Is Minneapolis back, baby?

It’s a question being asked and answered all over the local news: Is Minneapolis back? I’ll be honest, I like big events, people on sidewalks and in the streets, gathering together in ways that make city life so uniquely joyful. These essential experiences we’d been deprived of for too long are coming back. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling in love with this city all over again.

But hey, snap out of it. Wake up and smell the trauma of the last few years. The real existential question for this city remains: Does any of this mean we’re meaningfully addressing our police problem? I pose that question in the broadest sense. Whether you believe our “police problem” is the pattern of racist practices that made MPD the target of state and federal investigations for racism and brutality; or you say our police problem is that we don’t have a functioning department; or that we don’t have enough police; or that the city still lacks well-integrated alternatives to armed police.

More than three years after George Floyd was murdered by an officer whose history had all the red flags his superiors needed to see it coming, MPD is ignoring big waving red flags in their hiring practices. Most notably, MPD hired a former Virginia police officer named Tyler Timberlake, who left his previous job after being prosecuted for a high-profile case of brutality, and denounced in the strongest possible terms by his former chief. Then there’s ex-MPD officer Charles Storlie, who was nearly re-hired earlier this year as a civilian investigator despite warning MPD repeatedly about the multiple high-profile, very google-able incidents when he’d shot people (I repeat: he warned them they should be careful about hiring him!). When MPD offered him the job, Storlie turned it down, following his ex-wife’s advice: “someone’s going to find out who you are.”

In Minneapolis, police stories where nobody is maimed or killed tend to feel like a minor scandal. But this is truly a massive failure. It’s the most important promise Frey and his public safety apparatus have made to the public since the last election. The thing they have sold harder than anything: Remaking a police department full of officers who are “here for the right reasons,” and want do do their jobs in ways that build trust and won’t get people killed. But if the system still fails to act on the most obvious warning signs, what else are they letting get past them?

Two years after the police staffing crisis was the bloody shirt of the 2021 election, and 10 months after Don Samuels et al dropped their police staffing lawsuit, the number of officers available for duty is lower than ever. It’s still the case that more police are leaving MPD than are being hired. We unhandcuffed the mayor, gave him a chamber of commerce approved council majority, and it turns out his police department is still broken.

At the same time, violent crime is down significantly (though still elevated from pre-2020 levels). Mayor Frey and his administration are attributing this lower level of crime to Operation Endeavor. But there’s some important context that you used to hear at mayoral press conferences back when crime was on the upswing: the same trends are happening in other cities. Well, you don’t hear that anymore. With schools, services, courts and so many other civic institutions curtailed or shut down, our society was pushed to the breaking point. We felt it across the country. And now as society’s institutions have come back, violent crime nationally is falling. We should be deeply skeptical of explanations that MPD is now doing more with less — that this corrupt, historically poorly led, and understaffed organization is suddenly working harder and smarter than ever before.

It’s been a year and a half since the government restructuring that Mayor Frey told us was the most important thing he’d ever do. He pushed the creation of the Office of Community Safety and appointed Cedric Alexander to lead it. Alexander’s job as commissioner is to oversee police, fire, 911, and the city’s emerging set of unarmed responders — like Behavioral Crisis Response teams and violence interrupters. The idea was for the 67-year-old to come out of retirement, as the wise man who could weave it all together.

Though Alexander had retired from law enforcement before arriving in Minneapolis, he was still actively pursuing the life of a media figure. He’d written a book and was a frequent cable news guest. Soon after becoming the city’s highest paid employee, the bio on his booking website for speaking engagements was updated to read: “He aims to transform community safety in a city where the murder of George Floyd spurred international outrage and cries for powerful and meaningful change.” Less than a year after arriving — that mission hardly begun, let alone accomplished — he announced his re-retirement.

The problems with Alexander were apparent early on. The combative reaction to an innocuous question from a council member; his suggestion that his job would not be hard, that it was the media and public criticism that make it hard; the time he was reprimanded by the mayor for the way he engaged with critics on social media; the dozens of times he tweeted at notable public figures asking them to follow him back; and the Star Tribune article where he complained about lacking the resources to do his job, while giving the reporter a compelling real-time example of himself being inattentive to his job.

Commissioner Alexander is a shallow, thin-skinned, cliché machine — the kind of person Mayor Frey can really connect with. He wasn’t hired through a formal process; he was serving as a consultant in the city’s search for a new police chief. Frey apparently liked him and decided to offer him the city’s other high-profile public safety job. Considering it’s the highest paid position at city hall, we might need to dig deeper next time.

And here’s a necessary footnote on the new government structure. We were told by advocates that the new strong mayor system would be a boon for good government. It would allow us to hire the best and brightest to work for the city. Department heads would no longer be frustrated by the rats nest of 14 bosses; no more city hall knife fights. But it’s not working out that way.

Frey’s reform-minded city attorney resigned last May, less than two years into the job, right as the administration was balking at negotiating an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights following their investigation of MPD. In March, Frey’s pick for racial equity director resigned after a year in the job over charges of mismanagement and countercharges of racism. The director of the department that developed the nationally-heralded Behavioral Crisis Response teams is gone, after publicly criticizing city leadership for failing to address racism at city hall (he also received a settlement in an employment dispute). And now Cedric Alexander, advertised as the city’s most important unelected leader, is resigning after just one year (Council Member Rainville actually used the phrase “mission accomplished” and City Council President Andrea Jenkins said heckuva job).

While it’s true I’m starting to recognize my city again — the people, the places, the experiences — I don’t recognize what’s happening at city hall as transformational. I’d settle for basic, old-fashioned competence.