Two Years After George Floyd’s Murder, Minneapolis’ Efforts to Transform Safety Remain Unfinished
Damarra Atkins paid respects at a mural in Minneapolis' George Floyd Square on April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Damarra Atkins remembers vividly what it felt like to watch George Floyd’s murder for the first time.
Atkins expected it to be like video from other police killings: brutal but short. As the white officer continued to pin his knee to the neck of a Black man — despite his pleas for breath, despite the crowd’s cries to relent — Atkins disconnected. A temporary numbness set in. A sense of urgency followed.
“It just kicked off a whole series of personal exploration and learnings and new things that I had to deal with,” said Atkins who is “half Black, half white” and started attending protests hoping “to make my little corner of existence more tangibly helpful.”
Two years later, Atkins and other activists say they’re still waiting for City Hall to meet their level of awakening. Floyd’s killing ushered in a global movement re-examining policing and a dramatic shift in the way Americans discuss the profession. The city, though, has yet to fulfill the promise elected leaders made to build a transformative new safety system.
When they’re asked how Minneapolis is faring in its efforts to accomplish that goal, many city leaders pause and say it’s a difficult question. They see promise in new city pilot programs that rely on civilians — not officers — to handle some calls, but overhauling police operations continues to feel like a formidable task.
“Healing could come as we are addressing these deep, deep, deep systemic issues in our community,” City Council President Andrea Jenkins said. That will require the city to respond “with urgency” to concerns about problems within the Police Department and inequality throughout Minneapolis.
‘Pockets of hope’
Thirteen days passed between Floyd’s murder and the moment Jenkins and eight of her council colleagues took the stage in Powderhorn Park and pledged to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department” and create “a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”
She was tired. The city had barely stopped burning. The world was watching. And she was trying to acknowledge “this moment in American history that was kind of being played out on a world stage.”
“I was thinking about the injustices that had been brought on [the] Black community for centuries,” Jenkins said. “I was thinking about the city of Minneapolis and how much trauma we were in.”
This story is part of a collaboration between the Star Tribune and FRONTLINE that includes the upcoming documentary Police on Trial, which premieres May 31 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.
Minneapolis, in so many ways, embodied the country’s centuries-long struggle with racism. The region logged some of the nation’s widest disparities in income, homeownership and education. The Police Department had a history of using force disproportionately on Black residents, and the killings of other Black men in recent years had also led to outcries.
Two years later, the tale of Minneapolis’ efforts to overhaul public safety remains a complicated, unfinished one. In many ways, it fits a national pattern. Like their peers in some large Democrat-led cities, Minneapolis politicians moved money from police budgets to other services — then restored it.
In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder, “the energy was really in a space unlike I’d ever seen before, where cities were really looking to take action around rethinking public safety,” said Kirby Gaherty, program manager for justice initiatives at the National League of Cities. “I think, unfortunately, whether due to political rhetoric or demands from certain constituents or some of the fear that came from upticks in violence, [it] kind of slowed the momentum in the last year or so.”
Read more: A year after George Floyd’s death, seeking a new direction for policing
But, Gaherty added, “we’re still seeing pockets of hope.”
Expanding civilian responses
Minneapolis’ fights over public safety played out amid a tense election. As voters debated whether to replace the city’s Police Department — a proposal they ultimately rejected — elected leaders jockeyed over funding for police and for safety programs that don’t directly involve officers.
Over a series of budget negotiations, Minneapolis accelerated efforts already underway to boost safety services that primarily rely on civilians. Funding for the Office of Violence Prevention quadrupled, rising to $11.6 million with the potential to receive more in the coming days. With the extra infusion, its budget would still be less than a tenth of the amount the Police Department receives.
The city’s 311 office began processing some reports for theft, property damage and parking complaints, handling roughly 7,000 of them in six months. Civilian agents now respond to some parking and traffic control issues as part of a pilot program. Staff in the 911 center received new training to improve their handling of mental health calls.
The city launched new Behavioral Crisis Response teams staffed with civilians who can help handle some nonviolent mental health calls. The team, working five days a week in its pilot phase, has handled more than 1,650 incidents since it launched in December.
City officials say they’re working to refine these programs and to develop procedures for measuring their effectiveness.
“I think the reality is we’ve done some really incredibly, I think, positive things that … could potentially help to transform [safety],” Jenkins said, pointing to programs like those.
While holding up those programs’ promise, the city acknowledges they wouldn’t have necessarily prevented Floyd’s murder. A call like the one that led to his death — stemming from a report that he had passed a fake $20 bill — would still receive a response from police.
A pattern of discrimination
Trying to transform police operations still feels like a daunting task to many in City Hall. “A lot of conversation has happened,” Jenkins said, “but not a lot of change has really materialized on our streets.”
Many people who had argued for keeping the Police Department also said officers needed better training, supervision and resources to improve accountability and help combat the highest violent crime increase in decades. Just months after the department survived a push to replace it, new developments raised fresh questions about whether it could be reformed.
Read more: Once Viewed as a ‘Paper Tiger,’ POST Board Pursues New Reforms to Discipline Misbehaving Police
The February killing of Amir Locke showed that Minneapolis police had not banned no-knock warrants, as many residents and some elected officials thought they had. Local activists decried the department’s decision to refer to Locke as a suspect, noting he wasn’t tied to the killing that prompted the police search resulting in his death. It reminded them of the department’s early statements on Floyd’s killing, which said he died after a “medical incident during [a] police interaction.”
“I think the simplest, broadest way to put it would be that we’re very disappointed and frustrated,” said Atkins, who joined the Racial Justice Network. “Things have not received the amount of care or turnaround or adjustments that are warranted that we would need to see for public safety and health and well-being.”
Two months after Locke’s death, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a report saying Minneapolis officers had for a decade engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination: stopping, searching, arresting and using force on Black people at starkly higher rates than white people.
Since Floyd’s killing, the department has revised more than a dozen policies, boosted trainings and made other changes aimed at improving officers’ performance. But the state’s report said Minneapolis officers didn’t understand the purpose of many of the changes and at times received training that contradicted them.
“The policies have been changed. We can give you more policies. That’s not the ballgame,” said Mayor Jacob Frey, who has ultimate authority over the Police Department’s operations. “The ballgame is in instituting the full culture shift through solidifying those policies, having them carried out in training, and then having people feel the change of those policies in real-time interactions with police officers.”
Trying to transform
The Police Department has experienced its own, internal upheaval in the past two years. Nearly 300 officers left the force. Some sought higher-paying jobs. Many filed claims for post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who remained faced a higher number of violent calls.
Their union president retired. So did Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first Black police chief. A new union contract brought raises and bonuses — and immediate criticism from activists who wanted more disciplinary changes.
Read more: In Time of Greatest Need, Minneapolis Struggles to Recruit New Police Officers
For now, much of the responsibility for transforming the Police Department falls to interim Chief Amelia Huffman, who is interested in the job long-term. Sitting in her office on a recent afternoon, Huffman pulled out a spreadsheet cataloging changes she wants to make in the department.
Among them: MPD joined a national organization that helps departments exchange information about promising new training techniques. They’re on the verge of hiring an education specialist who can help trainers determine whether lessons are best taught using tabletop exercises, virtual reality simulations or other methods.
Huffman wants to boost programs that connect officers with local youth amid a push to rebuild the ranks and attract more diverse candidates. She wants to strengthen wellness programs for officers. She hopes to soon have additional auditors who can help gauge whether new efforts are working.
“We need to be looking for continual improvement to … meet not only this moment but the future,” she said.
A call for action
It’s a challenge Huffman embraces. She spent the early days after Floyd’s killing working out of the city’s Emergency Operations Center, watching events unfold on camera as the city scrambled to respond. Tensions flared as officers launched projectiles into crowds — sometimes severely injuring peaceful protesters — and again when police abandoned their precinct moments before it was overrun and set ablaze.
“To see and feel that destruction and the pain and despair on both sides during that time period was incredibly difficult,” Huffman said. It remains “one of the indelible moments in my life.”
Early one morning, just as the sun was about to come up, Huffman drove toward Lake Street — not far from her home — and saw smoke rising into the air. Shock hit her as “the enormity of that experience” began to slowly settle in.
As she drives that stretch now, two years later, she’s starting to spot signs that the area “is coming back to life,” that perhaps healing is on the horizon.
“I want that experience, for people in the department to feel that as well,” she said.
Local activists also want some bit of good to come out of the pain from the last two years. They say that will require substantial action — the kind that isn’t guaranteed.
“My belief in the capacity for greatness of human beings is high,” Atkins said. “My doubts and my skepticism for the willingness of humanity to do what needs to be done to achieve those heights is also very high.”
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.