Davion Jones never had much use for the Minneapolis Police Department growing up.
From an early age, he saw its officers not as protectors, but as unwanted authority figures who were quick to pull over young Black men like him, talk to them disrespectfully and force them to sit handcuffed on the curb, in full view of passing motorists — run-ins, he said, that left him traumatized and humiliated. And so instead of calling 911, his family "figured out our problems a whole different way," which landed Jones in trouble with the law more than once.
"I'd rather call my grandma than I'd call the police. My grandma's 70-something years old, you feel me? She's getting old," said Jones, 28. "And I would call her before I call a 19-year-old police officer or a 37-year-old police officer."
With citywide elections looming in November, Minneapolis faces a choice about what the future of policing looks like and whether the MPD can reshape itself into the needs of a changed world often full of mistrust for law enforcement since George Floyd's murder and the protests and riots that followed.
Voters will consider a proposed charter amendment, which in removing a minimum police staffing requirement would pave the way for a new public safety agency that would send unarmed civil service groups to handle 911 calls involving homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness, while maintaining a smaller number of armed "peace officers" to respond to violent crimes.
Jones looked on early this month as Police Chief Medaria Arradondo spoke with community members at Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis. He was among other blue hoodie-clad members of Emerge, a program that helps people whose prior contacts with the criminal justice system have made it hard to secure jobs and housing.
But just as Jones is skeptical of calling police, Pastor Ian Bethel of New Beginnings Baptist Tabernacle Church scoffed at the notion that social workers could replace law enforcement. "I ain't calling no social worker," said Bethel, who opposes the proposed amendment. "I'll call the social worker after I get with law enforcement."
Robin Wonsley Worlobah, a housing advocate who is running for the Second Ward City Council seat, said the amendment's opponents are seizing on the anxiety around crime by suggesting "that no public safety infrastructure will exist, and that's a lie." From an early age, people have been taught to associate public safety with police, she says, making it hard for them to imagine alternatives to traditional policing — even though other models exist for keeping communities safe.
"We actually have the opportunity to usher in some policy measures that will effectively reverse decades of trauma," she said, adding that the current system of policing has always sought to protect property and the interests of those in power — usually at the expense of Black, brown and Indigenous communities.
A Minnesota Poll last month found that 55% of Minneapolis voters oppose reducing the size of the city's police force. In the poll, 75% of Black voters opposed reducing the police force, compared with 51% of white voters. Half of white voters said they supported replacing the department compared with 42% of Black voters.
The election comes at a crucial moment for the city's depleted police force, which has been stretched thin keeping up with rising violent crime while trying to address morale and staffing problems. In some ways, the MPD today already resembles the type of department that some reformists are pushing for: smaller, with a narrower scope of work.
The department is down roughly 300 officers since Floyd's death because of a combination of retirements, resignations and an unprecedented number of PTSD claims.
In a public meeting Wednesday, city staff said employees filed 189 workers' compensation claims for PTSD between the date of Floyd's death and Sept. 2. The total number of officers has now dipped to 588 — from an authorized strength of 888 last year — putting the department on par with St. Paul, which has 523 cops. Traffic and suspicious-persons stops plummeted nearly 70% since 2017, from 36,451 to 11,031 so far this year — a decline officials blame on limited staffing, officers' reluctance to be proactive because of a backlash against policing, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arrests and searches are also down, although racial disparities persist.
The need to rebuild trust
With its future hanging in the balance, the embattled department is also staring down state and federal investigations into whether its officers regularly violated the civil rights of residents, which could bring sweeping changes. The latter probe was launched after the city agreed to pay the Floyd family a record $27 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit — part of the roughly $72 million in civil settlements that has been paid out since 2006 for alleged abuses or unnecessary force by its officers, city records show.
Last week, Arradondo told the audience at Shiloh Temple that talk of reducing the force was "absolutely ridiculous." But in a recent interview, he said the department needed to learn from Floyd's death and other mistakes, pointing to the need to rebuild trust.
"It's going to take each and every man and woman who wears this uniform to go out and build that back up again," he said. "I will also say that even though we are a third of a department down, hiring gives us a great opportunity to bring on those new officers to help instill that new culture."
Staggering increases in gun violence may have dampened support for the charter change, even among those outraged by police brutality.
Across the city, most people agree that the MPD needs to change, but philosophical differences arise over the question of how. Some argue that the best way to move the department forward is by working with Arradondo, the city's first Black police chief, and other department officials pushing for change. Others say the answer starts with limiting the types of emergencies that police respond to and hiring more officers with ties to the communities they patrol.
But the belief remains among many that the current model of policing is beyond fixing. To them, the question isn't whether MPD can be saved, but whether it should be.
Discussion of the department's future has ramped up in recent weeks after the release of body camera footage following Jaleel Stallings' acquittal for returning fire at officers in self-defense after they fired "less lethal" munitions at him in the days after Floyd's death. The footage showed them beating him after he surrendered, and an officer making racist remarks while another talked about "hunting people."
Toussaint Morrison dismissed recent policy changes as performative, saying he has a hard time seeing a department long accused of racism and use of excessive force changing. Morrison, a filmmaker and community organizer, was on the front lines of large protests after the police killings of Dolal Idd in Minneapolis and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, where he saw officers firing tear gas and other less-lethal munitions at protesters demanding an end to police violence.
"There is no series of Robin DiAngelo books, anti-racist workshops or literatures that is going to change what's on the other side of that fence," he said.
But Michelle Gross, of the group Communities United Against Police Brutality, worries that the proposed charter changes amount to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." She thinks there is a path forward for the department, but only if the city finally pursues meaningful reforms, like creating a civilian review board with the power to subpoena and fire cops. Other cities have transformed their police departments, she said, pointing to Newark, N.J., and Cincinnati, which after a U.S. Justice Department investigation in 2001 embraced a data-driven strategy that says police shouldn't just respond to calls, but should also look for patterns at crime hot spots and seek solutions.
In the months since Floyd's death, Arradondo and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey have announced a series of policy changes, including bans on police chokeholds and certain traffic stops, as well as a requirement that officers intervene if a colleague uses improper force. The department has also tried reign in "no-knock warrants." And Frey is seeking to restore all the police budget cuts passed by the council.
Former Minneapolis police officer Scott Dahlquist said the conversations around policing reflect a "real shift in the fundamental underpinnings of what a police department is, and what it does, and what people want it to do." But he dismisses the "Defund the Police" movement as full of grandiose ideas and out of touch with the realities of life in high-crime areas.
"I honestly don't know what the officers who are left are thinking," said Dahlquist, who retired in 2014 after 26 years, primarily as a patrol officer in the North Side's Fourth Precinct. "I don't think it's going to increase their motivation a whole lot."
Margarita Ortega, a longtime organizer at the Little Earth Native American housing community, said she began to support the charter amendment after she realized that it wasn't going to get rid of all police. But she hoped that its advocates would take seriously the concerns of "our most vulnerable communities, our most crime-stricken communities."
"From my community I heard, 'Yes we need the police, but no, we don't need to be harassed,' " she said.
Like many North Siders, Susan Breedlove, a longtime educator, has a complicated relationship with the police. She considers former MPD Chief Tim Dolan a friend and hugs Arradondo whenever she sees him. But Breedlove, who is white, still shudders when she remembers the night that six officers dragged her biracial grandson out of his car after pulling him over for having an air freshener dangling from his mirror — an episode that bears a strong resemblance to the traffic stop that ended in the shooting death of Wright in Brooklyn Center. "Things haven't changed," she said.
Maddie Pederson, a former MPD recruit, said for progress to happen, the department needs to start holding bad officers accountable, and said it sends the wrong message when officers like Art Knight — a Black former deputy chief who sued the department after being demoted for speaking out about what he saw as discriminatory hiring practices — are disciplined, while no cops who used force against protesters last summer have been reprimanded.
"I think he was trying to stand up for change and I think that what he did was brave and I think what he was saying was absolutely true," Pederson, who with her sister, Emma, has in recent years tried to bring attention to concerns with the department's recruitment process.
As the federal "pattern and practice" investigation continues, local officials are bracing for the possibility the department could end up under a consent decree — a court-ordered settlement with the Department of Justice requiring certain reforms.
Such arrangements, which have been revived by the Biden administration, are costly and time-consuming affairs that tend to be complicated in departments like Minneapolis with strong unions, according to Ronal Serpas, a criminology professor at Loyola University New Orleans who ran police departments in Nashville and New Orleans. Officials in Seattle entered into a consent decree to address issues ranging from excessive force to biased policing, expecting to reach full compliance with the 100-paragraph document in five years. But nine years later, the department remains under federal oversight with no real end in sight. Oakland has been under one for 20 years.
Michael Lansing, a professor of history at Augsburg University, said that the MPD has lurched through cycles of reform, going back at least seven decades to the mid-1940s, when Hubert Humphrey ran for mayor on the promise of cleaning up the city's Police Department, which had gained a reputation for brutality for its crackdown on a truckers' strike in 1934.
"Seventy-five years later, George Floyd is murdered," Lansing said. "That's 75 years of reform."
When Tony Bouza, a brash-talking reformer from New York, was hired in 1980 to try to depoliticize the department, he said the MPD of the 1970s had become a "monstrous and grotesque spoils system." One of his first actions was trying to discipline an officer who'd robbed a sauna by putting a gun to its manager's head.
Arradondo last week said recognizing historical trauma caused by the department is vital to healing. "You have to acknowledge that, because if you're truly trying to move forward, they need to know that you genuinely accept the fact that 'your actions harmed me,' " he said.
This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Staff writers Liz Navratil and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany