Knowing the city of Minneapolis could erupt in riots again, city and state officials say they have learned from the unrest following the death of George Floyd and will better respond to trouble in the future.
They’re improving their communication and planning. They have contingency plans to deploy personnel. Still, they face the challenges of a dwindling Minneapolis police force, a technologically limited 911 system and the uncertainty of when and where more unrest might occur.
“I would be foolish to try and go on record and try to guarantee safety. I can’t do that,” said John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. “I will tell you that we are moving very quickly forward with plans … to try to make sure, if we had more civil unrest, or we had more protests that were getting out of control, that we would have a robust law enforcement approach to responding to that.”
The stakes are high. Many of the business owners and residents who were devastated by the destruction in May are still recovering, both psychologically and financially.
More than half the businesses damaged on Lake Street, one of the hardest hit areas, have reopened, said Allison Sharkey, executive director of the Lake Street Council. Many of the others, already worried about their finances, are considering whether they can keep their employees safe from the pandemic and from any future violence.
“A lot of business owners and their friends and relatives spent all day and all night for a week at their building, and some are still sleeping at their business to keep an eye on it,” Sharkey said. “It was traumatizing. There’s a high, high degree of stress that we were hearing from business owners afterward.”
Now, she said, “I have heard people concerned about what happens when the trial finishes up, as it’s so hard to convict people on this kind of situation. People are worried about future unrest.”
City and state officials say they are monitoring intelligence from their partners and trying to stay in close contact as they remain on alert for future flash points that could result in unrest. Some of those flash points include the presidential election and trials for the former officers charged in Floyd’s death, events whose timing can be predicted.
They’re also closely monitoring the court calendars and filings for hints about other developments whose dates are less certain. Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who’s presiding over the trial of the four ex-officers, could rule at any point on requests to dismiss charges or move the trial location.
Harrington said he begins his day with a briefing from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on protests and events that are likely to draw large crowds. He said he also reaches out to local law enforcement agencies to ask if they have the resources they need.
When they do have the chance to plan in advance, Harrington said they are trying to set up systems that allow for quicker communication between agencies. In May, nearly four days elapsed between Floyd’s death and the creation of a Multi-Agency Command Center, which allowed a larger group of city and state officials to work out of the same location.
That coordination could be crucial to responding to future unrest, as the city expects it would have to rely on help from other agencies if there were wide-scale destruction.
Minneapolis police, strained by a wave of officer resignations, have reorganized their force to focus on responding to 911 calls and investigating crimes. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he is also in touch with other agencies that could provide mutual aid.
The city could also rely on the National Guard, which it has requested or asked to remain on standby multiple times since Floyd’s death. Both Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Gov. Tim Walz came under criticism for how long it took to deploy the Guard in May.
Since then, the city and the state have moved more quickly. The National Guard was activated this summer when a homicide suspect shot himself on Nicollet Mall, prompting false social media reports that officers had killed him. The city also requested the National Guard, as a precaution, when Vice President Mike Pence visited the Twin Cities.
“We are operating off of an abundance of caution, and sometimes that means activation and readiness when ultimately it turns out they’re not needed,” Frey said.
In addition to preparing to bring in more first responders, the city is taking additional steps to increase security and minimize destruction.
The city will place unarmed civilians, known as sergeants at arms, in polling places to monitor security there and coordinate requests for extra help, if it’s needed. In advance of contentious events, the Public Works Department also sends workers to remove items from streets, sidewalks and construction sites that could be used as projectiles.
The city said it is working to improve its 911 operations, should an emergency arise again, but stressed that it also needs aid from state and regional partners to make long-term changes to the system.
During the unrest in May, many people complained that they couldn’t get through to 911 quickly. City Coordinator Mark Ruff said the city’s 911 center would have needed twice as many staff to handle the call volume and that many of the calls were actually better suited for the 311 department or a police tip line.
In the future, Ruff said, the city hopes to be more proactive about telling people where they should direct certain types of calls in hopes of reducing the deluge at the 911 center. He said they could also rely on help from other institutions to provide additional dispatchers.
But, he cautioned, there are technological limitations that make it difficult for cities and the state to quickly share some call and dispatch information when their systems are overwhelmed. State and local public safety groups are working to get new technology but caution that it’s expensive and could take several years to implement.
“We’ve done everything that we can within our powers … to make sure we’re being as responsive as we can in the case of 911, with the technological limitations that exist,” Ruff said.
Both city and state leaders say they are also working to make sure that more firefighters are able to assist, if needed, and that they have the security they need to get safely to and from fire scenes. In May, angry crowds hurled objects at firefighters, triggering calls for protection from the National Guard or from police, who were already stretched thin.
Arradondo said police are “certainly making sure we have as many of our full time personnel ready to respond to emerging events.”
If there is more unrest, Arradondo said they will work to try to prevent destruction. But, he added, “The number one priority is preservation of life, and that is nonnegotiable.”