BY ETHAN BESSER FREDRICK
Minnesotans have never paid so much for police departments only to have so few officers. In some places, police are disappearing altogether. In August, the police department of Goodhue, Minnesota, abolished itself – the entire department resigned for better paying jobs elsewhere. This is the most extreme example of a problem local governments face across the state from Minneapolis to small towns. Despite soaring salary offers (from $22 an hour in 2020 to at least $30 an hour today) and hiring bonuses of up to $70,000, cities can’t fully staff police departments. If the pay has never been better, why can’t they hire enough cops?
The basic cause of the police shortage is the increased public scrutiny and outright hostility police feel in their work. In the years immediately after George Floyd’s murder and the corresponding uprising, early retirements among officers nationally rose by 45% and resignations increased by 18%. Former Minneapolis police officers attribute their resignations to public criticism and oversight of how they do their brutal jobs. One former Minneapolis officer left to take a job in Iowa, whose Republican government expanded protections for police from most consequences after 2020. As the officer put it, “Down here they appreciate you, you get a lot of support from the community.”
By contrast, DFL lawmakers at the state and municipal level campaign intensely on police reform without changing policing in any meaningful way. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is emblematic. He ran for reelection in 2021 promising to both fundamentally reform the police department and protect it from a ballot initiative that would have removed mandatory police staffing levels from the city charter. Infamously, Frey announced a ban on no-knock warrants, the sort of policy that killed Breonna Taylor in Kentucky in 2020, only for Minneapolis police to murder Amir Locke a year later using just such a tactic. Frey then announced that now, for real this time, no-knock warrants would be banned – unless police officers felt it necessary to do it anyway. No senior police department or city officials lost their jobs. Such is the nature of DFL police reform.
This contradiction – high talk of reform while still basing public safety entirely around police departments – is the source of the skyrocketing salaries and staff shortage. Police across the country have a simple and consistent message on reform: Any civilian criticism, oversight, or punishment of our behavior is intolerable. We will leave and take a generous payout when we do. This logic was made clear when the Minnesota state legislature this year forbade officers in schools from putting children in the same stress positions that killed George Floyd – officers quit instead of complying. Even when Attorney General Keith Ellison qualified that officers could put children in these deadly holds when officers feel there is a “threat of bodily harm” (a subjective metric that Derek Chauvin felt justified his actions), this did little to satisfy officers. Why comply with reform and scrutiny when you can get a starting bonus of several thousand dollars in the next county?
Police departments in Minnesota have been forced to offer more generous salaries, benefits, hiring bonuses, and other job perks in order to staff their departments. Officials that want to reform and protect police face an impossible conundrum: remake the policing system which violates human rights established at the state, national, and international level while at the same time hire cops who fight these changes tooth and nail. So far, the DFL has tried to smooth over this issue by trying to buy the loyalty of police departments.
Despite Republican talking points that Democrats abolished the police, the city of Minneapolis (and the state of Minnesota, in fact) is spending more on the police department than ever before. Police salaries have increased faster than inflation every year since 2020. The city offers generous hiring bonuses and is considering raising those. Police are allowed to work overtime beyond what any official policy allows, giving three-fourths of the department mind-boggling six-figure salaries. The department looks the other way when officers moonlight as private security using the training, tools, and connections of the police department. When officers face discipline for their behavior, the city keeps them on staff by giving them promotions instead. The policy is clear: stay in Minneapolis’ “reformed” police department in exchange for a huge payout. When the City Council suggested increasing the police budget by only $7 million instead of $8 million this year, the new police chief, Brian O’Hara, said even this reduction would prevent him from sufficiently staffing the department.
There are obvious limits to this carrot-and-no-stick strategy since the Minneapolis police department remains well below its charter-mandated staffing minimum. As metros with larger budgets hike wages, smaller cities like Goodhue find themselves impossibly outbid. This spending doesn’t even include the increasingly expensive spate of lawsuits cities must settle for the brutality meted out by unreformed police departments. Despite the famous promise made by the Minneapolis City Council in the midst of the rebellion, the police department has not been defunded – but it does seem to be slowly abolishing itself. The ironic result is that while all municipalities are short on cops, rural Minnesota towns that never challenged police authority are the first to abolish the police, in a de facto if not planned state of affairs. At the same time, Minneapolis cops work longer hours and moonlight shifts, which evidence indicates leads exhausted officers to rely more heavily on force and racialized policing tactics.
How can we end this inflationary cycle? The cops have been clear: Stop trying to reform or criticize us. However, politicians and residents talk about reform quite a bit. Political leaders facing a never-ending rise in policing costs may decide to clamp down on even the window dressing of reform to satisfy officers. Frey may be starting on this path; he announced that the police will create their own rules on internal discipline with no civilian input. Alternatively, mayors like Frey could maintain the whiff of reform and just keep increasing police pay and benefits even as taxes are raised, and other public programs suffer. Are pro-police DFL voters ready to stomach tax hikes and cuts to libraries, parks and schools, all to pay for evasive police reform? New York City Democrats are facing this situation under Mayor Eric Adams who is slashing all spending to support the police department. Another possible outcome is that in the near future, there is another uprising caused by a police murder. A rebellion would certainly overstrain the now short-staffed policing system. Based on payroll data, there were likely 900 police officers in Minneapolis in 2020 when George Floyd was murdered compared to around 585 in 2023. Police were unable to keep order even then. By contrast, the working people of Minneapolis are quite organized in their opposition to police rule.
The only realistic solution for public officials interested in avoiding bankruptcy and riot is simple: Find and support other forms of public safety that free us from the police inflationary spiral we find ourselves in. Crime levels in the past five years have fallen, risen, and fallen again regardless of how many police are on the streets. Police departments are not a solution to the public safety crisis – they are the crisis.