The Minneapolis Police Department is shutting down its narcotics unit in order to save money.
The move is a response to anticipated budget cuts that could cut dozens of jobs from the department. Police officials say they will not reduce drug enforcement activity, but some neighborhood activists are skeptical.
Police officials say closing the narcotics unit is part of a larger strategy to cut costs and prevent layoffs.
Deputy police Chief Rob Allen said dropping narcotics will eventually save the department money by reducing redundancy. Allen said the Violent Offender Task Force and the department's gang unit already investigate and arrest drug traffickers. He said the department's financial crimes unit will absorb some of the work done by narcotics.
"Then the other thing we're doing is we're shifting people out into the community," Allen said. "So we can address the second real priority of our narcotics strategy, which is targeting narcotics trafficking which is destroying communities through the drug-dealing and everything that brings to bear."
Allen said that the reassignments will strengthen the department's focus on so-called core enforcement areas, like community patrols. He said street officers make the majority of drug arrests, usually through traffic stops.
But that's not reassuring to people like Jeff Skrenes, the housing director for the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council in north Minneapolis.
"That's precisely the problem, they get reassigned to different units and their focus might not be where it used to be," Skrenes said. "That's where I'm particularly concerned."
Skrenes said he understands that no police budget cuts are going to be painless, but the department's focus on combating drug-related crime has resulted in reductions in the amount of drug houses and open air drug dealing in some high traffic areas.
“The other thing we're doing is we're shifting people out into the community.”Chief Rob Allen
"Sometimes I feel like we're so close to turning the corner on some of these issues and now I look in the paper and see this headline and I just wonder if we're going to take steps backward," he said.
Beginning next year, the police department is expected to take some hits when it comes to staffing. It could lose as many as 50 full-time positions. However, it's not clear if those cuts will include unfilled jobs, nor is it known how many officers will voluntarily retire.
City officials are proposing an early retirement incentive to police officers and firefighters. Under the plan, a retiree would receive a lump sum payment of $15,000 that would be placed into their health care savings account.
Fire chief Alex Jackson said he hopes some firefighters eligible for the incentive take advantage of it.
"And that does clear room, budget wise, if you have enough of them to help alleviate layoffs," he said.
Jackson said he's trying to find ways to avoid layoffs altogether - including applying for federal grants. However, he said he could have to let go of 27 firefighters next year if the incentive program is unpopular.
Jackson added, due to the current economy, retirement is not a popular option.