Amid its scathing review of how Minneapolis police have escalated encounters with mentally ill people in crisis, the U.S. Department of Justice raised questions about the city's alternative: sending health professionals to many of those calls instead.
The team, launched with just two vans that kept breaking down, struggled to respond swiftly to incidents citywide. There weren't enough staffers to cover weekends. Emergency dispatchers kept sending police when callers asked not to involve them.
The department commended the city for launching the program, called Behavioral Crisis Response, but reported that Mayor Jacob Frey "acknowledged the lack of important information about the program's performance."
Frey and Police Chief Brian O'Hara attended the DOJ announcement last month and promised to cooperate with reforms. Absent was the city's community safety commissioner, Cedric Alexander, whose job is to create a comprehensive model of public safety that marries traditional policing with unarmed alternatives — such as the mental health teams. There wasn't room for him in the program — the DOJ's call, Frey's office said.
In an interview Wednesday, Alexander said he hasn't yet been given the resources to overhaul public safety but that he understood exactly what kind of new system federal officials wanted Minneapolis to adopt.
"I need people to stop criticizing what we do, and sit down and listen to me," he said.
The mayor underscored how large an undertaking it has been to set up the Office of Community Safety, the "biggest change in our entire governance structure in over 100 years."
Meanwhile, the Fire Department has opened up a new addiction drop-in center, unarmed traffic control agents are increasingly taking over from police, and the mobile mental health team has recently hired enough responders to go 24/7. Frey also promised "significant" spending in safety beyond policing will be revealed in his upcoming 2024 budget.
"We haven't been sitting on our hands," he said. "The work is happening right now. It just hasn't been rolled out yet in full because we're trying to do it right."
But some community members say they can't get a response from the Office of Community Safety. And City Council members have faulted the commissioner for having an office full of public relations positions.
Candace Hanson is the owner of Canopy Mental Health and Consulting, which staffs the city's mental health teams. She said her contract expires this summer, and she doesn't know if it will be extended. The city staffer who has been supporting Behavioral Crisis Response since its inception recently departed after suing for racial discrimination. Hanson's budget now falls under the Office of Community Safety, but her attempts to contact Alexander have been unsuccessful, she said.
"I have no idea whether it was intentional, but it was certainly keeping us on the outside of the system," said Hanson. "We're functioning. We're passionate. I really try to insulate [the team] from the frustrations of being disconnected and not feeling like people are taking our service seriously or even cared to keep it up."
In the interview, Alexander said he didn't know who Hanson was, denying that she ever reached out to him. Alexander's aide, Becky Boland, reminded him that Canopy had been requesting a meeting.
"I don't remember that," he said. "There could have been an oversight here because you gotta remember, when I stood up, it was only me ... we were bombarded with a lot of meetings."
In August 2022, Frey appointed Alexander, a police psychologist and police deputy chief from metro Atlanta, to head Minneapolis' new Office of Community Safety. Its purpose was to coordinate the city's five emergency departments — Police, Fire, Emergency Management, 911 and Neighborhood Safety (formerly known as the Office of Violence Prevention).
Alexander, who answers directly to the mayor, was brought in as Minneapolis' highest paid staffer, earning $334,000 — more than Frey and Gov. Tim Walz.
In May, Alexander updated the City Council on his progress. He held weekly meetings with the five department heads to "build relationships." Then came "Operation Endeavor," an effort to reduce violent crime launched in September, and "Operation Memphis," which readied the city for civil unrest following the January release of videos from the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols by five officers in Tennessee.
Alexander also presented his organizational chart — showing a chief of staff, a personal assistant and space for four media specialists, a communications director and an outreach director, in addition to a contracted communications consultant.
Some council members asked why his office was beginning to resemble a public relations firm.
"Folks want to know how we're building a system that can avoid crisis. This feels like it's designed to manage crisis [communications]," Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said.
"We got a lot to do in terms of educating people around the Office of Community Safety," said Alexander.
In Wednesday's interview, Alexander said he wanted to be seen as accessible and that he was direct by nature, unwilling to "tap dance around" at age 68 in a role he considers his "last hurrah."
Alexander said he envisions replacing the city's five police precincts with full-service community centers equipped with social services to fight addiction, homelessness and the other root causes of problems that manifest on the street.
He doesn't have the resources to do it yet, he said.
"We're trying to keep our head above water with the day-to-day safety of this city, with this very limited staff," he said.
No plan to make a plan
Residents of Minneapolis' south-central neighborhoods — the areas roiled by riots following George Floyd's murder in May 2020 — flooded a series of public forums this spring to oppose the city's proposal to rebuild the ransacked Third Precinct police station or construct a new one for twice the price.
Alexander didn't go to the forums, saying that he "did not want to be the focus of the meeting."
His chief of staff, Jared Jeffries, attended a small Longfellow neighborhood association meeting in late May, where attendees asked what the city has done to build emergency services that go beyond policing.
Council Member Andrew Johnson recalled Jeffries said the Office of Community Safety lacked the staff to develop a comprehensive model.
"I interpreted that meeting as him saying, 'This isn't our job in this department, and we're not aware of anyone in City Hall tasked with that,' " Johnson said. "Why it was so alarming is because my understanding of bringing the commissioner into this role was to do that work around reimagining public safety."
Council Member Robin Wonsley recently circulated a memo through City Hall detailing her concerns about Alexander's vision and work plan following a conversation she had with the commissioner this spring.
"During our meeting, Dr. Alexander and his staff shared that they were directed by the mayor to only coordinate existing public safety services in the five departments, and were not directed to lead the development of comprehensive public safety programs and models," Wonsley wrote. "I was quite surprised to hear this."
The mayor responded that while Alexander has been refining the city's existing emergency operations, this built a foundation for expanding policing alternatives in the future.
"I'm looking forward to sharing that progress with all of Council in the months ahead," Frey said.
Following a weekend of mayhem in Dinkytown, the center of University of Minnesota nightlife, officials packed a church basement to take questions from neighbors. Most of the teenagers fighting and setting off fireworks were committing misdemeanors that didn't warrant jailing them, police said, so a member of the audience asked where the city's violence interrupters were during the chaos.
Alexander said he wasn't sure. "But they are a viable resource in our community," he said.
Resident Emma Pederson, who saw Alexander speak during a summer safety meeting in south Minneapolis last month, said the commissioner doesn't offer enough substance or specificity.
"He has always seemed ... like it's a burden to be at public meetings, and like he just frankly doesn't want to be there," Pederson said.
Last September Josh Leopold, the Minnesota Department of Health's senior adviser on homelessness, informed the local police watchdog group Communities United Against Police Brutality that there had been complaints of police confiscating IV drug users' naloxone kits, which are used to reverse opioid overdoses.
Communities United President Michelle Gross met with Alexander in December but heard nothing more for months afterward. She raised the issue again at a public meeting hosted by civil rights lawyer Nekima Levy Armstrong in May. The commissioner said he had only "vague" memories of a conversation about naloxone but thought he may have assigned someone else to handle it.
O'Hara, the police chief, denied hearing anything about officers confiscating naloxone, but he promised to immediately clarify that the medicine is not drug paraphernalia, and must not be seized. He delivered an all-staff memo within the month.
"I'm not very happy that it took me having to go into a public forum to confront Cedric Alexander for follow-up," Gross said.
Two years ago, the city accepted $400,000 in grants from the Pohlad, McKnight, Minneapolis and Joyce foundations to commission Antonio Oftelie, the U.S. federal monitor for Seattle's consent decree, to create a timeline of actions for Minneapolis to transform public safety.
Oftelie said last July that he would develop enough of a plan to give the community safety commissioner "a seamless flow of work" as soon as he stepped into the role.
A year later, Oftelie's plan is still under review by city staff. It is scheduled to be presented to the City Council's public safety committee on July 12.
This week, the Office of Community Safety received council approval to hire another staff member: an outreach director who would be paid $97,455 to $115,526.
The request prevailed after Council Members Latrisha Vetaw and Emily Koski took it away from the budget committee, where it did not have enough support, and put it to a vote by the City Council on Wednesday, when three Muslim council members were out observing Eid.
Council President Andrea Jenkins praised Alexander and the Office of Community Safety for "Operation Swift Summer," which coordinated security for the Taylor Swift concert, Pride, Taste of Minnesota and July 4th.
"It marks a significant point in the city and shows that we are strong and vibrant as we continue our recovery from COVID-19 as well as the uprisings that have rocked our city," she said.