A Minneapolis City Council committee voted against applying for a $1.3 million federal grant that would have allowed the hiring of 10 new officers to beef up traffic enforcement citywide.
Some council members said they were wary of hiring more officers before receiving the results of a police staffing study, expected later this year. Council Member Steve Fletcher, who introduced the motion opposing the grant application, said he worried that the allure of federal grant money could lead to unnecessarily growing the police force.
Unlike bargain shoppers, he said, cities should avoid buying "something just because it's on sale." He also cited concerns that adding officers would only heighten existing racial disparities in vehicle stops, saying the department had failed to hand over traffic stop data, as promised.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services would have paid for hiring, training and deploying 10 new officers over three years. The city still would have been on the hook for roughly $4.6 million to match the grant and cover other expenses.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said after the hearing that he was "disappointed" by the committee's decision, but that his department would continue enforcing traffic laws with the resources at hand.
"I just did not want to miss the opportunity to at least apply," he said. "I just don't have the resources or the capacity right now to really have a full-time engaged team of traffic officers to help with some of those key critical intersections and areas within our city."
His view was echoed by Mayor Jacob Frey, who said the decision potentially leaves money on the table and "shuts the door on support that we may need to accomplish public safety work."
"Approving the application gives us options: either we received the grant if the study calls for more officers, or we reject the grant if the study doesn't call for more officers," he said in a phone interview. "So, my stance is let's listen to what the study says and not make a decision prematurely."
Wednesday's decision comes as the city has sought to prioritize traffic safety, with leaders scheduled to hold a news conference next week to unveil the Vision Zero initiative, aimed at eliminating traffic deaths on city streets by 2027 through changes in street design, enforcement, lowered speed limits and other data-driven strategies.
According to an earlier city presentation, the top five behaviors leading to accidents on Minneapolis streets are all related to driving: speeding, driving under the influence, distracted driving, running red lights and unsafe turning. From 2007 to 2016, an average of 11 people died and 84 were severely injured each year in crashes.
The MPD's four traffic investigators respond to all crashes involving death or serious injuries, but a lack of manpower means that there is little follow-up after most minor accidents, officials say. The department could divert resources to revive its traffic unit, disbanded in 2012, if it were able to hire additional officers, they say.
The 4-2 vote backed by Public Safety and Emergency Management Committee members Fletcher, Alondra Cano, Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison sends the matter back to city staff — effectively killing the proposal, since the grant application deadline is later this month — despite a last-ditch appeal by committee member Linea Palmisano to let the full council take up the issue.
Palmisano and Andrea Jenkins were the only no votes on sending the grant proposal back to staff.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Ellison said that he worried that going ahead with the application would increase pressure on the city to add more officers if the grant is approved.
"Then we're signing ourselves up for four-and-a-half million dollars of investment without real public discussion — that doesn't feel right to me," he said.
The grant money would have also raised the department's allotted strength from 888 officers to 898, another sticking point for some committee members.
Jenkins told her colleagues that she shared their concerns about the timing of the request and whether stepped-up traffic enforcement would only lead to police stopping more black and Latino drivers. But, she said, applying for the grant does "send a signal that we are concerned about the public safety in our communities."
"How are we going to enforce that without a dedicated traffic enforcement unit to be able to monitor and pursue those efforts?" she asked.