The city of Minneapolis is embarking on an urgent task: hiring nearly 200 police officers more than a year and a half after George Floyd's killing placed the city at the epicenter of a national movement to change the profession.
With less than six months to fulfill a court order to hire some 190 officers — or explain why the city can't — interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman said the department is stepping up its recruitment.
"We're not going to sugarcoat this," said Mayor Jacob Frey, who hinged his re-election campaign in part on a promise to rebuild police ranks. "This is a heavy lift."
The accelerated hiring spree is unfolding amid a surge in homicides and other violent crime and as Minneapolis is still grappling with how to transform policing and public safety after Floyd's murder.
For some city residents, the arrival of more officers to the depleted force can't come soon enough.
Audua Pugh, one of five North Side residents who sued the city over hiring more officers, said she's not sure she can endure another season of shootings and other violence.
"We have to have police. We have to have the citizens because we cannot continue to live in this state of fight and flight all the time," Pugh said. "We can't keep doing this as a people."
But for others, it may be too much. A new study, expected to be presented to the City Council in February after months of delay, could reinvigorate those debates by showing how officers routinely respond to calls that don't require an armed police response under state law.
Hiring in mass numbers is "inherently problematic no matter how good you are at it, no matter how good your intentions are," said Dave Bicking with Communities United Against Police Brutality. "It's very hard to hire people and be sure you're getting the right people."
It has been decades since Minneapolis police embarked on a recruitment effort of this scale, and department leaders say a changing political landscape and logistical challenges that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic have prompted them to try new approaches.
Minneapolis has long been required to maintain police staffing in proportion to its population. When the requirements passed in the 1960s, the city advertised for 190 openings and placed applications in most of its precincts. Some of them ran out within days, according to news reports at the time.
One of the next large-scale infusions of officers came in the 1990s, when then-President Bill Clinton handed out millions of dollars in grants as part of a push to put 100,000 more police on American streets. Huffman, who joined the department in that era, recalled sitting in a huge auditorium packed with candidates who had signed up to take a written test.
It was, she said, "a very different environment than we see now. ... We're just not seeing those kinds of numbers in the pipeline."
The city ran four hiring classes for officers in 2015 and received more than 1,000 applications, according to department statistics. Last year, it held six classes and got about 600 applicants. The first two classes this year "will likely be smaller than our ideal target of 40, just because of that smaller volume of applications," Huffman said.
Minneapolis isn't alone. Across the country, police leaders are struggling with a vexing confluence of events: Resignations and retirements increased after the unrest that followed Floyd's death, and fewer people are pursuing the career. They're bracing too for the impending retirements of officers who joined during the Clinton era.
A study last year by the Police Executive Research Forum found a 45% increase in officer retirements in 2020, compared with the previous year. The report also highlighted an 18% jump in resignations and a 5% decrease in new hires.
In Minneapolis, the problem was particularly acute. The department is down about 300 officers, with roughly 544 on staff at the latest count. Many left amid a flurry of PTSD claims. Huffman said they lost some to nearby departments claiming to offer more stability while Minneapolis residents prepared to vote on whether to replace the department with a new safety agency.
"We're hearing from candidates that they're nervous, they're uncertain about the profession," Huffman said. "This is a tremendous amount of change."
Huffman has been touting the potential to participate in professional development programs and help transform the department. Frey has been saying officers "need to be paid more and fired more," though he's offered few specifics on what raises might look like, citing pending union negotiations.
If Minneapolis offers more incentives, it would join a litany of other agencies doing the same: Indianapolis, which hopes to hire nearly 1,900 officers in the next few years, is offering a $5,000 signing bonus; Spokane, Wash., has billboards as far away as Denver advertising its $15,000 bonus; and the California Highway Patrol has asked for $2 million in annual funding over the next three years to help fill vacancies.
The Minneapolis department has a sergeant assigned full time to recruiting. Huffman said she's attended virtual events, drive-through career fairs and community meetings. The city isn't promising it will fulfill the court order to hire about 190 officers by the end of June to reach 730 — and, in fact, signaled that it may not.
In arguments last month before the Court of Appeals, where the city is challenging the order, Assistant City Attorney Greg Sautter said the latest budget — which includes about $191 million for MPD — "maximizes the amount of hiring that can happen."
"And, hopefully, if it works and we have enough interested candidates, we will bring in 190 new officers over the course of 2022," Sautter said. "But there is no guarantee that's going to happen."
Pugh and former Council Member Don Samuels, who also participated in the lawsuit, see police as part of a larger ecosystem of public safety efforts. Samuels said he frequently does informal violence intervention work trying to calm disputes in the neighborhood "but we always do it with our hands in our pockets on the cellphone knowing that if things go south, we can always call the police and they will be there shortly."
Now, amid a shortage, he said: "I am doing much less intervention than I used to in the past because it is very scary, the level of brazenness and defiance that young people are exhibiting. I'm taking less risk."
Other residents, like Bicking, are uneasy about the idea of trying to hire nearly 200 officers this year. They already questioned the city's ability to recruit quality candidates — based in part on the number of officers accused of misconduct — and fear that the urgency could prompt the city to lower its standards.
Both Frey and Huffman acknowledged the concerns but said they're committed to ensuring new officers are good ones. Candidates must complete an interview, a background check, and psychological and medical screenings.
"We're not sacrificing the evaluation of candidates," Huffman said.
Last year, Minneapolis officials announced a recruitment push that focuses more on social service experience and residency in the city, saying they're looking for "community-minded individuals." They will now give greater weight to people who have degrees and experience in fields such as social service, mental health and substance abuse counseling.
For decades, the conventional wisdom was that more cops equaled safer streets. Police budgets ballooned accordingly. But that assumption has come increasingly into question, particularly after Floyd's death.
Many criminologists are skeptical of the claim that police hiring in the 1990s directly led to lower crime; more likely, they argue, the decrease was the result of a combination of social, economic and environmental factors, ranging from the end of the crack-cocaine epidemic and longer prison sentences to the fall of lead-exposure rates.
Given the crisis in law enforcement, some observers say that departments should be thinking even harder about who they hire, looking for candidates who are more problem-solvers than enforcers. Many believe the city's troubled department needs to start by hiring more people of color and women. Only then, critics say, can the department begin to root out the culture that teaches cops to see every civilian as a threat.