Is 'Ferguson effect' making Minneapolis less safe?

Searching a suspect for drugs
Minneapolis police, including Sgt. Jeff Carter, left, searched a suspect for drugs Thursday, Mar. 12, 2015 in north Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Earlier this year, while patrolling the city's north side, Minneapolis police Sgt. Jeff Carter offered his take on the state of police community relations, several months after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

"You tell me, how far away are we?" he asked. "If you get a guy involved in ... a shooting that's going to be controversial. How close are we to becoming the next Ferguson?"

At the time, Carter said the protests sparked by the shooting had no impact on how he and his colleagues were doing their jobs.

"I think it's pretty amazing, with all the anti-cop stuff that's going on in the country right now, how hard everybody still works," he said. "Everybody comes out here. They still do their jobs. They tend to business like professionals."

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But some say officers in Minneapolis and other parts of the country have become more cautious and less aggressive.

It is called the Ferguson effect, named for the backlash to the police shooting. Some, including FBI Director James Comey, have said it has emboldened criminals and discouraged officers. It is a controversial premise rejected by many, including some law enforcement professionals.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said earlier this month the actions or inaction of officers are not responsible for the increase in violent crime in her city and that socio-economic disparities and access to firearms are most to blame.

But she conceded that it was possible Ferguson was having some effect.

"I have no doubt that the officers at times have questioned things and are a little more hesitant, certainly on some lower level (offenses) and some stops they would normally do," she said. "I don't want that to happen."

Data from the city of Minneapolis show police officers have made fewer traffic stops and arrests for lower level offenses like loitering and theft this year compared to the past two years. However, arrests for violent crimes are up from this time in 2014. According to the most recent statistics available, officers made fewer traffic stops and suspicious person stops than they did last year and in 2013.

Criticism of officers has led to an increase in violence, said Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.

Officers, he said, are reluctant to make traffic stops or search suspicious people because they're worried that if the situation requires the use of force, they may find themselves on a YouTube video or in the news. When police don't make those stops, they risk overlooking felons with outstanding warrants or who are carrying handguns, Kroll added.

"They're not taking as many guns off the street. And with that kind of beaten down mentality that the police are under in this day and age, people are more brazen about openly carrying guns," he said.

According to the most recent available police statistics, officers have taken slightly fewer guns off the street as they did in 2014 — 668 so far in 2015 compared to 685 in 2014. And so far this year, more than 250 people have been shot. That's more than the total number of shootings last year.

Nothing in the statistics draws a direct connection between protests and rising crime. And the level of violence in the city is far below that of the mid-1990s. In 1995, there were 97 homicides in Minneapolis. So far this year, there have been 49.

Throughout the year, police leaders have increased patrols in neighborhoods experiencing violent outbreaks. The department also stationed additional officers in north Minneapolis tasked exclusively with investigating shootings.

Police officials, however, say the protests and occupation outside the 4th Precinct following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark in November, did affect some very specific areas of crime fighting. Data show the number of traffic stops and suspicious person stops dropped dramatically, between 50 and 75 percent, during the nearly three-week occupation.

Police clear 4th Precinct
Minneapolis police start clearing a protest camp outside the city's 4th Precinct building early Thursday morning, Dec. 3, 2015.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Police say officers spent more time making sure the precinct building was secure than patrolling neighborhoods. They say that also slowed police response to 911 calls.

Blaming protesters for the increase in crime doesn't make sense to people like Jason Sole, who's a member of the Minneapolis NAACP and a professor of law enforcement and criminal justice at Metropolitan State University.

Minneapolis cops are still acting aggressively in predominantly black neighborhoods, Sole said. "If they have pulled back, I would definitely wonder why that is," he added. "It's not because of our efforts to hold them accountable. But that's the way they continually try to shift the narrative."

Sole, who has conducted diversity training for numerous police departments around the country, says protesters don't want police to stop working. They want police to do their jobs without racial bias.

"I value great cops," he said. "It's the cops who abuse their badge, those are the ones we have issues with. We're not anti-cop, we're anti-police brutality."