Minneapolis police officers face accusations of ‘slowdown’

Bib Kroll Minneapolis PF

Minneapolis police officers filing into the daily roll call at Fourth Precinct headquarters recently got more than the standard debriefing before taking to the streets on the North Side.

With shootings rising and arrests plummeting, the precinct’s commander, Inspector Mike Friestleben, erupted — calling officers cowards and accusing them of slacking on the job, according to multiple sources familiar with the episode.

At the root of Friestleben’s anger was an apparent monthslong work slowdown that has resulted in a 51 percent drop in stops in the Fourth Precinct, along with a 45 percent drop in arrests.

Through May 2, police records show that 8,504 arrests had been made across Minneapolis. That’s compared with a total of 11,879 arrests during the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the number of people who have been stopped, questioned and frisked also has declined nearly 32 percent compared with the same period last year.

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Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the union that represents the department’s 850-plus officers, said last week that intense public criticism of police officers after the shooting death last November of Jamar Clark has led to a morale crisis among the rank and file.

“They’re getting in self-preservation mode, and what that means is you’re just going to emergency calls and being nice to everybody,” he said.
The stark decline in arrests is alarming some city officials and community leaders.

In an exasperated Facebook post earlier last week, Council Member Blong Yang called out those behind the apparent ‘‘slowdown,” writing “we should expect our police leadership to make strong statements/do what is necessary to change behavior.”

In a subsequent interview with the Star Tribune, Yang reiterated his frustration with the drop in stops and arrests.

“I’ve heard excuses about no support from the administration, no support from the police chief, no support from the mayor,” Yang said, adding that some cops were upset by the presence of several council members at the Fourth Precinct protests last fall. “For the most part, we pay them pretty well, and we indemnify them and to get this sort of response, I shake my head,” said Yang, who heads the Public Safety committee.

Asked about the apparent slowdown last week, Police Chief Janeé Harteau responded in a statement that “the answer to the decline is complex.”

“There are multiple factors that attribute to those numbers; from fewer resources to increased community engagement to being more selective with what types of enforcement action is necessary,” Harteau said. “Let’s be clear, however: My officers are not responsible for the increase in violent crime, those who commit the acts are.”

Harteau previously defended police, saying they “can’t arrest their way out of” the problem of street crime and that in the past arrests have dropped as officers embraced the community policing philosophy.

Fighting back

Some say the decline in arrests is a form of protest for officers. Similar reactions occurred among Baltimore and St. Louis-area law enforcement agencies after high-profile shootings by police brought protests. Some Minneapolis officers say they are avoiding encounters where their actions may be scrutinized.

“Confrontation equals getting indicted, put on the front page or Harteau will bury you,” said one veteran officer, who like others interviewed asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re done working.”

Officers say they still respond to every emergency call and help every person in need. But some cops are lingering at crime scenes longer than necessary, stopping at every red light on their way to a low-priority call, or refusing to do the type of proactive police work — things like questioning shady-looking people on the street and ticketing bad drivers — that officials say helps drive down crime.

This has resulted in a citywide 32 percent decline in so-called proactive police stops for suspicious behavior and minor traffic transgressions.

Department officials are also quick to point out that while the number of arrests has gone down, officers are increasingly getting out of their cars and attending more community meetings than in the past. Others say the decline coincided with a recent court ruling that requires officers to write tickets only for certain low-level offenses.

Several cops and sources at City Hall said one recent event fueled officers’ frustrations.

In early April, police responded to a report of gunfire near Farview Park. The suspect’s vehicle was described as a dark-colored SUV. Officers stopped a vehicle fitting that description and questioned the driver, guns drawn. The driver, a Target executive, was later released, but posted details of the encounter on Facebook, which were widely shared. Word of the stop got back to a high-ranking police official, and the officers involved were verbally reprimanded.

Kroll said that the episode only reinforced cops’ fears of being punished for engaging in aggressive police work. He added that traffic stops in north Minneapolis are an indispensable crime-fighting tool: arrests are often made by officers making a stop when they see something that doesn’t look or feel right, like a car driving down an alley at night with its headlights off or a person walking in the road where there is a sidewalk. Now, with fewer officers on the force, he says, those cars are allowed to glide by and people who in the past would’ve been questioned are given a free pass.

“You see a suspicious vehicle, you run the plate and maybe there’s a warrant for the owner,” said Kroll, pointing to several recent traffic stops that led to the seizure of guns and drugs. “We always say little arrests lead to big arrests.”

Decrease a relief

The decrease in arrests and stops could be a relief for some residents on the North Side, especially among black community members, who long have had a tense relationship with police, including complaints about being singled out for traffic stops. A 2015 ACLU report found that blacks were nearly nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for a low-level offense, often after a traffic stop.

North Minneapolis arrests have fallen to 2,153 from 3,925 this time last year. Violent crime, meanwhile, increased by 9 percent, compared with the same period in 2015, driven largely by a recent surge in shootings. Before he was placed on paid leave last week pending the outcome of an internal investigation into an unspecified “personnel matter,” Friestleben didn’t pull punches when he showed officers those numbers.

He reportedly told the officers to “pull up their diapers,” reminding them that public safety suffers if they don’t do their jobs. Friestleben did not respond to requests for comment.

Shortly after Friestleben’s suspension, Yang wrote another post to his constituents, saying he couldn’t discuss the personnel matter. But he returned to the broader question.

“A slowdown is beneath a profession that is supposed to protect with courage and serve with compassion.”

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter:@StribJany

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