With cops down and shootings up, Minneapolis residents frustrated by police inaction

By: - November 9, 2021 7:02 am

A Minneapolis police squad car in May 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

When two men started firing guns outside his north Minneapolis house one afternoon, Mike Rhodes dropped to the floor and called the cops.

The shooters were gone by the time the police arrived, but Rhodes saw them back in his yard hours later. But when Rhodes called 911 to alert them, he said the cops never returned.

Over the next couple of days, Rhodes sought answers from the police department and heard the same thing again and again: Call the mayor and ask for more police funding.

Rhodes’ story illustrates how short-staffed the police department is — down about 300 officers after a wave of retirements and disability leave following the murder of George Floyd — and the kind of pressure police can put on a community when they’re feeling aggrieved, unappreciated or just peeved.

A Minneapolis police officer recently told a local Indigenous leader MPD has taken a “hands-off” approach to crime control, including out-in-the-open drug dealing. After the Floyd protests, many residents began reporting slow responses or no response to their calls for help, leading City Council members to openly question whether the police were deliberately pulling back.

Some council members felt their wards were targeted because they supported defunding or restructuring the police department. Council President Lisa Bender said last year police were telling residents some version of, “We’re not coming.” A lawsuit was filed accusing police of slow responses in the Phillips neighborhood.

Rhodes was working from home at about 3 p.m. on May 12 when he noticed a shadow pass by his window. That wasn’t unusual; he doesn’t have a fence, so people often walk through his north Minneapolis yard.

About a minute later, he heard gunshots. That’s not unusual either, but this time, they were closer than he’s ever heard them.

He popped his head up, looked out the window and saw two young men — one in a black sweatshirt and one in a red sweatshirt — fleeing from his backyard to the front and holding pistols.

He dropped to the floor and yelled at his 15-year-old son upstairs to do the same.

“I didn’t know what else was gonna be happening,” Rhodes said.

He didn’t leave his house until he saw police in his backyard. Nobody was hit in the alleyway shooting behind Rhodes’ house.

After gathering some bullet casings, the police told Rhodes where he could upload his security camera footage, which shows the two young men walking through his yard to the alley, followed by two other young men.

About 7 o’clock that evening, Rhodes noticed the two young men who had followed the shooters walk through his yard and cross the street to hang out in front of a house. He called police to report that two witnesses were back. Nobody came.

Later, the two men he had seen brandishing pistols earlier joined them in front of the house, so he called 911 again. Nobody came.

He called 15 minutes later and was told by the dispatcher that there were not enough police to respond.

At 7:46 p.m., his security camera showed a young man in a black sweatshirt enter his yard. He walked back to where the shots had been fired and kicked around dirt as if looking for shell casings. He was followed by the man in the red sweatshirt and the two other young men.

Rhodes called 911 again and was told no one was available and they would respond as soon as they could.

At 7:51 p.m., he noticed all four were back in the front yard on Girard Avenue North in a group of about 10 people.

After hours waiting and multiple 911 calls, nobody came. Finally Rhodes walked across the street and confronted the suspects for “shooting up the neighborhood.” They denied involvement.

Rhodes eventually called the Fourth Precinct to complain about the lack of response. The person who answered the phone “whined” about how understaffed police were, Rhodes said.

“He told me that if I wanted the police to be more responsive in my neighborhood then I needed to call the mayor’s office and ask for more money to fund them,” Rhodes said.

He got the same response the next day from a Fourth Precinct supervisor and Sgt. Jarrod Roering, he said.

“Literally, all three gave me nearly verbatim statements,” he said.

Even when someone is injured in a shooting, the police rarely make an arrest, according to a recent Reformer analysis. Rhodes and his neighbors in north Minneapolis have also experienced the worst of the uptick in shootings, with about 30% of all reported violent crimes happening in the Fourth Precinct, according to the Star Tribune.

Professor Thomas Coghlan, a retired New York Police Department detective and professor of clinical psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police unions sometimes stage “sickouts” or encourage cops to “go dead,” meaning they stop writing tickets and making arrests and take their time on calls to “discipline” the police department or community.

Rhodes sent a complaint to the Police Conduct Review Office, with times and names.

“What if these were the people that shot the kid on Morgan Avenue North the other day? What if they had hurt a kid getting off the bus yesterday? And no one bothered to do anything,” he wrote in his complaint.

He also emailed Fourth Precinct Inspector Charles Adams, but never got a response. He filed a complaint with Internal Affairs and contacted Mayor Jacob Frey and his City Council member, Phillipe Cunningham.

Cunningham confirmed that since taking office in 2018, he’s frequently had constituents tell him when they call the Fourth Precinct to complain about response times or asked responding officers what took so long, their response has been, “Call your council member and say we need more officers” or “Call your council member and say we need more funding.” Sometimes they were even referred to Cunningham for things like drug houses or gun violence, he said.

“Police officers were showing up to calls and telling constituents that I cut the amount of officers and that’s why it took them so long,” Cunningham said.

Three months after filing his complaint, Rhodes received an email saying it was reviewed by joint supervisors in the Office of Police Conduct Review and the office decided not to proceed with the complaint after an “appropriate investigation” was done.

“Although we cannot provide you with further information, the results of the investigation will remain on file with the OPCR for several years and may be referenced if future complaints are received,” the email said.

The Minneapolis Police Department spokesman declined to comment, saying only, “A record of this incident does exist. You may make a data request through the Minneapolis Police Records Unit.”

“It is unacceptable that people are just shooting up the neighborhood with impunity, and it is also completely unacceptable that the police completely bungled an opportunity to do something about it and then lied about it,” Rhodes wrote to the precinct inspector. The inspector did not reply.

Rhodes said that the shots fired in his yard occurred minutes before children were getting off a school bus nearby and other young children were passing through his yard.

Just weeks earlier, a child was hospitalized after being shot in the head a few blocks from where Rhodes lives.

“I did not like calling the police because if they had shown up and shot somebody… I would not have forgiven myself but… what if these guns had been involved in something else?” said Rhodes, who is white. “What if these kids had been involved in other shootings? We can’t have this stuff.”

Rhodes said he’s only lived in north Minneapolis for a year, but he’s lived in Minneapolis for more than two decades and is accustomed to occasionally hearing gunshots.

“I’m not trying to be some alarmist white dude,” he said. “I’ve lived in the city for a long time. I try to acknowledge who I am and where I am.”

Rhodes said he got an email from the mayor’s office saying they would  look into it. And Cunningham, Rhodes said, was very sympathetic, saying he’s heard these stories “all too often.”   Cunningham did not respond to a request for comment.

“I was like they have their talking points worked out,” Rhodes said. “Three police in a row telling me that tells me that they coordinated that they’re just not gonna show up and they’re gonna teach us a lesson.”

This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday to add Cunningham’s comment.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.