Policing Minneapolis amid a staffing shortage

Two years after George Floyd’s police killing, a night downtown shows MPD struggling to contain crime

By: - August 25, 2022 6:01 am

Three officers arrest a man suspected of cell phone theft outside of the Brass Rail Lounge Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

As Lt. Kelly O’Rourke heads into the First Precinct in downtown Minneapolis on a recent Friday night, he pauses to point out the spot where a week prior he got out of his squad to respond to a fight when a gunfight broke out about 20 feet away.

Three men were shot, one fatally. Right in front of the lieutenant and police station.

“They don’t care anymore,” O’Rourke said.

And there are fewer cops around to enforce the law.

On this balmy night in early August, 14 Minneapolis police officers are covering the downtown precinct from 4:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. That’s down from 60, O’Rourke says. That was before George Floyd was murdered by former MPD officer Derek Chauvin, sparking an unsuccesful movement to defund the police, followed by an exodus of officers that has left the department chronically shortstaffed. Many say they have post-traumatic stress disorder and have gotten workers’ compensation settlements and disability pensions.

O’Rourke’s job is to figure out how to use those 14 officers to cover downtown, where there are two concerts and a Twins game tonight. He’s had as few as 12 officers in the past couple of years.

They’ve responded to a shooting every week for the past six weeks, he says.

Lt. Kelly O’Rourke heads out for a shift from the downtown police station on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

9 p.m.

The dispatcher radios a report of shots fired and a fight in the 1100 block of 2nd Street as O’Rourke’s shift begins.

O’Rourke heads out in a black and white marked SUV. He has a black bulletproof vest pulled over his blue MPD short-sleeved shirt, and a Mountain Dew Zero in hand. He needs the energy.

“I’m killing myself at 47 (years) out running around chasing these kids,” he says. 

As O’Rourke drives through the streets, dispatch says a car is reported stolen. 

9:27 p.m.

While the scanner reports shots fired near Washington Avenue, O’Rourke drives by Nicollet Avenue and 7th Street where men congregate on a corner with a cooler. O’Rourke says it’s an open air drug market. 

“They know we can’t do anything about it anymore,” O’Rourke says. They don’t have the time, nor the resources. 

The department has lost about 350 officers — dropping from about 900 cops to 550 — in the past two years.  

After George Floyd’s police murder and subsequent protests and riots, many Minneapolis residents began reporting slow or no response to their calls for help, leading City Council members to question whether the police were engaging in a work slowdown. One cop told a local Indigenous leader that post-Floyd, MPD started taking a “hands-off” approach to crime control to avoid confrontations that could turn ugly. 

Baltimore saw similar complaints about police after Freddie Gray died in the back of a police van in 2015, sparking protests and riots. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “Ferguson effect,” after the protests following the police killing of Michael Brown there.

The Minneapolis police chief blamed slower response times on a mass departure of cops from the force amid rising crime..  

Lt. Kelly O’Rourke tries to figure out how to allocate 14 Minneapolis police officers covering the downtown precinct, as an overtime volunteer, Officer Alex Reynolds, looks on.  O’Rourke says they used to have 60 officers on a night like this. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

9:33 p.m. 

Back at the police station, O’Rourke is working on his “late night safety plan.”

He walks to a back room where a handful of officers wait for him. About a dozen mug shots of alleged “cell phone robbers” are taped to a giant whiteboard. 

Officer Mike Pfaff watches a wall of screens showing live footage from monitoring cameras. He can zoom in from the Capella Tower skyscraper to the ground.

Officers taped a glossy blue poster to the wall. The poster is the work of an anti-police activist, replacing the words “Minneapolis Police” with “Murderous Police.” Someone scrawled “f*** 12” on the poster in red, which is a common epithet directed at cops. 

Below it is a poster of the American flag with a blue line, and the words “united we stand.”

And below that sits Pfaff, working the cameras.

Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman is trying to rein in exploding overtime, which can lead to fatigue-driven mistakes that could be deadly. So Pfaff can only work until 4 a.m. Officers can’t work more than 16 consecutive hours or more than 74 hours per week, and must have at least eight consecutive hours of rest every 24 hours — although exceptions can be made. 

O’Rourke says overtime was rare prior to 2020.

Now, overtime is unavoidable and helped 72% of MPD cops make six figures last year. 

O’Rourke offers overtime to officers to work downtown shifts, but he doesn’t get many volunteers because, he suspects, it’s too dangerous.  

Tonight only one overtime volunteer has shown up so far: Officer Alex Reynolds, who left Brooklyn Center to join MPD one year ago. 

A second overtime volunteer can’t start working until midnight due to the overtime policy.

They used to have a “power shift” of officers dedicated to help with bar closing time, with officers on foot. Not anymore.

With so few officers, the police won’t be able to respond to every 911 call downtown tonight. So O’Rourke comes up with a plan that he details for his unit on a computer monitor: At 11 p.m., just five cops in the precinct will answer 911 calls until after the bars close at 2 a.m., using the extra officers for hot spots downtown. At 12:30 a.m., the cops will stop responding to non-life-threatening calls like car break-ins and only respond to priority calls, like shootings, for the next several hours.

The new overtime policy is good for improving officers’ mental health, O’Rourke says, but makes it even more difficult to staff the streets.

9:45 p.m.

O’Rourke’s cell phone rings.

“Hello buddy,” he says quietly, walking toward the back of the room.

It’s his 12-year-old son, wondering about his sisters.

“Yeah, they should be home around 10,” O’Rourke says.

“Love you buddy,” he says before hanging up.

Twenty minutes later, his son calls again, as O’Rourke heads out of the station.

O’Rourke has been working for MPD for almost 25 years, joining the force during the 1990s, when the murder rate reached a peak. He spent 17 years as a foot soldier in the Drug War and was decorated for his work investigating gangs. 

In 2007, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, alleging retaliation after he complained about illegal handling of evidence and seized property by the Metro Gang Strike Force. The unit was later investigated by the FBI and disbanded amid allegations of missing cash and seized property.

Like most officers, he also has misconduct complaints, a handful sustained, most recently in 2008. 

After he was promoted to lieutenant, he went back to working the streets. He’s been working downtown the past year and a half.

He used to work days; now he works nights. His son is still adjusting.

Normally, O’Rourke would supervise, overseeing crime scenes and reviewing incidents where force is used. Tonight he’ll take some calls, too.

Lt. Kelly O’Rourke drives by two men as they approach a car for what O’Rourke suspects is an open air drug deal. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

10:09 p.m.

Within minutes, the dispatcher says a fight is reported to 911.

Two minutes later, dispatch reports a “man down” at a homeless shelter. O’Rourke goes to that call and finds the ambulance already there. The man is up now. But many times, it’s an overdose.

O’Rourke still has to make a report.

The dispatcher says three women are jumping on the hood of a squad car near a crowd of 50 to 100 people near the Bolero Flats apartments.

A “slumper” (unresponsive person) is reported at 14th and Washington.

10:24 p.m.

A man is pointing a gun at people and trying to blind them with a flashlight, the dispatcher says.

O’Rourke pulls into a parking lot where an off-duty MPD officer is doing a shift guarding the lot at 15th Street and Nicollet Avenue. Police can make two to four times as much money doing this work, O’Rourke says. If something happens, the officer can help police.

10:43 p.m.

O’Rourke is stopped at a light. A man stands outside a nearby car in what O’Rourke suspects is a drug deal. O’Rourke pulls up next to the man and asks “What’s up?” 

The man says he’s talking to his kids in the back of the car. There are no kids in the back of the car.

O’Rourke moves on. 

10:59 p.m.

Fireworks explode — marking the end of the Twins game. Twins fans crowd the light-rail platform.

People are everywhere — spilling out of strip clubs, standing in line at bars, crowding the streets, many dressed to the nines. Others barely dressed. Others homeless. Others in drug-induced stupors. A woman grasps at the air as she stumbles into an intersection. 

“That’s crack,” O’Rourke says.

11 p.m.

O’Rourke radios officers to start putting up barricades to redirect traffic on Third and Second avenues and help manage downtown with few officers. 

“We want the city to come back… but we don’t have the resources to keep ‘em safe,” O’Rourke says.

While west downtown has historically had high violent crime, it dropped during the pandemic but has been increasing again this year, according to a recent Star Tribune analysis.

11:17 p.m.

The dispatcher reports shots fired and O’Rourke is about to head that way when a young woman with frazzled hair runs up to his car window, with a man following close behind. She screams for help, saying the man just got out of jail for assaulting her and snatched a wig off her head.

The young man keeps saying “She’s my girl,” as if that makes it OK..

O’Rourke gets out of the SUV, which is parked in the middle of Hennepin Avenue, and starts talking to the two when the young man takes off running. O’Rourke runs after him, radioing the pursuit while running toward Fourth Street.

The young woman’s face switches from terror to delight, and she screams “Yes!”

“He snatched my wig off! He wouldn’t stop pushing me!” she says breathlessly “I was trying to get my stuff. He wasn’t giving me my stuff.”

O’Rourke catches the man a block away. The man “kinda got hit by a car,” reports O’Rourke, whose body camera fell off somewhere along the way. O’Rourke handcuffs him and other officers take him to the station.

An officer is talking to the woman in a squad car. One of her friends yells at her from the sidewalk, calling her “ghetto” for ruining the night. 

Other officers later tell O’Rourke that the young man was arrested for assaulting the young woman just a couple of days ago.

A half hour later, the man sits in the back of another police SUV at the police station when O’Rourke pulls up and parks next to it.

“Can I talk to you?” the man says meekly to O’Rourke.

He apologizes for running.

“I appreciate that,” O’Rourke says, walking away.

12:30 a.m.

Sgt. Andrew Schroeder joins O’Rourke in the SUV and they drive by the Gold Room, a club where there have been shootings and killings.

Some 20 cars are parked and double parked, and a couple of uniformed cops are standing outside, mingling with the crowd.

“I’m pissed off,” O’Rourke says as he gets out of his squad.

“Tag every single car,” he tells a tall cop, who tries to explain, saying he agrees with the lieutenant, but it’s difficult when there are so many cars parked illegally and their ticket device isn’t working and…  O’Rourke isn’t having it.

Schroeder calls it a “gang-infested club.” He says one of the officers outside the club is the brother of one of the bar’s owners. 

They drive away, O’Rourke still fuming at their inaction. 

As O’Rourke and Schroeder drive through throngs of people, Schroeder has his window down and periodically greets some by name with a knowing smile.

“What’s up Shawn?” he says jauntily. 

“You good?” he asks another.

He knows an uncanny number of people by name. 

“Shawn has been arrested so many times I have his name memorized,” Schroeder explains. 

He has a high-pitched, friendly, knowing voice — the knowledge of their criminal histories.

A man is rolling a joint near Mayo Clinic on Hennepin. 

“I’m sure everything’s fine,” Schroeder jokes.

That’s become a mantra for officers, he explains. In the worst of situations, an officer will deadpan, “I’m sure everything’s fine.”

O’Rourke gets a phone call. His significant other is “so done with me doing bar close” because of all the gunfire in recent weeks, he tells Schroeder later.

Lt. Kelly O’Rourke looks into car windows for guns at the Loop parking lot in downtown Minneapolis. He had the SUV towed because it was parked illegally and he saw a gun inside. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

1 a.m.

O’Rourke and Schroeder use flashlights to look in the windows of cars parked in the 500 block of First Avenue.

They see guns in cars — or what they call “rolling gun safes.” People leave their guns in the cars and if a fight breaks out, they can grab the guns and start shooting, O’Rourke says. 

It’s not unusual for up to 170 rounds to go off in a night, he says. A $20 device called an auto sear or switch can turn a handgun into a machine gun. 

A recent Minneapolis crime report presented to the City Council showed the number of rounds detected increased from 3,888 in 2019 to over 16,000 last year, before dropping to nearly 13,000 this year.

Minneapolis crime analysts first noticed fully automatic gunfire using ShotSpotter technology in August 2020. Since then, the city has recorded 390 activations of full auto gunfire with 4,138 rounds detected, according to the report.

The report also showed in the past five years, just 16% of guns recovered as evidence were originally purchased by Minneapolis residents.

The driver of a car, which had a gun in it and was parked after hours, argues with officers as they tow his car. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

A man with long dreadlocks wearing a white T-shirt is walking away from a black Tahoe with tinted windows as O’Rourke is checking cars with his flashlight.

The man warns O’Rourke to stop or he’ll call “my girl” who “runs the department” and continues on toward the Gold Room.

O’Rourke ignores him and says now he knows there are guns in that car. He presses a flashlight to the tinted windows and sees a gun on the passenger seat.

Schroeder goes into the Gold Room and returns to announce that the man says he has a gun permit, but police believe he is an active North Side gang member. 

O’Rourke calls in the license plate and says the man is suspected of having been involved in a recent shooting.

He spots a second gun and calls for a tow truck — the car is illegally parked, allowing O’Rourke to move a gun away from the scene without needing a warrant. 

“This gun won’t kill someone tonight,” he says. 

This is what passes for gun control in America. 

As a tow truck arrives, the Tahoe owner and others return and crowd around, arguing with the several officers who have gathered. The Tahoe owner thrusts a cell phone in O’Rourke’s face, and says his attorney is on the line. They can’t legally tow his car, he says. 

The Tahoe gets towed anyway, and the cops leave.

As they drive away, O’Rourke calls the police chief to get permission for Schroeder to go over on overtime. It’s almost 2 a.m.

Sgt. Andrew Schroeder, left, Lt. Kelly O’Rourke, and two other officers search a 16-year-old boy after mistaking a cell phone in his pocket for a gun. They were searching for a gun involved in a cell phone robbery near the Brass Rail Lounge. Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

2 a.m.

O’Rourke and Schroeder are near Augie’s Topless Club when the dispatcher summons police to a cell phone robbery near the Gay 90s bar.

O’Rourke flies through traffic, driving on the sidewalk, driving straight into traffic, other cars scattering like ants. They arrive to find a man handcuffed up against a car, and an officer talking to a woman who says she was knocked down during the robbery.

Police say kids have an uncomplicated scam: They roam the streets looking for drunk people, then ask to use their phones to make an emergency call or take a drunken selfie, and then steal the phones and drain their Venmo accounts.

Police have already recovered one gun. But the cops are looking for another gun reportedly being passed around the crowd. Schroeder has several confidential informants who happen to be in the area, and one of them keeps trying to surreptitiously tell the officers who has the gun.

Finally, the cops think they’ve spotted the guy matching the latest description. He’s wearing a black hoodie and a black ski mask, jeans and tennies. After briefly talking to him in a squad car in the middle of the street, they let him go. They thought he had a pistol, but he didn’t.

He is 16 years old. The officers tell him and other teens to go home, saying it’s not safe out here.

2:40 a.m.

At 2:40 a.m., O’Rourke and Schroeder check cars in a parking lot near Gay 90s.

Schroeder continues to spot people he knows, people he’s arrested, people whose names he shouts out like he just saw an old friend from high school — but with a tinge of bravado, as if to say, “I see you.” The people often seem to recognize him, and laugh or smile sheepishly as they continue walking.

Finally, O’Rourke tells a half dozen officers to turn on their squad car sirens near the bar, and they sit in the street blaring the deafening screech for five minutes. 

“Now they’ll leave — this isn’t fun,” O’Rourke says.

Schroeder leaves to go to the tow lot to make sure the towed Tahoe is secure. 

They later get a search warrant and recover three guns and some crack and weed, O’Rourke says.

The crowd disperses. After 3 a.m., O’Rourke radios that the “react” officers can answer calls for help again.

This story was updated to clarify gunfire statistics.

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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.