The continued surge of Minneapolis police officers seeking disability benefits after the George Floyd unrest is heightening concerns of a police staffing shortage amid a wave of violent crime.
Ron Meuser Jr., the lawyer handling the claims, said his office met with an additional 43 Minneapolis cops this week who have retained him. That’s in addition to the estimated 150 officers who Meuser said at a July 10 news conference had retained him. And it brings the total closer to 200 now, out of a sworn force of about 850.
Meuser said most of the officers starting the disability paperwork leave their jobs fairly quickly on a medical leave. The disability claims process can take up to six months.
He said his office has “dozens and dozens” of more appointments with officers scheduled for next week. “The curve has not flattened,” Meuser said. “We are signing up a staggering number of officers every day right now.”
The increase in officers seeking to file disability claims comes as the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) faces unprecedented public criticism following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in May. The City Council has advanced a plan that could end the police department and replace it with a broader community safety department that may or may not have licensed peace officers. Voters would have to approve the change.
Meanwhile, the city has been rocked by an explosion of gun violence.
Meuser said he thinks the city faces a significant police staffing shortage. The vast majority of officers retaining him are seasoned veterans, he said, averaging about 48 years old with at least 20 years of experience. The majority of the duty-related disability claims are for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, related to the Floyd unrest.
The stress is cumulative, he said. The unrest and hostility unleashed by the death of Floyd aggravated conditions that officers have experienced for a long time and muscled through, he said. “It further impaired their ability to cope.”
According to city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie, there is no legal obligation for an officer to notify the MPD that they are submitting an application for disability benefits with the Public Employees Retirement Association, which administers the benefits plans. So the MPD does not necessarily know which officers on a temporary medical leave are seeking long-term disability. The process requires two medical reports confirming the condition, one of which must come from a licensed medical doctor.
Meuser dismissed the idea he could be drumming up business by being public about the deluge.
“I have plenty of money,” he said. “If anything, the rate at which we’re taking on these officers is putting a great deal of stress on me and my staff.”
A spokeswoman for the city said that as of Friday, 111 MPD officers are on some type of medical leave, including 40 PTSD claims filed since May 26.
When asked about the loss of so many officers and how the MPD was coping, police spokesman John Elder said: “Staff will be moved to areas necessary to meet the primary goal of law enforcement, public safety.”
Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo took up the staffing issue at Friday’s City Council meeting. They confirmed that 65 officers have left the force so far this year for various reasons. The normal attrition rate is about 45 officers per year. Disability claims, however, are difficult to track, Arradondo said, because “they kind of filter in” from outside the department.
“There is also a level of people who are just going on leave in some form,” Frey noted. “That also raises a flag as to whether that individual might ultimately leave in some other form, like more completely. Those wouldn’t necessarily be included in the numbers that we just shared.”
“It is also happening at the fire department, but the numbers are definitely higher at MPD,” Frey said.
The departures add a new layer to an already contentious debate about how to reshape policing following Floyd’s death, and they are factoring into the city’s budget talks.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, during a different public meeting, noted that the MPD is currently budgeted for 888 officers but isn’t likely to hit its full strength this year. He said he hopes the city will work to “right-size” the department’s force and budget and consider making more investments in violence prevention.
“As we’re seeing people losing faith in our … current public safety system, as we’re seeing communities needing support because of the increase in violent crime, we’re also seeing, quite frankly, our police force express a deep resentment of our city and abandoning our city,” Ellison said. “We’re seeing that in the form of officers either resigning or, you know, making claims of harm that they themselves caused and taking advantage of that.”
Council Member Linea Palmisano asked him to confirm whether he was referring to the PTSD claims.
“I was referring generally to the fact that we do have officers for whatever reason, and it’s not my place to say what that reason is, but we do have officers who are rushing to find their way out of their obligation to our constituents in a myriad of ways,” Ellison said.
Palmisano cautioned against attributing motives to the departures and said MPD officials have assured her that officers are continuing to respond to calls. Council Member Andrew Johnson added that he wanted to encourage city workers who might be experiencing PTSD symptoms to seek help if needed.
In a separate meeting earlier this week, Arradondo cautioned against making major cuts to the force while they’re struggling to rein in shootings. He noted that not all the remaining officers are available to respond to 911 calls. Some, like the chief, hold supervisory roles that require administrative work. Others, such as detectives, focus on investigating crimes after they occur.
In response to council members’ questions about the adequacy of street patrols, Arradondo said the department is reorganizing units to get resources where they are needed. For example, more officers are being shifted to precincts from 911 call center work they had been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really has to be an all-hands-on-deck approach,” he said.
Meuser said neither the city nor the police department has contacted him about the surge in officers seeking disability benefits.
Sgt. Sherral Schmidt, vice president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the police union, said the union hasn’t been tracking the officers starting the disability claim process, but has no reason to dispute Meuser’s numbers. She said she knows that “a fair number” of officers have taken personal leaves since the unrest.
Losing 200 to 250 officers would have “a really detrimental effect on our police department and how they provide services,” she said.
At last week’s news conference, Meuser said that at least 13 officers were inside the Third Precinct building when Frey ordered them to evacuate. Some wrote farewells to loved ones and others told him that they were saving a bullet for themselves.
“Those are all true stories,” Schmidt said, adding that she was told there were 54 officers left in the station. “I met with a cop last week … who broke down in tears and said ‘My department left me in there to die.’ What do you say to that?”
“Morale is probably the lowest I’ve ever seen it in my almost 23 years in the department,” she said. “Cops are fearful they’re going to show up one day and they’re not going to have a job. It’s affecting them and their families greatly.”
When asked if the wave of disability claims could be a form of work slowdown, Schmidt called that an “absolutely ridiculous claim.”
MPD officers have been accused of staging work slowdowns before. In 2016, North Side officers were accused of a work slowdown after intense public criticism officers faced for the 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark.