The long-running debate over how many police officers a city the size of Minneapolis needs has heated up, with Police Chief Medaria Arradondo again asking for more officers to account for population growth.

Speaking at a public meeting earlier this year, Arradondo emphasized the need to increase police staffing at a time when law enforcement agencies are increasingly being asked to address issues arising from social conditions like poverty, inadequate housing and isolation. He repeated his desire to raise the department's allotted strength from 888 sworn officers to 1,000 as the city continues to grow.

"I wouldn't be married to 1,000, meaning that it could be more than that," he said, echoing concerns of the police union that staffing problems in some patrol sectors were leaving parts of the city without enough protection.

Some days, officers spend most of their shifts racing from call to call, leaving little time to build meaningful relationships with the public, he said. The increased workload, he added, also takes a psychological toll.

And despite a continued downturn in violence, units like robbery and domestic assault are "saddled with unreasonable caseloads" that let crimes go unsolved and suspects walk free, he said.

"When victims do feel that their cases are not adequately investigated or investigated at all because of resources, that chips away at public trust," Arradondo said, adding he'd like to hire more sexual assault detectives in light of the Star Tribune's "Denied Justice" series, which documented serious lapses in how state law enforcement agencies investigate rape. This, as response times vary widely in parts of the city.

The issue of understaffing resurfaced at a public meeting in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood last week where Deputy Chief Art Knight told residents frustrated by a recent spate of violence that: "Every investigative unit that we have right now is short-staffed."

The cost of hiring, training and equipping a new officer is about $95,000 in the first year, and $110,000 a year after that, which comes out of the department's $184.9 million budget.

But police staffing has become a politically explosive issue in recent years, with some calling for divesting from the department and instead funding community groups already working on crime prevention.

Anika Bowie, vice president of the local NAACP chapter, is torn over the idea of fighting rising gun violence by hiring more cops, which she said could add to the trauma that many minorities experience in neighborhoods under constant police scrutiny.

"I don't believe we should have an expansion of officers if the culture of law enforcement is still rooted in fear," she said.

Too often, cities, desperate for a quick fix to the problem of crime, assume the only solution is to hire more police, without considering other approaches, said Justin Terrell.

"Is our goal to show up and enforce laws, or is our goal to create community safety? Because my thing is by the time we call 911, the safety has already been violated," said Terrell, who serves as executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage.

While Arradondo has admitted that police aren't the best response for some 911 calls, he insists that they remain the most "visible arm of the government" — and are therefore the most likely to be called in a crisis.

Politically, department leaders face an uphill battle in hiring more officers, with a City Council that has shown less enthusiasm than its predecessors for expanding the department's size.

Council Member Steve Fletcher, who sits on the public safety committee, said he could envision a time in the next five to 10 years when the department will be "smaller and more collaborative, so that we're putting the right workforce with the right professional expertise, toward the right problems."

"We would need to know that the tactics and practices and outcomes of the MPD were achieving our public safety and racial equity goals of the city, and we would need to know that increased staffing would result in achieving those goals," Fletcher said.

Hiring difficulties

Minneapolis grew by about 10 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to Metropolitan Council estimates, putting the number of residents, now about 422,000, on pace to reach nearly 450,000 by the end of the decade.

The department peaked at 916 officers in 2008, but the numbers dropped that year after a hiring freeze brought on by the recession. By 2017, the city had about two officers for every 1,000 residents — more than Oakland and San Antonio, but fewer than other major Midwestern cities like Milwaukee. St. Paul's ratio is about on par with Minneapolis.

In the intervening decade, the ratio of officers to residents in Minneapolis dropped about 15 percent — a bigger decline than most large U.S. cities, according to a Star Tribune analysis of the most recent FBI data — which means not only are fewer officers on staff compared to a decade ago, but more people are under their watch, exacerbating the gap.

But police union president Lt. Bob Kroll said that focusing on the department's overall staffing numbers is an oversimplification, since only about 50 percent of the force regularly responds to 911 calls.

"We're running with the same numbers that we had 20 years ago," said Kroll, who has argued that the graying department needs more cops to fill vacancies brought on by retirements and other departures.

The request for added manpower comes at a time when the department is making far fewer arrests and traffic stops, while responding to about a third more calls for service since 2010.

For example, incidents involving "emotionally disturbed persons" increased almost 70 percent between 2013 and 2017.

Such calls also tend to tie up multiple squads at one scene, sometimes for hours, leaving fewer cops to respond to emergencies in other parts of the city, officials point out.

That crime is down as the department has beefed up its patrols downtown is no coincidence, said attorney Joe Tamburino, board chair of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association.

"Yes, crime is down, but it's not just because we got lucky: It's because we put extra police on the scene," he said.

Yet, research on how increasing the number of officers affects crime rates remains mixed at best, experts say.

Tens of thousands of officer jobs remain unfilled since the economic downturn, with cash-strapped departments starting to consider new approaches to crime reduction, said Chris Burbank, the former police chief in Salt Lake City.

"We need to start changing the community expectation that policing is not about just getting people off the street — policing also incorporates social services that comes into play long before they call 911," said Burbank, who now serves as vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity, a New York-based think tank.

At the same time, recruitment has slowed.

Kroll said he worried that fewer people are applying for police work or enrolling in criminal justice programs, creating a hiring crisis that Arradondo likened to that facing the nursing industry.

"We've got 40,000 more in population, not to mention the workforce that comes into the city has substantially increased, not to mention the nightlife that comes into the city," he said.

Staff writer CJ Sinner contributed to this report.

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