A group of Minneapolis city officials and civilians is exploring whether 911 calls that are deemed less serious could be diverted to other government agencies, a move that would allow police to focus on more urgent calls that demand immediate response.

The new debate is emerging as police have weathered intense criticism for the high number of emergency calls that get no immediate response and an ongoing political battle over police staffing.

"When people talk about the need for more officers, I think prior to having that discussion we need to continue some of this work," said Pete Gamades, a member of the group.

The work group is expected to forward its recommendations to the City Council in November.

Andrea Larson, the city's director of strategic management, said the work group — made up of members of the police, fire, IT, and health departments, the City Attorney's Office, and six civilians — had made important progress after two meetings over the summer.

"The work group was formed to essentially address and look at all of the 911 calls that come into the city, the many aspects of how we respond and new ideas to leverage current or new resources in and out of the city differently," Larson said during her presentation before the Public Safety Committee.

Assistant City Attorney Burt Osborne said that under state law police officers are required to respond to any calls where an arrest is likely.

"There are certain categories of calls that require a peace officer response, such as domestic abuse calls where an arrest might have to be made," he said. "Any call that would require a Code 2 or Code 3 rapid response, a police officer has to do that."

The way the law is written, Osborne explained, only an officer can respond to cases such as a person with a gun, but there is a little more gray area for less serious offenses.

"There are broad categories of 911 calls such as anything that would just require a report, for instance a noninjury vehicle accident, things like that — we already do some of that as a city, with regards to parking issues and things like that," he said.

Some council members have publicly questioned whether some of these calls should be rerouted to agencies like Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE), which deals with cases that involve mental health emergencies.

But police are often the first responders to calls reporting trouble because people may have no one else to turn to, says Assistant Police Chief Mike Kjos.

"We're having a lot of discussions about would, maybe, a social worker be the right resource for some issue or maybe a traffic controller agent to handle some parking complaint, rather than sending a squad," Kjos said after the hearing.

While no statistics were presented during the committee meeting, the group has had access to data showing two years' worth of 911 call trends. Between July 2017 and June 2019, police responded to:

• 115,045 Priority 1 calls, which include domestic abuse and assaults in progress, shots fired and reports of a person with a gun.

• 125,045 Priority 2 calls, which include property damage, suspicious people or drug activity.

• 29,124 calls for the less serious Priority 3 calls, which include reports of a loud party or a road hazard.

Just 20% of criminal offenses accounted for 80% of all 911 calls for service, led by theft reports, with 5,991 cases. The 3rd Precinct, the city's largest by geographical size, accounted for the most 911 calls (76,504, or roughly 28%), slightly more than the 4th Precinct (70,571, or 26%).

The ongoing debate over police manpower resurfaced last week after a video of a man getting beaten and robbed by a large group of youths earlier this summer went viral and made national headlines.

Backers of Chief Medaria Arradondo's proposal for hiring 400 new officers by 2025 argue that the extra manpower is needed to combat rising violence in parts of Minneapolis. Mayor Jacob Frey is calling for funding to hire 14 more officers next year, a plan that has divided the council.

Even with crime rates hovering near historic lows, police officials say that more officers are needed because the department's call volume has increased significantly, as police are increasingly being asked to address issues arising from social conditions like poverty, inadequate housing and isolation. At the same time, Minneapolis, like other departments nationally, is having a tougher time recruiting and hanging on to new officers. Heavy workloads result in slower response times while also taking a physical and psychological toll on police, officials say.

In an editorial in the Star Tribune last week, Council Member Steve Fletcher wrote that the department is struggling to manage the flow of retirements, 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," he said.

But Kjos said staffing levels have lagged for years, arguing that the extra officers are needed to account for population growth.

"We used to patrol downtown with two squads, and now we have 100 officers down here and it's not enough," he said.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany