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Police Departments Try To Walk The Line Between Reform, Public Safety

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here are two facts. In some U.S. cities, people are asking for police to have less power and less resources because of instances of police brutality. And in many U.S. cities, violent crime is rising. Are those two facts related? I talked to two reporters who are watching as police departments try to walk a line between reform and public safety. NPR's Martin Kaste is in Seattle - and Minnesota Public Radio's Brandt Williams.

In Brandt's city, Minneapolis, a police officer killed George Floyd. The city council then took a first step toward defunding the police as part of this bigger effort to overhaul public safety. I asked Brandt, did the city actually follow through and defund the police?

BRANDT WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Well, so far, no, not exactly. The council has taken some initial steps towards making good on their pledge to drastically change the police department. Earlier this summer, the council did cut a little bit, like about a million dollars or so, from the police budget to fund public health-based antiviolence initiatives. And earlier this week, they just amended the 2021 budget to reduce the police department budget by nearly $8 million. That will also fund some more of those types of programs. And the council is going to vote on the final budget proposal later on tonight.

And this is happening while homicides are reaching levels that we haven't seen since the 1990s. Shootings and carjackings are also way up. And that's really complicated the council's moves to make these significant reforms. Council members have been - the ones who've been pushing for reforms are also hearing from basically frightened constituents who are saying, you know, maybe now is not the best time to make such deep cuts in the police department.

KING: So then what is the conversation like now between the police and the people who were calling or are calling for them to be defunded? What are people saying?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's been tense even among the leadership here in the city. Earlier this year, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo had requested some money for the department to help it address this surge in crime. And the following is - a bit of tape here - it's the chief responding to a council member during that meeting who is skeptical about whether giving the department more money was the best way to respond to this uptick in crime. And his comment elicited a sharp retort from a different council member by the name of Jeremiah Ellison, who took exception to how the chief framed his response. First, you're going to hear the chief, and then you're going to hear Ellison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEDARIA ARRADONDO: If you choose to say no to these victims of crime, then please stand by that. I'm saying we need more resources today and right now.

JEREMIAH ELLISON: And every single one of my colleagues knows that if that's how you're framing the argument, that's so full of BS, and that is so insincere. And I'll call it out.

KING: Martin, you cover policing across the country. Is what's happening in Minneapolis right now happening in other cities?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Yeah. I'm seeing versions of this kind of tension playing out in a lot of cities since the summer. I mean, violent crime specifically has spiked in cities across the country. There's an organization called the Police Executive Research Forum, sort of a think tank for police chiefs, and they surveyed their members to get some early stats for the year. And the numbers are just scary - you know, Portland, Ore., up 68% in terms of murders; Louisville up 79%; Omaha, up 150%. New York City has seen a spike in shootings, doubling the number of shootings over the last year. And so this causes sort of an inevitable argument about whether this is somehow the result of all the protests this summer and the changes the departments made in response to those protests.

KING: Is there consensus on what is causing what here?

KASTE: Well, no. There's no consensus that the protests caused this. That's certainly - there are a lot of plausible explanations for what's causing this spike. COVID, obviously, means that a lot more young men, who are the demographic for this, are out of school, or they're unemployed and are more available to get swept up in this kind of violence. A lot of trials are being delayed. Jails have let more people out. So some people with criminal histories are on the street.

But, you know, as you'd expect, cops think that this is also happening because police morale is down while departments lose experienced cops. You know, because of some of these tensions, they're cutting specialized units. And there's a sense among some police that this means that potential criminals feel more emboldened now.

KING: So as people in these cities watch crime go up, are you seeing people's minds change when it comes to reimagining how policing should work?

KASTE: Well, the reformers worry that it might do that. And I'm not just talking about the current generation of activists and Black Lives Matter, but also some of the academics who have been pushing for reform for years see this as actually an opportunity for meaningful reform. One of those people is Robin Engel. She's a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati. She also used to run the university's police department there, and she consults with police departments. And she says these events created this opportunity for reform. But she's worried that what she calls knee-jerk reactions - say, cutting a police budget an arbitrary amount of money - may actually make things harder.

ROBIN ENGEL: As we respond immediately in crisis mode, we will miss the opportunity for long-term planning that's really necessary. And we need to bring evidence to the table.

KING: Brandt, you mentioned the Minneapolis police chief trying to get resources for a shrinking department also trying to accommodate reforms. What other challenges is he facing in his department?

WILLIAMS: Well, one of Chief Arradondo's main concerns is about the changing role for his officers. Arradondo has long championed community engagement as a way to build trust between his officers and the communities they serve. But he's recently complained that some of these reform efforts threaten to relegate his officers to just responders to emergencies. He warned that that would make it hard for officers to actually connect with community, which is something that city council members have said they really want officers to be able to do.

KING: And Martin, when you talk to police chiefs elsewhere in the country, do they say something similar?

KASTE: Yeah. And you have to keep in mind - you know, see this from the chief's perspective. You know, this idea that the cops should actually be scarcer in the streets is the opposite of what reformers have been telling them to do for the last couple of decades, the whole community policing idea. You know, now all of a sudden, that's not so desirable. And so you can see why they're feeling some, you know, reform whiplash here.

You know, the experts like professor Engel, they say they'd rather just use this moment to be more deliberate. There's something called evidence-based policing where you try something, you test the outcomes and you adapt as you go. She'd like to see that happen in this country. But that kind of deliberateness is really hard in an environment where you have activists on one side who are impatient for change and now, on the other side, people in some neighborhoods who are worried about this rising crime.

KING: NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle and Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio. Thanks to you both for your time. We appreciate it.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

KASTE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMILO'S "STUBBORN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.