Community organizer Tommy McBrayer Jr. leads a chant in solidarity with George Floyd on the first anniversary of his death, at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2021. Credit - Nicholas Pfosi—Reuters
When Tommy McBrayer Jr. talks about Central, the Minneapolis neighborhood where he grew up, what comes to mind is the smell of backyard cookouts with half-smokes on the grill, the PSYOPS involved in pickup games in Powderhorn Park, and the faint sounds of gospel music that wafted out of Central’s churches on Sunday mornings.
He moved to Central when he was 9, and he’s been an organizer and activist here since he was 29. Central, once a Scandinavian immigrant community, was one of the first places in Minneapolis where Black people in the 1930s and 1940s were allowed—after an initial racist mob response—to buy homes. It’s the neighborhood where one Prince Rogers Nelson, arguably Minneapolis’ most famous son, went to school and eventually married.
McBrayer, who is Black, is 32 now, and proud of it because he’s grateful to be alive. He knows, better than many, how complicated Central’s story is. There’s a veritable roadmap of healed bullet wounds on his body, and he will begrudgingly acknowledge that Central became Bloods gang territory some time ago now. He’ll speak at length about how many Central residents have experienced joy here, but also life-altering traumas of varying kinds. Over the last two years, almost everything that has happened in Central has been seen through the lens of one particular trauma that took place along its borders: the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
This is where, at the place now known as George Floyd Square, Floyd spent more than nine minutes gasping for breath under a police officer’s unrelenting knee. This is where a teenager managed the composure to capture it all on camera, making exactly what happened difficult to deny. And ever since, Central—a neighborhood that has long struggled with crime, but that also boasts a sense of community cohesion that residents credit for helping the area escape significant damage during the sporadic looting and fires of 2020—has been where almost every side of the nation’s debate about policing has found fodder for the fight.
“If George Floyd wouldn’t have happened in Central,” McBrayer says, “it wouldn’t have had the effect on the world that it did.”
But, two years later, it can be hard to quantify what effect Floyd’s murder has actually had on Minneapolis. As some activists across the country and the world pushed for cities to “defund the police,” the Minneapolis City Council declared in June 2020 that it would disband the police department and relaunch a new form of public safety in the city. Elected officials and police leaders assured the country, as much as they did Minneapolis’ residents, that they would fix law enforcement in Minneapolis and make a concerted effort to build trust with residents. But in the time since those promises were made, some observers say, few have been borne out.
“The amount of actual reform is minimal, and there are several areas where, if anything, it’s gone backwards,” says Dave Bickling, who is white and a member of Communities United Against Police Brutality, a Minneapolis-based organization that helps community members dealing with police brutality. “I have a hard time imagining that this city is going to agree to do anything substantial without being forced into it [in court].”
The city’s top official would frame things differently.
“Our community at large has properly and rightfully been calling for change over these last couple of years, and even before that,” Mayor Jacob Frey tells TIME. Frey, who is white and a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, has served as Minneapolis’ mayor since 2018 and, before that, spent four years on its city council. “We have instituted a litany of reforms, but they are policy changes. Policy changes don’t shift the underlying culture of a department. You need to go deeper than that, and the truth is there’s no magic wand fix for this. You know, it takes time. It takes work every single day.”
As the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder approached, Frey’s office made available a four-page document listing policing reforms enacted since June 2020. The list notes that, among other changes, the city codified a duty for police officers to quickly report excessive uses of force; banned chokeholds and neck-centered restraint maneuvers, without the exceptions that are often made in other cities’ similar policies; and created a so-called early intervention system to identify problem officers. In 2021, Minneapolis police lost their remit to make certain types of traffic stops that have been identified as frequently used to target Black drivers. Field-training officers like Derek Chauvin, the now former Minneapolis officer convicted of murdering Floyd, were given increased supervision. This year, the department also changed the way requests for police data and public information are processed, with the aim of responding more swiftly and transparently. And at the federal level, President Joe Biden is expected to mark the murder’s anniversary on Wednesday with a police-reform executive order.
And yet, during the election in November 2021, voters dealt a major blow to more existential changes to policing in Minneapolis. Ballots included a question asking if they would want to replace the police department with a new agency that would take a “public-health approach” to public safety. In an election season that was characterized by some pundits as demonstrating a national backlash to everything associated with the phrase “defund the police,” a full 56% of residents voted against that change, leaving the Minneapolis Police Department as it was.
It’s a dynamic that was illustrated even at a prayer service held for Floyd’s family the night before Chauvin’s trial began last year: a shouting match broke out between a young Black man chanting “defund the police” and an older Black pastor who called back “more funding for police.”
“I would say the biggest fight in the city right now is, What is policing and what does it look like?” says Carmen Lewis, executive director of Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization and the Bryant Neighborhood Organization, two community groups that operate near George Floyd Square. “None of the routes that were suggested [two years ago] have come to pass,” Lewis, who is Black, says. “We have not been reformed, ‘defund’ did not happen, and neither has abolishing happened.”
In the years since George Floyd’s murder, crime has surged across Minneapolis, in line with the national trends that have turned safety into a political wedge issue.
In 2019, there were 54 murders in the city. In 2020, that number went up to 86, and in 2021 it rose to 101. Of the 27 murders that took place in 2020 in Precinct 3, which includes George Floyd Square, all but three took place after June 1, several days after Floyd’s killing. So far this year, assaults, property damage, homicides, thefts, and weapon-law violations are all trending up, compared to the same time period in 2021. There are also more reports of shots fired citywide so far in 2022. In Precinct 3, which includes George Floyd Square, all of those same crimes are also trending up, except for murders.
Meanwhile, the size of Minneapolis’ police force—even though the measures proposed by the 2021 ballot question were rejected—has shrunk dramatically.
In the first week of January 2019, there were 910 sworn police officers on the force; at the same time in 2022 there were 628. Among the police jobs that need to be filled: the chiefs of police in both Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul. In addition, in January 2020, just under 3% of the entire Minneapolis police force was out on extended leave, according to city data; by the first week of December 2020, that figure climbed to 18%. (The number of officers on leave has since fallen, though so has the size of the force.) These departures and absences can be attributed to many factors: additional scrutiny and sometimes animosity aimed at the police, stresses created by the pandemic, new job opportunities at a moment when workers across the country are exercising their power. One of the most common reasons given for those extended leaves came from officers who said in the aftermath of Floyd’s death that they required extended time away from work, in many cases due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Though it would be easy to draw a simple line between crime and the size of Minneapolis’ police force, the reasons crime rises are complex and usually not entirely clear until a crime wave has ended, says Sasha Cotton, director of Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention, which was established in 2018 to work with residents on a non-police approach to public safety. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on disenfranchised communities make things even more complicated. And whatever it is, it’s affecting cities across the country too, she says.
“In the midst of the COVID pandemic, and these really sharp increases in violence that we’ve seen across the country and certainly here in Minneapolis, people cling to what feels familiar,” says Cotton, who is Black. “Public Safety in Minneapolis over the last 150 years has [meant] policing. And my response to that is really two-pronged. One is that I am not and never have been an abolitionist, so I believe police have and can play a valuable role in community safety. I also believe there are other things that can play and should play a role in public safety.”
For residents of Central, the policing paradox often plays out in what can feel to them like a purposeful rebuffing. Multiple people living and working in the area described to TIME slow 911 response times, little in the way of patrols, and the perception of anxiety or disdain among emergency responders who do show up. The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) did not respond to requests for comment for this article and a request for precinct-level police response-time data was not answered by deadline. But in 2021, the Minneapolis Reformer—a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization—reported that members of the city council who supported policing reforms said they believed their communities were retaliated against with slow or non-existent responses to calls for police help; police have denied retaliation took place.
“I can’t tell you for sure exactly what MPD is or is not doing, except that they’re not showing up when people call them to show up,” says Jeanelle Austin, 37, the executive director and co-founder of the George Floyd Global Memorial. She lives just a few blocks from the square. “Since the Third Precinct burned down, the PD has not been responding to our neighborhoods,” she says. “What do you say? The Minneapolis Police Department is a hot mess.” (The Third Precinct includes Central, though the headquarters building that was set on fire in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder is not within the bounds of the neighborhood. A January 2022 city-commissioned assessment of police and emergency communications-center operations in 2016-2020, which found a sharp spike in 911 calls around May 2020, did acknowledge that the precinct’s current lack of “a ‘home’ from which it can manage its operations” was “cited as a general challenge for morale and ability to respond to calls for service.”)
“They wasn’t answering no calls,” says McBrayer about the first few months after Floyd’s murder. “It wasn’t slow response. There was no response for days and days and days. We can’t put our trust in a government system where, when they make a mistake, they can choose when they want to protect us and choose when they don’t want to protect us.”
Though not at all dismissive of the need for mental health care for officers and residents alike, he also finds it more than a little ironic that police officers, the root cause of an event that added tremendous pressure to the psychic load borne by people living in Central, have the option to take extended time away from work to attend to their mental health. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhood where Floyd was murdered are left to deal with their trauma—and what he sees as its knock-on effects—on their own.
Meanwhile, response-time complaints have long served as fodder for police to argue they need more officers and funding.
After 2020, the city reduced its spending plan for police, then made a spending plan for 2022 that allocated only about $157,000 less—out of more than $190 million—than before George Floyd was killed. A similar pattern exists around the country, with some cities never making any cuts at all. In Minneapolis, the mayor, various members of the city council, and the police union have publicly called for more police funding and hiring, or supported budget proposals that accomplish such increases. In October 2020, one group of Minneapolis residents sued the city, alleging that policing rollbacks had led to crime; the residents won the lawsuit and a judge ordered Mayor Frey to hire more police officers by June 2022, though the order was reversed in appeals court. This year, one neighborhood not far from downtown announced it was raising funds to pay officers overtime for additional patrols in their neighborhood alone, Minneapolis’ Fox 9 News reported. The Minneapolis City Council approved the program.
In Central, there are residents who have followed the police budget closely. If the MPD needs money, Austin suggests jokingly, they could just sell a helicopter. When she hears tough-on-crime language in appeals for more funding, it sounds to her like “just dog whistle language to say we’re about to jail a bunch of Black people.” It’s the kind of situation that can foster anxiety and animosity—the kind of fear that may sound like paranoia but, in the history of the United States, has all too many times turned out to be based on reality.
Cotton has heard the complaints and theories about police response times. But two things that everyone in Minneapolis has to accept, she says, are that there are simply fewer officers to respond to calls than there used to be, and it takes three years for a police recruit to become a full-fledged officer. Even a hiring spree would have a delayed impact.
“I think there’s this ‘we need to give the police department more money, we need more cops’ [argument],” Cotton says. “And it’s sort of like, you can’t buy the rainbow. What you want doesn’t exist… We have to analyze what kind of alternatives to police response exist. We have to look at what kind of violence-prevention strategies exist, because those are things we can do right now that can help to fill some of these gaps.”
When Cotton picked up the phone to speak with TIME last week, it came at a difficult time. Between the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and nearby St. Paul, there had been a string of seven homicides, some of them interconnected, inside 24 hours. She sounded exhausted. Just why that string of tragedies registers with her personally and deeply is written right into the name of her office.
City leaders in Minneapolis had been discussing and working on community-intervention programs for years before George Floyd’s murder. But in 2020, the political will was there to ramp up the city’s efforts and investment. The office received a budget of $2.5 million in 2020, $7.4 million in 2021 and $11.6 million in 2022. Cotton isn’t expecting any cuts when the next budget is completed later this year. The office, with its staff of 16, now operates three research-backed initiatives that seek to reduce violence in the city. One is a hospital-based intervention, one is a violence-interrupter program, and another is a group- or gang-violence prevention program. (Violence interruption programs rely on community-based mediators to intervene in situations where violence may or erupt or has already done so.) Minneapolis’ violence-interrupter programs are also receiving technical assistance from a White House community-violence-intervention collaborative that is active in 16 cities across the country.
Cotton knows people are afraid, angry, and, in the U.S. almost uniquely among the world’s highly developed nations, well armed. Her office is also trying to figure out ways to meet community needs in part by identifying people who are both plugged in to what is happening on the ground and willing to communicate with police officials. To maintain community credibility, the seven violence-interruption teams under Cotton’s purview—which she hopes to soon expand to nine or ten—can’t do that liaison work, but they are already at work on the ground in predominantly Black American and East African areas of Minneapolis. The office also has plans to develop a team for Minneapolis’ mostly Latino neighborhoods.
“In some ways, nothing has changed, and in some ways, everything has,” Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, who is white, says. “The one big victory of the city council was that they moved money to expand the work of the Office of Violence Prevention and the behavior crisis response team, which is providing an alternative to 911 calls.”
And yet, tallying how and whether Minneapolis has succeeded at its goals laid out two years ago, the losses keep mounting too. In February, after the killing of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man who was shot by Minneapolis police who had a no-knock warrant, residents filed an ethics complaint against the mayor, alleging “massive failure to exercise judgment” ahead of the killing. It was signed by over 1,000 Minneapolis residents but was dismissed by city ethics officials. (Frey describes the complaint as politics, noting that some involved had spent the previous year opposing his re-election bid.) Prosecutors also decided not to file charges against the officers involved in Locke’s death, though the city did institute a total ban on no-knock warrants. Then, in April, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) released the findings of a two-year investigation into the department and the city, which was launched on June 1, 2020. The agency found a clear pattern of discrimination and race-based policing, and specified in its report that leaders in the city and in the police department let these practices fester. The report even lays out how the actions of the MPD officers make the jobs of prosecutors more difficult. As the report says, MPD officers are “less professional and respectful” than officers in other parts of the county; body cams have caught them using racial slurs. Officials at the MDHR declined a request to be interviewed about this report.
“Any Black person standing on a corner in Minneapolis could have told you everything that was in that report,” Sandra Richardson, a Black resident and activist in the city, says. “[The situation] was a blueprint for how to create a Derek Chauvin.”
To Frey, the city’s mayor, the report told an important but incomplete part of the story of policing in Minneapolis. “It is true that we need a major culture shift,” he says. “It is true that like most every department in the entire country that [systemic racism] must be rooted out. It’s also true that we have a lot of police officers that are doing a wonderful job through really difficult circumstances, and I appreciate that. And I think we need to get to a point, the truthful point, which is being able to hold these two truths at the same time. They’re both accurate. One doesn’t minimize the other.”
Minneapolis is taking bold steps to change police training, he says, and to create some kind of official response to 911 calls that doesn’t require an officer armed with a gun. He’s hopeful in a way that politicians perhaps have to be.
“We can be an example for others to follow if we do this right,” he says. “None of this is going to be easy and none of it is going to happen overnight. But all of it is worth the time.”
For now, some community members feel bamboozled by the city and its promises of change. Others never believed any real change was coming.
“All we want is accountability. You can’t get justice because justice would have been George Floyd going home. All we want is accountability,” says Marquise Bowie, 46, a member of AGAPE, a violence-interruption organization operating in and around George Floyd Square, which until recently received city funding. (The organization’s funding has temporarily been put on hold while it finds a new fiscal sponsor.)
A U.S. Department of Justice assessment of policing in Minneapolis is expected later this year.
To McBrayer, who has since moved out of Central due to the emotional strain and physical danger of living there, George Floyd Square is only one of many places of note in the neighborhood, and its namesake’s life one of many unnecessarily ended because of the way the country is policed. In the debate over the future of public safety, McBrayer has found himself in the camp that questions whether police are the right people to respond to non-violent crimes and other issues. He does not believe that police have the capacity to respond to problems in ways that aren’t likely to end in violence, and he questions how committed many officers are to solving even major crimes.
So there’s work to do, he feels, in the square—and work to do in the country around it. More than 2,000 people have been killed by police around the country since George Floyd’s murder, including at least three cases in Minneapolis that many have regarded as questionable. Thus far in those cases, no charges have been filed against the officers involved.
McBrayer has turned some of his attention toward building a nonprofit that encourages men to reject violence and guns. He’s already planning his annual pre-Thanksgiving neighborhood potluck, and working on the certification needed to train others to run trauma-healing circles, something he’s been doing since Floyd’s murder. But while he’s generally upbeat, the kind of guy who sounds like he’s smiling over the phone, his assessment of what’s changed in the last two years is grim.
“So many people ate and made money off of George Floyd and stuff like that,” he says. “But the people that actually live there [in Central] and have been directly affected by it, got the least from it.”