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In Minneapolis, Armed Residents Set Up Patrols Amid Calls to Defund the Police

07/25/2020 | 11:53am EDT

By Joe Barrett

Minneapolis residents in some areas still recovering from rioting and unrest are forming community watch and security groups, some bearing firearms, to fight a surge of crime in the wake of the George Floyd killing in May. At least one neighborhood has put up barricades to keep away outsiders.

The moves come as the city council on Friday approved its first permanent cuts to the police budget, amid calls to defund the department and generally lower tax revenue due to the economic strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The $193 million police budget will be cut by $10 million, including making permanent some temporary spending measures -- including a hiring freeze -- put in place in June. Around $1 million from the police budget is being shifted to a program called Cure Violence that tries to prevent things such as retaliatory shootings through community engagement.

The council had initially backed the idea of supporting the community watch groups with money for things like T-shirts, walkie-talkies and training, but that didn't end up in the final budget.

"We're not trying to create an armed force to replace the police department," said Graham Faulkner, an aide to council member Alondra Cano, who had proposed shifting funds to support the community watch groups. "We're trying to support the groups that are out there."

The council earlier approved a proposal that could end up on the November ballot to replace the police department with a new department of community safety and violence prevention next May. Many details of the proposed new agency remain to be worked out, such as whether it would have an armed criminal-justice component.

Police say crime has surged in the months since Mr. Floyd's May 25 killing, in which a now-fired officer was captured on video with his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck for an extended time. Shootings more than tripled in June to 75 from 24 a year earlier. In the first half of July, there were 43 shootings, compared with 29 in all of July 2019.

Police say the increase in crime follows a pattern seen in Ferguson, Mo., and other places where there have been high-profile officer-involved deaths and protests. Police say that, while some in the city seem to believe police have given up, officers remain on patrol throughout the city.

As riots played out across the city in late May and early June, a group of Black gun owners responded to a call from the local NAACP and patrolled the mostly African-American West Broadway business district for 10 nights, keeping the area free of looting or arson without firing a shot, said Jamil Jackson, a leader of the group called the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, which advocates for Black gun ownership.

"We were fired on," he said, "but we weren't going to return fire into a dark street." The group has 45 members with a variety of backgrounds, including some who have military training.

"We played a role alongside law enforcement and helped our community be safe," said Mr. Jackson, 43 years old, who runs a youth mentorship program called Change Equals Opportunity, or CEO.

The group has since been asked to protect community events and has formed a security company offering its services. Mr. Jackson said the group has been well-received at these events and hasn't met with any resistance because they mostly focus on community outreach.

John Elder, the Minneapolis police department's chief spokesman, said in an email that "we have long supported neighborhood patrols. All laws must be obeyed by those engaging in these patrols."

"We have been clear these are in supplement to the police department and not as a substitute," he said. "If people choose not to call the police, that is not something we can control."

He said he hasn't heard of any problems with vigilantism by the groups.

Council member Linea Palmisano said armed neighborhood patrols, or even efforts to just keep unfamiliar people out of a neighborhood, opens a Pandora's box.

"We are lurching for solutions," she said, noting she doesn't support the idea of doing away with the police department but supports the idea of letting residents vote on it.

With the neighborhood patrols, "you could very easily create the same things we rally against," she said.

In late June, residents near a commercial strip that had been looted, and the 3rd Precinct station that was abandoned and burned, were seeing a surge of shooting and drug-related crime on their block.

"It got to the point where crime had no consequences," said Tania Rivera, 30, who runs a day-care service with her mother. "It was being done deliberately out in the open. Drive-through drug dealing, drive-through prostitution, everything from gunshots to assaults to sex out in the public. Everything you didn't want your neighborhood to look like."

So after a number of community meetings, neighbors began constructing a barrier to close off two blocks of their street, first with trash cans, then debris. For a while, a boat on a trailer protected one intersection. Eventually, a nearby iron maker constructed a permanent gate. Police gave their approval as long as emergency responders could get through if requested by the neighborhood.

Neighborhood men also began an armed patrol, kicking out anyone who didn't belong on the block after dark.

"We're not proud of that, but it needed to be done," Ms. Rivera said, adding that the patrols are continuing today.

"Most of the time it has been peaceful, other times not really," said Maria Gali, 56, Tania's mother, in an email. "Neighbors are armed, and some of them are veterans. They are very determined to defend their families, properties and the street."

Many neighborhoods across the city have started similar patrols, though only a few are armed, residents say. The activism in some places is balanced with a caution about involving police, who some residents don't feel can be trusted.

Kadence Hampton, a 30-year-old urban planner, began a text chain with her neighbors during the protests and rioting after she saw seven armed men park in the shadows on her street and proceed toward a home owned by a Black family on her block.

"I didn't know if it was a special security force or a police task force or white supremacists," she said, she just knew it was scary. So she went door to door collecting cellphone numbers, hoping that getting to know her neighbors would bring a sense of security.

But this week when she witnessed one of her neighbors being robbed of her purse by three men as she tried to bring in her groceries, Ms. Hampton didn't call police.

"I am hesitant to call the police," she said. "They are not proactively preventing any type of harm. When they do show up, they escalate things. I am not convinced calling the police is the safest thing to do."

Write to Joe Barrett at joseph.barrett@wsj.com


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