The University of Minnesota has tapped an outside expert to review its campus police department's policies and practices in response to student demands for accountability following George Floyd's death.

Cedric Alexander, a former police chief and member of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, began the review this month. He will assess campus security practices and how they are perceived by the student body and advise school leaders on how to improve the relationship between students and police.

"The University of Minnesota Police Department, which continues to serve our Twin Cities campus admirably and has built a reputation for responsible public safety, still reflects that there's opportunity for continuous improvement," U President Joan Gabel told the Board of Regents earlier this month.

Students have ramped up their scrutiny of campus cops since Floyd's death, with some calling for them to be disarmed and governed by a citizen panel. The university's police department has 53 sworn officers who carry firearms while on duty, according to a school spokeswoman. Others say the university's police force has a clean track record and does not deserve such scrutiny at a time when crime near campus is rising — 13 robberies have been reported near campus since mid-August.

Alexander, who lives in Florida, said he will soon visit the Twin Cities campus and meet with students, faculty, community members and officers. He wants to immerse himself in the U community to get a "truthful impression and understanding of what the dynamics are."

A trained clinical psychologist, Alexander said he will dig deep in his conversations with campus groups to see what events caused fractures in the relationship between students and the university's police force. He expects his review will last through the fall semester, after which he will submit to U leaders a report of recommendations on advancing police-community relations.

"Whatever it is that people in the community, in the university community, are experiencing, it didn't just start with George Floyd," Alexander said.

A statement from the U's Department of Public Safety said officers look forward to working with Alexander and finding ways to better serve the campus community.

Students for a Democratic Society at the U released a statement earlier this month criticizing Gabel for entrusting a former police officer to lead the review. They called on U leaders to establish a Campus Community Police Accountability Council made up of students, faculty and community members that would be charged with hiring and firing officers and overseeing the department's budget. The group has also called for U officers to be disarmed.

"I think we've seen the administration really fail to hold UMPD accountable in the past," said Olivia Crull, a recent U graduate and lead organizer with the group.

Over the summer, Crull said university police showed up in riot gear to peaceful student protests held after Floyd's death. She also referenced a 2018 incident in which police were called to a cultural event hosted by the Somali Student Association at Northrop auditorium. The student group said in a statement after its event that university and Minneapolis police officers pushed attendees to the ground, pulled a woman by her hijab and sprayed a chemical irritant at some teenagers.

A university spokeswoman said at the time that officers were responding to a fight between attendees. Campus officers could not stop a fight between approximately "30 to 40 youth" and phoned for backup from other departments, U Police Chief Matt Clark told the Minnesota Daily in 2018. Officers used chemical irritant and "minimal force" to intervene, he added.

Kirby Gibson, president of the U's College Republicans, said he believes the review of campus police is unnecessary since they were not involved in Floyd's death. He said he does not think officers should be disarmed, noting that crime near campus has surged recently.

"I feel like there's a lot of anti-cop sentiments on campus, and with [crime] going on right now, I think it would be completely ridiculous to keep pushing this idea of disarming the UMPD," he said.

Rash of robberies

There have been nearly a dozen robberies — some at gunpoint — near campus in recent weeks.

A man used a gun to steal a victim's purse just before 2:45 p.m. Tuesday near S. 5th Street and S. 21st Avenue by the U's West Bank campus.

On Sept. 12, two suspects brandished a gun and took a driver's wallet and 2020 BMW near SE. 14th Avenue and SE. 8th Street.

Clark, the U's police chief, noted that crime near campus generally rises when students return for the fall and spring semesters. However, he said, this particular surge coincides with a citywide increase in robberies, carjackings and other crime. In some cases, suspects are using vehicles they steal to commit robberies across the metro area, he added.

A total of 62 violent crimes were reported in Minneapolis' Second Precinct, which includes the U and surrounding neighborhoods, between Aug. 1 and Sept. 16, according to police data. That tally is the highest in the past five years when looking at that specific span.

"We're seeing that with our campus area and the surrounding neighborhoods," Clark said.

Minneapolis Police Second Precinct Inspector Todd Loining said suspects in these cases generally do not live near the U campus. They come to the area at night looking for easy targets, he said, such as college students who are traveling alone and not watching their surroundings.

Officers are working with Dinkytown businesses and have asked some to distribute crime prevention leaflets to student customers, Loining said. They have also hung anti-theft placards on parked mopeds reminding owners to lock them up.

Due to staffing struggles within the Minneapolis police ranks, there are fewer beat cops walking the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood near the U, Loining said. A community response team that investigates suspicious activity reported by residents likewise has "taken a tremendous hit."

"We're getting into critical staffing mode and we're not sure what's going to happen," he said.

U senior Dave Villarama, who lives in an apartment in Dinkytown, said the recent crime uptick is somewhat worrying, but not "to the point where I'm freaking out about it."

"I think it's very important to keep in perspective that the U is a very big community," Villarama said. "I don't think the crime that's going on is truly impacting the lives of the vast majority of students."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth