MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly two months after four of its officers were charged with killing George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department is reeling, with police officers leaving the job in large numbers, crime surging and politicians planning a top-to-bottom overhaul of the force.
Veteran officers say that morale within the department is lower than they have ever experienced. Some officers are scaling back their policing efforts, concerned that any contentious interactions on the street could land them in trouble. And many others are calling it quits altogether.
“It’s almost like a nuclear bomb hit the city, and the people who didn’t perish are standing around,” Officer Rich Walker Sr., a 16-year Minneapolis police veteran and union official, said of the mood within the department. “I’m still surprised that we’ve got cops showing up to work, to be honest.”
Many American police departments have faced challenges in retention and recruitment in recent years amid growing criticism of police abuses. But the woes in Minneapolis and elsewhere have only grown since May, when Floyd was killed after the police detained him.
Nearly 200 officers have applied to leave the Minneapolis Police Department because of what they describe as post-traumatic stress, said Ronald F. Meuser Jr., a lawyer representing the officers. The prospect that a department of about 850 could lose about 20% of its force in the coming months has prompted major concern.
Already, about 65 officers have left the department this year, surpassing the typical attrition rate of 45 a year, Chief Medaria Arradondo told the City Council during a meeting last week. Dozens of other officers have taken temporary leave since Floyd’s death, complicating the staffing picture.
Minneapolis’ police force has long had a troubled relationship with the community. Excessive force complaints against Minneapolis officers have become commonplace, especially by Black residents. African Americans account for about 20% of the city’s population, but they are more likely to be pulled over, arrested and have force used against them than white residents.
Cmdr. Scott Gerlicher, head of the Special Operations and Intelligence Division, wrote in an email to supervisors this month that, “Due to significant staffing losses of late,” the department was “looking at all options” for responding to calls, including shift, schedule and organizational changes.
The email, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also said the department would not “be going back to business as usual.” The guiding principle going forward, Gerlicher wrote, would be to “do no harm,” and he highlighted potential reforms, including, “Looking for reasonable and safe alternatives to police services in some areas.”
“Front line supervisors play the most critical role in making meaningful changes,” he wrote. “Don’t take this lightly.”
With fewer officers to patrol, some of those on the streets find themselves stretched thin and working longer hours. Complaints about the lack of support from politicians, community members and even department commanders are part of the daily conversation in precincts and squad cars.
For years, police departments nationwide have faced a workforce crisis, according to a report published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum. In a survey of more than 400 departments nationwide, the forum found that 63% of them saw a slight or significant decrease in the number of applicants over the previous five years, 41% had growing staff shortages and nearly half reported that officer tenures were decreasing.
The current climate differs from six years ago — when the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked national unrest — in that the demands are not just to reform police departments, but to get rid of them, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum.
Many activists see an overdue reckoning for an institution that they say has long gotten away with brutalizing people of color with impunity.
“Policing as an institution has largely been untouchable, despite the many, many, many failings that are cultural,” said Jeremiah Ellison, a Minneapolis City Council member who supports defunding the police. “Here we are in a moment where people all over the country are saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no, we are interested in real accountability.’”
Instead of embracing change, Ellison added, the police are saying, “You’re picking on us, you don’t know how hard our job is and we’re going home.”
Several officers in Minneapolis said they felt like they all were being stereotyped because of Derek Chauvin, the white former officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes before Floyd died.
“If anything has the propensity to have a violent interaction, we already know we’re judged before they even hear the facts,” said Walker, whose stop of a motorist 11 years ago led to a lawsuit that the city settled for $235,000 after several responding officers punched and kicked the driver in an episode captured on video.
To Sasha Cotton, director of the Office of Violence Prevention in Minneapolis, there is a cruel irony to officers saying they feel stereotyped. Her office regularly works with Black men and boys to try to keep them out of violence.
“Our officers are experiencing what so often our young men and boys, who we service through the program, say they feel,” she said. “They feel like they are being judged based on the behavior of some of their peers.”
Minneapolis officers say that much of their frustration is rooted in an uncertainty over what comes next. A majority of City Council members have pledged to defund the Police Department, and they are currently in the process of trying to replace the agency with a new public safety department.
Many officers say they feel like city leaders and some residents have turned their backs on them, making them less inclined to go “above and beyond what they need to do,” said Walker, the union official.
“Cops have not been to the work level of before, but it’s not a slowdown,” he added. “They’re just not being as proactive because they know they’re not supported in case something bad happens.”
Officers said they were also concerned about their job security.
Sgt. Anna Hedberg, a 14-year Minneapolis police veteran and board member of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing officers, said a colleague recently told her he had another job opportunity. He has been on the force for six years, but it takes 10 years to be fully vested in his pension, so he was unsure whether he should leave.
“I told him to leave because he’s not happy,” Hedberg said.
The tensions between the city and its Police Department come as crime is on the rise. There have been 16 homicides since June 1, more than twice as many as during the same period last year. Violent crime is up by 20% compared with the same stretch a year ago. Experts say there are many reasons for the spike, not just police staffing levels.
Alondra Cano, a City Council member who supports defunding the police, said that any change to the department would take time and that officers would not lose their jobs overnight. It would be better for everyone — officers included — if they worked together toward a transition, she said.
“I would prefer that people don’t resort to those extreme decisions of quitting or collecting a paycheck but not responding to calls,” she said.
For one senior officer on leave because of PTSD symptoms, the problems started when he could not sleep after long nights of work during the unrest following Floyd’s death. Eventually he got headaches, he said, and lost his appetite and desire to do anything.
“We were stepchildren. We were abandoned,” said the officer, who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He saw a therapist, who told him he should take time off. He is torn about whether he will return.
“I’m coming back to chaos,” he said. “I’m coming back to no leadership. I’m coming back to an administration that doesn’t care about the officers. I’m coming back to a City Council that doesn’t want us here. I’m coming back to a family, or a community, that doesn’t want me here. Why do I want to come back to that?”
Many officers are on edge in part because they believe that Arradondo and other senior department leaders have not provided clear direction to the rank and file, Hedberg said.
“They’re waking up the next day: ‘Is it going to be the day I get transferred? Is it the day my unit’s going to be dissolved?’” she said. “People are concerned about it.”
John Elder, a spokesman for the department, said in an email: “We have not heard those complaints; in fact I have received compliments from staff about the support from the front office.”
While many officers express anxiety about the future, Officer Charles Adams III said he supported the efforts of Arradondo, the first Black officer to lead the force.
Although Adams has felt unsupported by the community and demoralized at times — especially after he was removed from his job as a school resource officer when the school district ended its contract with the Police Department — he said thoughts of leaving the force never crossed his mind.
“Now is not the time for us to run away,” said Adams, a 19-year veteran and native of the city’s predominantly Black North Side.
“I’m a Black face. I can be out there,” he added. “I wear blue, but let’s talk: ‘What do you want to see done? How can I help you?’ I think it’s my opportunity to give people what they’ve been asking for.”