and his end goal is a smaller department.
“We’re on a trajectory to moving towards a world where we don’t even need as many police as we have right now, because we’re taking care of our community’s safety needs, not in punitive and incarcerative ways,” Williams said.
Hodges said she is not surprised that some are skeptical of police hiring, given the tenor of the national conversation on public safety. She’s glad the council appears to support funding programs aimed at preventing crime, but believes more police officers are also necessary.
“It’s understandable to me that people have concerns with increasing the complement of sworn officers, but for me that investment is about community policing,” she said. “If we are going to expect our officers to be building relationships with community members, we need to give them the time and resources to do that.”
Seventh Ward Council Member Lisa Goodman said additional police officers are badly needed. A fresh reminder came a week ago when gunfire blew out the windows of the Nicollet Diner at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday.
“My constituents, businesses and residents in that area want to see more beat cops on the street,” Goodman said. “That’s what they want, a more visible presence.”