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Violence rises in Minneapolis, as debate over role of police rages

A man etches RIH, which stands for Rest In Heaven, on a Minneapolis street on June 20, a day after a shooting left several wounded and one man dead. Eight people have been fatally shot in the city since May 25. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS — At first, it sounded like fireworks, a loud crackling noise that has become the daily soundtrack of the city in recent weeks. But when David Trueblood, a coach for the Minnesota Jays youth football team, felt a bullet go whizzing by his head and heard the rapid pings of metal spray across a fence in Jordan Park, he screamed for his players, 50 kids ages 5 to 14, to hit the ground.

“I thought somebody was going to die,” Trueblood said.

As gunfire rang out early Monday evening here on the city’s north side, Trueblood and six other coaches threw their bodies atop as many children as they could. Frantic parents took cover behind cars, desperate to crawl to their kids but caught in the middle of a gun battle between a nearby group and a car that circled the park, spraying bullets across the field where the Jays were playing.

Minneapolis officials have described an unprecedented burst of violence following George Floyd’s Memorial Day death, after an officer held him down with a knee to his neck, sparking worldwide fury and massive protests. At least 113 people have been shot since May 25, eight fatally, according to Minneapolis police, with hundreds of reports of gunfire across the city, including several shootings in broad daylight.

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, a neighborhood group in north Minneapolis is patrolling the streets. (Video: The Washington Post)

The spike in violence has come amid a raging debate over the role the Minneapolis Police Department should play in addressing crime in this city. Public confidence has so deteriorated that a majority of the City Council has pledged to dismantle the agency. Some residents have accused officers of purposefully curbing response to crime, which police deny. Others have decided to stop using the agency’s services altogether.

At the Jays’ practice on Monday, several parents frantically called 911, according to Trueblood. Officers, he said, still hadn’t arrived by the time they gathered up the children and fled.

“We needed the police,” Trueblood said.

On Monday, nine people were shot in a four-hour span across the city, starting around 2:30 p.m. That came a day after gunfire struck 11 people during an early-morning gun battle along a busy stretch of bars and restaurants in Uptown Minneapolis, in what officials called one of the worst mass shootings in the city’s history.

Three other people have been killed, according to police, including one in a fatal stabbing Monday afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, just blocks from city hall. The police scanner has been jammed with reports of robberies, carjackings and other violent incidents across the city.

Mayor Jacob Frey has asked for additional law enforcement assistance from several regional and federal agencies, including the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and the Secret Service, to help investigate and stem the bloodshed. A more robust law enforcement operation featuring the additional agencies was to begin Friday.

“The violence and lawlessness that we’ve seen the last few days is not acceptable in any form,” Frey told reporters this week. “We’re going to restore order. We’re going to make sure that people throughout our city feel safe.”

Law enforcement and other city officials have been publicly reluctant to link the uptick of violence to Floyd’s death, but the incident stirred deep tensions between residents and the police department, which has long been accused of racism and use of excessive force against people of color.

After Floyd’s death in South Minneapolis, scores of residents in the surrounding neighborhood, a deeply progressive area known for its diverse population, said they would no longer call the police out of fear they might put more African Americans at risk. The declaration was echoed in other parts of the city, where the plywood put up to protect windows of businesses during the recent demonstrations has been decorated with messages including “Stop Calling the Police.”

A majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced earlier this month that they would work to defund and dismantle the police department, insisting past reform efforts had done little to change the culture and behavior of the long-troubled agency.

The council voted Friday to advance a measure that would ask voters in November to approve a change to the city charter allowing Minneapolis to replace its police department with a new agency focused on safety and violence prevention. The proposed agency would employ some officers, though it’s unclear how many and how they would operate.

Adding to the tensions are claims from some in the community that police officers have stepped back from the job amid the anti-police sentiment — a claim strongly denied by Minneapolis police officials, who say officers are working as hard as ever to protect the city amid sometimes “hostile” conditions.

Hundreds gathered outside George Floyd's memorial service in Minneapolis on June 4 to pay tribute to his life and demand justice for his death. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Both Frey and John Elder, a police spokesperson, have described incidents in recent days in which police officers were pelted with bottles and rocks while responding to scenes, including a shooting last Friday near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, the site where Floyd was killed.

On Monday, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo pointedly praised community members and bar and restaurant employees working near the site of Sunday’s shooting for “protecting officers and shielding them” as they responded to the scene. Officers have been working in “unbelievable conditions,” Arradondo said, but they “continue to show up and continue to serve.”

But many residents have said in recent days that they have noticed a less robust presence from the police department, including in South Minneapolis, where they have seen fewer patrol cars in the past four weeks, even as there have been more sounds of gunshots and reports of crime.

One South Minneapolis resident, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, said after past police killings in the region, officers often tried to ease tensions within the community, by driving around with their windows down to encourage more interaction. “But all you see now is them with their windows up,” the person said.

Jamar B. Nelson, a longtime Minneapolis activist who co-founded the anti-violence group A Mother’s Love, said he knows several people who have chosen to stop reporting crimes because they did not want to be labeled “snitches” by neighbors or others.

He accused City Council members who have pushed to dismantle police of further eroding the “lack of respect” toward Minneapolis officers, which he said has in turn encouraged “lawless behavior” to spread across the city in recent weeks.

Nelson was caught up in the early Sunday shooting while engaged in community outreach with members of the anti-violence group. He had seen just one visible officer patrol the area, even as the street grew busy with patrons visiting bars that had been closed for months because of the coronavirus.

One of the gunmen had been just feet away from him, and Nelson estimated he fired dozens of rounds toward another gunman, who fired back. He saw bodies falling and was surrounded by people he thought were dead.

“There was no fear,” Nelson said. “You get what’s happening from people not fearing police being called.”

Lisa Bender, the president of the City Council, who has led efforts to dismantle the police department, did not respond to a request for comment. But in an interview with the Star Tribune, she linked recent shootings to the usual uptick in crime during the summer and ongoing stress in the community after Floyd’s death. And she pointedly said the police department was still in place.

“We still have a police department today,” Bender told the Star Tribune. “Its funding has not changed from three weeks ago.”

The fear of a potentially violent summer has scared Minneapolis residents still traumatized by Floyd’s death and the chaos that followed, including the fiery protests that burned and destroyed several hundred buildings across the city.

In North Minneapolis, Monday’s close call has forced Trueblood and his Minnesota Jays to scramble to find a new place to practice and play. Benched for weeks because of the coronavirus, the Jays had only recently returned to the park, which has hosted summer youth football teams like theirs for decades.

Minneapolis police officers usually came to watch, parking their squad cars and cheering on the kids, but “in the last week or so, we haven’t seen them,” Trueblood said.

Like many of his young players, Trueblood is black. In recent weeks, the team, which also includes several white players, has grappled with the aftermath of Floyd’s death. They had talked about the images some had seen of the 46-year-old black man gasping for breath, a white police officer’s knee at his throat, and then the violent protests that had erupted afterward, leaving blocks of the city burned.

They are raising money to help pay for the costs of renting a new practice field and transportation for kids who live near Jordan Park to travel there. At a team meetup at a park miles away on Wednesday night, the kids hugged and went back to practice, even as some were still jittery at the sound of fireworks popping in the distance.

As a black man, Trueblood admitted he was “torn” over the debate about the police. But right now, he was more worried about what to say to his players. They were like his own kids. All he could do was promise to keep them safe. But what did that mean in Minneapolis at a moment like this?

“We’ve played in the middle of Chicago, and nothing like this has ever happened,” Trueblood said. “It’s hard to understand.”