Don Samuels' legal mission to force the city of Minneapolis to hire more police officers had just come to an end when he met two tearful women down his block who told him they were too scared to walk to the store.

He was struck by the vulnerability of these North Side renters in their 50s, standing outside a slumlord's bullet-pocked house, and wondered: What are we asking of these women? To the south stood the gas station where two people had been shot last month; to the west, homes hastily left by neighbors fleeing gunfire.

The court battle was over, still the deeper problems surrounded him.

The legal outcome gives "a certain sense of assurance: don't mess with cop numbers, don't defund the police," he said. "We're hoping that the message has been sent and we're now going on to the real work."

Samuels, 73, has become the face of the backlash against calls to reduce the police force since George Floyd's murder – illuminating the divides among the political left on public safety and attracting national attention for nearly unseating U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in the Democratic primary after campaigning on crime. He has presented himself as the elder statesman calling for a return to order in chaotic times – or, as his opponents characterize it, for preservation of business as usual when public safety needs radical transformation.

Samuels and seven other North Side plaintiffs agreed last week to drop their lawsuit against the city, deciding that Mayor Jacob Frey's budget called for enough police officers to meet the minimum required by the municipal charter.

In the end, what was it all for? And what happens now?

The crusade for Democrats to preserve policing, the battle for moderation in a time of extremes – whatever Samuels and his allies wanted to call it — the whole matter began for him, in some ways, with a stolen ATM.

As rioters besieged his neighborhood in May 2020, Samuels saw a cluster of young people on W. Broadway attack the U.S. Bank cash machine with crowbars and hammers, drawing, at one point, up to 150 people who showed no fear of police driving by. Hordes of officers were leaving the force, the ones who remained dedicated to the job were rushing from one crisis to the next, and Samuel realized that the external constraints on people's behavior had disappeared, ushering in a new lawlessness.

Violence was also soaring, locally and nationally. Weeks later, a majority of the City Council announced plans to defund and dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. Cathy Spann, the executive director of Samuels' neighborhood council, began talking to lawyers about suing the city over allowing police ranks to thin and leave her unprotected.

Fellow North Siders decided Spann shouldn't do it alone; seven others, including Samuels and his wife, Sondra, would sue the city together. They retained the Upper Midwest Law Center, a "center-right" nonprofit that works with the conservative Center of the American Experiment. Samuels, a former city councilman and school board member, said Spann phoned everybody she could think of to represent them pro bono. "They are the only ones who said yes … and so you have to say to yourself, 'OK, are we going to be loyal to our families and our children, or are we going to be loyal to the Democratic Party?' "

Samuels insisted he wanted more police accountability and alternatives as well, though a few critics thought he was less vocal on that end of his "both and" approach. Ultimately, Minneapolis lost about one-third of its police force not because of a loss of funding, but because officers left of their own accord following Floyd's murder, largely amid a pandemic-induced hiring freeze. The city argued that it was hard to recruit and that rushing to hire could sacrifice its standards, bringing the risk of hiring more cops like Derek Chauvin, who killed Floyd.

"What relief do they really want?" asked Assistant City Attorney Greg Sautter in court. "It's not like we can get a hundred officers on the street next week … or next month. It's a difficult process and we need to get this one right."

The Minnesota Supreme Court sided with Samuels' group, and ordered the mayor to come back in August with a plan to have 731 officers — adding more than 100 to meet the charter-mandated minimum but still fewer than the 888 the plaintiffs originally sought.

"The lawsuit and certainly Don's leadership there was really very important — enormously important," said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

He noted that the suit served as a counterweight to the movement that led to last fall's failed ballot question to replace the MPD. Today, he said, the issue isn't funding or political will – the city must do the hard work of recruiting, training police and building trust. "I think Don and the others recognize that continuing the lawsuit wasn't going to help with that — that's a different kind of challenge." Yet without the suit, he maintained, "I'm not sure we would have kind of come to the place we are right now."

Bishop Richard Howell of the North Side's Shiloh Temple wants more officers, too, but he said "the lawsuit itself I think hurts more than it helps ... the city has to find new strategies in recruiting new police officers and right now they can't."

Samuels acknowledges it will be hard. He can also tell you about the reality of his neighborhood — the home where a bullet came through the wall in the same place a boy usually studied. He can show you the former hub of prostitution up the road that got rehabbed and was acquired by a family — one of his fellow plaintiffs recently sold it because of crime. He can explain how neighbors moved after their 11-year-old started wetting the bed because of PTSD from gunfire. He can talk about how another plaintiff across the street, Juliee Oden, bullet-proofed her headboard.

In recent years Samuels has been chronicling the block's travails on Facebook. Last summer, as one anecdote went, Sondra looked out the window at 3 a.m. and saw a man had just broken into their car and left. Samuels called 911 to report the intruder and, still in his underwear, drove around in an unsuccessful effort to find him.

Samuels told the Star Tribune that he'd just been trying to hold the line so the guy wouldn't do it to somebody else. "People don't understand that standards are necessary for human society and it's better when a guy in his underwear gets in his car and chases you than when a cop does … it's a leader in the community, this 60-, 70-year-old man who thinks you should behave yourself and be a good boy."

North Side activist D.A. Bullock found the whole episode ridiculous. "And I thought police resources were stretched so thin cuz [of] all the murder?" Bullock replied to Samuels' post. "Aren't you contributing that lack of resources calling 911 to attend to your loose change?" Bullock thought the bigger questions were what had made this trespasser so desperate, and how could the living standards for working people be raised?

He's one of the detractors who thinks Samuels' suit was frivolous, mainly a marketing ploy for his congressional run against Omar. Samuels was endorsed by Frey, who has charter-given authority over the police department. Samuels said they haven't talked since the August election.

Still, Samuels vowed he will continue to speak on public safety, as he has for decades.

As the lawsuit ended, Samuels set out for an evening walk with his sheepadoodle, past an empty hoarders' home just destroyed in a fire. He decided to take a rare stroll all the way down Broadway, chronicling what he saw for his Facebook followers.

He talked to the tearful women at the corner. Samuels came to U.S. Bank and admired a post-Floyd mural on its side with a girl holding a flower. He took pictures of the new ATM. Nearby sat two cop cars watching the parking lot of Merwin Liquors.

As Samuels saw it, he and his allies had merely fought to not lose more officers; now they were back to where they were before Floyd was killed.

"You don't," he said, "really win."