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An Increase In Violent Crimes Is Complicating A Push To Defund The Minneapolis Police

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than a year after the killing of George Floyd sparked massive protests, policing in the U.S. is in a kind of limbo. The defund movement is still calling for scaled-back, reimagined law enforcement. The recent surge in violent crime has led others to call for more policing. This conflict is playing out in the city where Floyd was murdered. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Minneapolis.

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MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Last summer, the path seemed clear. Just two weeks after Floyd's death, members of the Minneapolis City Council gathered at a rally in a park to pledge big structural changes.

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JEREMIAH ELLISON: This council is going to dismantle this police department.

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KASTE: That was Council Member Jeremiah Ellison. These days, he's less absolute about this. He now defers to the voters and an expected ballot question on the future of policing this fall. It was promoted by a coalition of groups called Yes 4 Minneapolis.

ELLISON: They organized a signature campaign. They got the number - thousands of signatures in order to put something on the ballot. And so the conversation that we started a year ago, we'll get an answer in November.

KASTE: The politics of dismantling the police department has become murkier as Minneapolis has become more dangerous. Homicides were up almost 50% in the first six months of the year compared to the same months last year.

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KASTE: And there's been more recreational gunplay, such as in this video of a guy firing out the window of a car doing donuts in the Uptown neighborhood.

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SONDRA SAMUELS: I mean, it's just constant - pop, pop, pop, pop.

KASTE: Sondra Samuels sits on the back porch of her home in north Minneapolis, one of the Black neighborhoods that's been especially hard-hit by the violence.

SAMUELS: Of all the people shot in Minneapolis this year, 83% of the gun victims are Black. We only make up 20% of the city.

KASTE: Samuels put some of the blame for this on a shortage of police officers. Since last year's protests, more than 200 of them have quit, retired or taken disability. And she says that's resulted in a sense of lawlessness. She says you notice it just driving around.

SAMUELS: I do not go at a green light. I wait until I make sure somebody's not careening through a red light. Because nobody stops at stop signs because it's like, nobody's coming - ain't nobody coming.

KASTE: She and her husband actually sued about this. They and some other residents took the city to court for not having enough cops. The city charter sets a per capita minimum number of officers. And based on that, a judge ruled earlier this month that the city should hire more. The police department would not comment to NPR for this story. But to people desperate for more of a police presence, the ruling was a victory. To others in Minneapolis, though, it's taking the city in the wrong direction.

JANAE BATES: Offering no real solutions except what we've continued to always do - it's wrong.

KASTE: Minister JaNae' Bates is with Yes 4 Minneapolis. That's the group sponsoring the ballot initiative this fall which would create more of a civilian-oriented Department of Public Safety.

BATES: That will replace what we currently know as the Minneapolis Police Department and will be a fully holistic department that includes police officers as well as licensed professionals and experts in order to ensure that folks stay safe.

KASTE: To Bates, that court ruling and the fact that it's based on a law that sets a minimum number of police officers shows just how much of the traditional police department is hardwired into the system.

BATES: This charter was put in place in 1961. It was written by the police lobby. And they put that in there to continue to hold on to a certain level status quo and power and resources.

KASTE: She's hoping that the November ballot question will wipe the slate clean and let Minneapolis design something new from the ground up. Yes, she says, the new Department of Public Safety will still include police officers. But how many?

BATES: I would not prescribe a certain number.

KASTE: Her frustration is echoed by Minneapolis' mostly liberal city council, who want more direct control over policing. In December, they cut $8 million from the police budget, shifting the money to violence prevention and other programs. But six months later, they found themselves increasing police funding again by $5 million to cover mounting overtime costs for the police officers as residents demanded more of a response to rising violence.

STEVE FLETCHER: I do think people dramatically overestimate the prevention and deterrent value of patrol cars.

KASTE: Council member Steve Fletcher acknowledges constituents' concerns, but he wants to stay focused on the long term, with more emphasis on social programs.

FLETCHER: I don't think that we build a crime-free society by over-policing it. I think we build a crime-free society by investing in people's health and well-being and inclusion in our community so that people feel inclined to participate in a set of rules that show they care for each other.

KASTE: On her back porch in north Minneapolis, Sondra Samuels says she understands this push for a new approach.

SAMUELS: I get it. People who want a different system of public safety and say, we want police to have a diminished role, we've tried reform, it hasn't worked - they're right. They're not wrong. And they are short-sighted.

KASTE: For instance, she points to a new plan for the city to send out civilian mental health professionals to certain kinds of crisis calls instead of cops. She calls this a utopia because she doubts mental health workers will want to go into certain neighborhoods without a police escort. When it comes to reimagining public safety, she says what Minneapolis really needs is both.

SAMUELS: I keep saying, we gave the world something to look at in Minneapolis. Let's give them something to look at by getting it right.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.