Minneapolis Struggles to Reform Police After George Floyd
When Tommy McBrayer Jr. talks about Central, the Minneapolis neighborhood where he grew up, what comes to mind is the smell of backyard cookouts with half-smokes on the grill, the PSYOPS involved in pickup games in Powderhorn Park, and the faint sounds of gospel music that wafted out of Central’s churches on Sunday mornings.
He moved to Central when he was 9, and he’s been an organizer and activist here since he was 29. Central, once a Scandinavian immigrant community, was one of the first places in Minneapolis where Black people in the 1930s and 1940s were allowed—after an initial racist mob response—to buy homes. It’s the neighborhood where one Prince Rogers Nelson, arguably Minneapolis’ most famous son, went to school and eventually married.
McBrayer, who is Black, is 32 now, and proud of it because he’s grateful to be alive. He knows, better than many, how complicated Central’s story is. There’s a veritable roadmap of healed bullet wounds on his body, and he will begrudgingly acknowledge that Central became Bloods gang territory some time ago now. He’ll speak at length about how many Central residents have experienced joy here, but also life-altering traumas of varying kinds. Nearly everything in Central that happened over the last two decades has been seen through the prism of one trauma which occurred along its borders, the May 25th 2020 murder of George Floyd.
This is where, at the place now known as George Floyd Square, Floyd spent more than nine minutes gasping for breath under a police officer’s unrelenting knee. The teenager who captured it all on camera was able to keep the incident a secret, so that you can’t deny what actually happened. And ever since, Central—a neighborhood that has long struggled with crime, but that also boasts a sense of community cohesion that residents credit for helping the area escape significant damage during the sporadic looting and fires of 2020—has been where almost every side of the nation’s debate about policing has found fodder for the fight.
“If George Floyd wouldn’t have happened in Central,” McBrayer says, “it wouldn’t have had the effect on the world that it did.”
But, two years later, it can be hard to quantify what effect Floyd’s murder has actually had on Minneapolis. As some activists across the country and the world pushed for cities to “defund the police,” the Minneapolis City Council declared in June 2020 that it would disband the police department and relaunch a new form of public safety in the city. Elected officials and police leaders assured the country, as much as they did Minneapolis’ residents, that they would fix law enforcement in Minneapolis and make a concerted effort to build trust with residents. Some observers believe that few of those promises have been kept in the years since they were made.
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“The amount of actual reform is minimal, and there are several areas where, if anything, it’s gone backwards,” says Dave Bickling, who is white and a member of Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Minneapolis-based organization that helps community members dealing with police brutality. “I have a hard time imagining that this city is going to agree to do anything substantial without being forced into it [in court].”
The city’s top official would frame things differently.
“Our community at large has properly and rightfully been calling for change over these last couple of years, and even before that,” Mayor Jacob Frey tells TIME. Frey, who is white and a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, has served as Minneapolis’ mayor since 2018 and, before that, spent four years on its city council. “We have instituted a litany of reforms, but they are policy changes. Policy changes don’t shift the underlying culture of a department. You need to go deeper than that, and the truth is there’s no magic wand fix for this. It takes work. It takes work every single day.”
As the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder approached, Frey’s office made available a four-page document listing policing reforms enacted since June 2020. The list notes that, among other changes, the city codified a duty for police officers to quickly report excessive uses of force; banned chokeholds and neck-centered restraint maneuvers, without the exceptions that are often made in other cities’ similar policies; and created a so-called early intervention system to identify problem officers. Minneapolis police no longer have the authority to perform certain types of traffic stop that are often used to target Black drivers in 2021. Derek Chauvin (an ex-officer from Minneapolis convicted in the murder of Floyd) was given more supervision. The department has also made changes to the process for public and police information requests. This is in an effort to respond more quickly and transparently. And at the federal level, President Joe Biden is expected to mark the murder’s anniversary on Wednesday with a police-reform executive order.
Learn more George Floyd’s Family Reacted to the Verdict With an Uncontrollable Cry. The Sound of That Resounds Through Black America
Yet, the voters in November 2021 voted against any further existential reforms to Minneapolis’ police department. Ballots included a question asking if they would want to replace the police department with a new agency that would take a “public-health approach” to public safety. In an election season that was characterized by some pundits as demonstrating a national backlash to everything associated with the phrase “defund the police,” a full 56% of residents voted against that change, leaving the Minneapolis Police Department as it was.
It’s a dynamic that was illustrated even at a prayer service held for Floyd’s family the night before Chauvin’s trial began last year: a shouting match broke out between a young Black man chanting “defund the police” and an older Black pastor who called back “more funding for police.”
“I would say the biggest fight in the city right now is, What does police look like and what is it?” says Carmen Lewis, executive director of Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization and the Bryant Neighborhood Organization, two community groups that operate near George Floyd Square. “None of the routes that were suggested [two years ago] have come to pass,” Lewis, who is Black, says. “We have not been reformed, ‘defund’ did not happen, and neither has abolishing happened.”
In the years since George Floyd’s murderMinneapolis has seen an increase in crime, which is consistent with national trends, making safety a politically divisive issue.
There were 54 murders within the city in 2019. This number rose to 86 in 2020 and to 101 in 2021. Of the 27 murders that took place in 2020 in Precinct 3, which includes George Floyd Square, all but three took place after June 1, several days after Floyd’s killing. Assaults, property loss, homicides and thefts are trending higher this year than they were in the same period of 2021. Additionally, 2022 has seen more shootings in cities. Precinct 3 which also includes George Floyd Square has all the same crime trends, with the exception of murders.
Meanwhile, the size of Minneapolis’ police force—even though the measures proposed by the 2021 ballot question were rejected—has shrunk dramatically.
There were 910 police officers on duty during the January 2019 week. In 2022, there were only 628. Chiefs of Police in Minneapolis and St. Paul are two examples of the jobs needed. According to data from the city, only 3% of Minneapolis’ entire police force were on extended leave in January 2020. By the beginning of December 2020 that number had risen to 16%. (The force has grown in size, while the number of officers on leaves has decreased. This can be due to a variety of factors, including additional scrutiny, sometimes animosity, stress caused by the pandemic and new job opportunities in a time when all workers are exercising their rights. One of the most common reasons given for those extended leaves came from officers who said in the aftermath of Floyd’s death that they required extended time away from work, in many cases due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Minnesota Police officers are on guard at Brooklyn Center Police Station April 12, 2021 after Daunte Wayne Wright, a Minneapolis police officer, was killed in a traffic stop.
Kerem Yucel—AFP/Getty Images
Though it would be easy to draw a simple line between crime and the size of Minneapolis’ police force, the reasons crime rises are complex and usually not entirely clear until a crime wave has ended, says Sasha Cotton, director of Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention, which was established in 2018 to work with residents on a non-police approach to public safety. Even more complicated is the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it has affected disenfranchised areas. And whatever it is, it’s affecting cities across the country too, she says.
“In the midst of the COVID pandemic, and these really sharp increases in violence that we’ve seen across the country and certainly here in Minneapolis, people cling to what feels familiar,” says Cotton, who is Black. “Public Safety in Minneapolis over the last 150 years has [meant] policing. I have two reasons for that. My first response is not that I have ever been an abolitionist. I do believe that police have the potential to play a vital role in community security. I also believe there are other things that can play and should play a role in public safety.”
Residents of Central often feel that the police paradox is a deliberate rebuttal. TIME interviewed multiple people who lived and worked in this area. They described slow 911 response times and little patrols. There was also a perception of disdain and anxiety among the emergency personnel that do arrive. Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to inquiries for comment. A request for data regarding precinct level police response time times was also not responded by the deadline. But in 2021, the Minneapolis Reformer—a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization—reported that members of the city council who supported policing reforms said they believed their communities were retaliated against with slow or non-existent responses to calls for police help; police have denied retaliation took place.
“I can’t tell you for sure exactly what MPD is or is not doing, except that they’re not showing up when people call them to show up,” says Jeanelle Austin, 37, the executive director and co-founder of the George Floyd Global Memorial. The square is just blocks away from her home. “Since the Third Precinct burned down, the PD has not been responding to our neighborhoods,” she says. “What do you say? The Minneapolis Police Department is a hot mess.” (The Third Precinct includes Central, though the headquarters building that was set on fire in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder is not within the bounds of the neighborhood. A January 2022 city-commissioned assessment of police and emergency communications-center operations in 2016-2020, which found a sharp spike in 911 calls around May 2020, did acknowledge that the precinct’s current lack of “a ‘home’ from which it can manage its operations” was “cited as a general challenge for morale and ability to respond to calls for service.”)
“They wasn’t answering no calls,” says McBrayer about the first few months after Floyd’s murder. “It wasn’t slow response. For days, days, and even days there was no reply. We can’t put our trust in a government system where, when they make a mistake, they can choose when they want to protect us and choose when they don’t want to protect us.”
He isn’t dismissive about the need to provide mental health services for residents and officers alike. However, he does find it almost ironic, however, that the police officers that caused the tragedy that afflicted Central have the choice to be absent from work in order to care for their mental well-being. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhood where Floyd was murdered are left to deal with their trauma—and what he sees as its knock-on effects—on their own.
Respond-to-complaints have been a source of information for police, who argue that they require more officers or funding.
After 2020, the city reduced its spending plan for police, then made a spending plan for 2022 that allocated only about $157,000 less—out of more than $190 million—than before George Floyd was killed. The pattern is similar across the country. Some cities make no cuts. Minneapolis’ mayor and several members of its council as well the police union called for greater police funding. A group of Minneapolis residents sued Minneapolis in October 2020, claiming that police rollbacks were causing crime. They won the case and Mayor Frey was ordered by a judge to increase the number of officers he hired before June 2022. But, this order was overturned at appeals court. This year, one neighborhood not far from downtown announced it was raising funds to pay officers overtime for additional patrols in their neighborhood alone, Minneapolis’ Fox 9 News reported. This program was approved by the Minneapolis City Council.
There are many Central residents that have closely followed the police budget. Austin jokes that the MPD could sell their helicopter if they need money. When she hears tough-on-crime language in appeals for more funding, it sounds to her like “just dog whistle language to say we’re about to jail a bunch of Black people.” It’s the kind of situation that can foster anxiety and animosity—the kind of fear that may sound like paranoia but, in the history of the United States, has all too many times turned out to be based on reality.
Cotton is familiar with the theories and complaints about response time by police officers. Cotton says that Minneapolis is now accepting two facts. One, there are fewer police officers available to answer calls. Two, it takes three years to make a new officer. Even an enviable hiring drive would only have a limited impact.
“I think there’s this ‘we need to give the police department more money, we need more cops’ [argument],” Cotton says. “And it’s sort of like, you can’t buy the rainbow. What you want doesn’t exist… We have to analyze what kind of alternatives to police response exist. We have to look at what kind of violence-prevention strategies exist, because those are things we can do right now that can help to fill some of these gaps.”
Cotton reached out to TIME by phone last weekIt came at an extremely difficult time. There had been seven murders in the Twin Cities and Minneapolis, with some interconnected within 24 hours. It was obvious that she was exhausted. She sounded exhausted.
City leaders in Minneapolis had been discussing and working on community-intervention programs for years before George Floyd’s murder. But in 2020, the political will was there to ramp up the city’s efforts and investment. It received $2.5million for 2020, $7.4million 2021, and $11.6million 2022 budgets. Cotton isn’t expecting any cuts when the next budget is completed later this year. With 16 employees, the office now runs three initiatives supported by research that aim to decrease violence in the area. The first is hospital-based, the second is violence interrupter, and the third is group or gang violence prevention. Violence interruptor programs are based on the intervention of community-based mediators in cases where violence could or has already erupt. Minneapolis’ violence-interrupter programs are also receiving technical assistance from a White House community-violence-intervention collaborative that is active in 16 cities across the country.
Learn more The Complex Dynamic Between ‘Violence Interrupters’ and Police
Cotton knows people are afraid, angry, and, in the U.S. almost uniquely among the world’s highly developed nations, well armed. She is trying to identify people willing and able to share information with authorities to help her office address the community’s needs. To maintain community credibility, the seven violence-interruption teams under Cotton’s purview—which she hopes to soon expand to nine or ten—can’t do that liaison work, but they are already at work on the ground in predominantly Black American and East African areas of Minneapolis. The office also has plans to develop a team for Minneapolis’ mostly Latino neighborhoods.
“In some ways, nothing has changed, and in some ways, everything has,” Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who is white, says. “The one big victory of the city council was that they moved money to expand the work of the Office of Violence Prevention and the behavior crisis response team, which is providing an alternative to 911 calls.”
Yet, despite the progress made in Minneapolis towards its two-year goals, losses continue to mount. Amir Locke (22-year-old Black male) was killed by Minneapolis police in February. He had a warrant for no-knock., residents filed an ethics complaint against the mayor, alleging “massive failure to exercise judgment” ahead of the killing. Over 1,000 Minneapolis residents signed the complaint, which was then dismissed by city ethics officials. (Frey calls the complaint politics and notes that several of those involved spent time opposing Locke’s re-election bid the year before. Prosecutors also decided not to file charges against the officers involved in Locke’s death, though the city did institute a total ban on no-knock warrants. In April, Minnesota Department of Human Rights released its findings of the two-year investigation of the department. The probe was initiated on June 1, 2020. It found clear evidence of discrimination in policing and race-based police work and detailed in its report how the leaders within the city and the police department allowed these to flourish. Even more concerning is how MPD officers’ actions make it harder for prosecutors to do their jobs. As the report says, MPD officers are “less professional and respectful” than officers in other parts of the county; body cams have caught them using racial slurs. This report was not confirmed by the MDHR.
“Any Black person standing on a corner in Minneapolis could have told you everything that was in that report,” Sandra Richardson, a Black resident and activist in the city, says. “[The situation] was a blueprint for how to create a Derek Chauvin.”
To Frey, the city’s mayor, the report told an important but incomplete part of the story of policing in Minneapolis. “It is true that we need a major culture shift,” he says. “It is true that like most every department in the entire country that [systemic racism]This must be done. It’s also true that we have a lot of police officers that are doing a wonderful job through really difficult circumstances, and I appreciate that. It is important to be able to simultaneously hold the two truths. They’re both accurate. One doesn’t minimize the other.”
Minneapolis is taking bold steps to change police training, he says, and to create some kind of official response to 911 calls that doesn’t require an officer armed with a gun. He’s hopeful in a way that politicians perhaps have to be.
“We can be an example for others to follow if we do this right,” he says. “None of this is going to be easy and none of it is going to happen overnight. But all of it is worth the time.”
Some community members are still confused by the promises of city change. Other people didn’t believe any change was possible.
“All we want is accountability. You can’t get justice because justice would have been George Floyd going home. All we want is accountability,” says Marquise Bowie, 46, a member of AGAPE, a violence-interruption organization operating in and around George Floyd Square, which until recently received city funding. (The organization’s funding has temporarily been put on hold while it finds a new fiscal sponsor.)
An assessment by the U.S. Department of Justice of Minneapolis’ police force is planned for later in the year.
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To McBrayer, who has since moved out of Central due to the emotional strain and physical danger of living there, George Floyd Square is only one of many places of note in the neighborhood, and its namesake’s life one of many unnecessarily ended because of the way the country is policed. McBrayer finds himself at the center of the discussion about the future public safety. He questions the competence of police to handle non-violent criminal acts and other problems. He does not believe that police have the capacity to respond to problems in ways that aren’t likely to end in violence, and he questions how committed many officers are to solving even major crimes.
So there’s work to do, he feels, in the square—and work to do in the country around it. More than 2,000 people have been killed by police around the country since George Floyd’s murder, including at least three cases in Minneapolis that many have regarded as questionable. The officers in these cases have so far not faced any charges.
McBrayer has devoted some of his time to building a charity that encourages men against violence and guns. He’s already planning his annual pre-Thanksgiving neighborhood potluck, and working on the certification needed to train others to run trauma-healing circles, something he’s been doing since Floyd’s murder. But while he’s generally upbeat, the kind of guy who sounds like he’s smiling over the phone, his assessment of what’s changed in the last two years is grim.
“So many people ate and made money off of George Floyd and stuff like that,” he says. “But the people that actually live there [in Central] and have been directly affected by it, got the least from it.”
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