Here on the east side of the Mississippi last night, all was quiet. I took a run through my St. Paul neighborhood. Kids were scrambling around yards and gardens, dads grilling out, mothers and grandmothers sitting on stoops in the evening cool. Across the river, the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis roiled, first with protest, then with rioting now jumping over to my part of town as I write (the distinction between the two — and the irrelevance of this awful looting, arson, and violence to the validity of the peaceful demonstrations — should go without saying).
The occasion is the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. Accused of attempting to spend a fake $20 bill at a local grocery, Floyd died on camera with a cop's foot on his neck, his face pressed into the pavement as he pleaded that he could not breathe and called out for his mother. Bystanders told the police they were killing him. "Don't do drugs, guys," one snarked in reply.
All four officers have been fired. The mayor has called for charges to be filed. The Justice Department says its FBI investigation is a "top priority" and may result in federal charges. But protesters, understandably, remain unconvinced justice will be done. Philando Castile's killer, a cop from a nearby suburb, was charged and acquitted. The DOJ investigation into the death of Eric Garner — another black man killed by police while cell phone footage caught him begging for his breath — concluded without a federal charge. Will this case be any different? And even if it is, will that change anything? Will the police department come out of this at all chastened or reformed?
A challenge — and opportunity — of policing reform is that it is primarily local, not federal. Most of the work we need to prevent deaths like Floyd's must happen at the city or state level, and each of these governments has its own mix of policy and cultural problems. Minneapolis is no different in this regard, but one of aspect of its police force truly stands out: Minneapolis cops overwhelmingly do not live in the city they police.
Of the 873 officers in the Minneapolis PD as of August, 2017, the most recent time for which I've found this data, only 72 had homes inside city limits. The greatest concentration by zip code lived in bedroom communities about 30 miles from the city center. Some lived as far away as Saint Cloud, 70 miles northwest, or 30 miles east across the St. Croix river in Wisconsin.
A grand total of two officers lived in Longfellow, the site of the protest and riot at the 3rd Precinct station. Four live in the adjacent neighborhood of Powderhorn, where Floyd was killed. And the 8 percent residency of those 2017 numbers is, incredibly, an improvement over 2014, when only 6 percent of Minneapolis police lived in Minneapolis. White Minneapolis police officers, per Census Bureau data compiled by FiveThirtyEight that same year, were half as likely to live in their city compared to the force as a whole, and the Minneapolis force is substantially whiter than the general city population.
This degree of nonresidential policing is highly unusual. The national average as of 2014 was 40 percent residency. Only four other cities on FiveThirtyEight's nationwide list had a lower residency rate than Minneapolis. Even St. Paul measures markedly better, with nearly one in four officers living inside city limits when Minneapolis had 6 percent — and that's despite paying lower starting salaries than Minneapolis offers (a difference of nearly 10 percent) in a city with a very similar cost of living.
The question, of course, is whether police residency matters. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo believes it does not. "I will take character over residency every day of the week," he said at a community meeting in 2017. "I don't care if a person lives in Alaska."
Some cities impose residency requirements on officer hires, but often-powerful police unions tend to oppose them, claiming they constrict departments' ability to make good hires. That's the situation in the Twin Cities, where the unions helped push for a 1999 state law prohibiting police residency rules in Minnesota cities.
It's true residency alone is no guarantee of responsible policing and healthy police-community relations. It doesn't even guarantee cops will live in the neighborhoods they patrol. When Minneapolis had a residency rule for five years in the 1990s, Augsburg University historian Bill Green explained to MinnPost in 2014, compliance tended to look like officers living "in neighborhoods that were predominately white, middle class, politically conservative. And so the streets which they patrolled were not necessarily like the streets where they lived." This is an easy arrangement to contrive in a big city unless residency requirements are extremely — probably unrealistically — granular.
Familiarity still matters. It certainly matters to the policed public. "It's a feeling of, like, 'These people are like us.' There's something to be said about that, when you can identify with [the police] as humans and neighbors, and they're not just hired guns that show up whenever the city of Minneapolis needs someone to enforce stuff," former Minneapolis Council Member Blong Yang told the Star Tribune.
Residency is a good way to achieve that sense of neighborliness and mutual community commitment. Even if officers live in city neighborhoods unlike those in which they work, they're still more likely to encounter these areas off-duty — in normal, peaceful contexts like trying a new restaurant or visiting a park — than they are living 30 or 60 miles out of town. But residency isn't the only way to foster familiarity. Another option some cities are trying is requiring officers to walk their beat instead of driving it.
The best-known example of this is in New Haven, Connecticut, where the policy made headlines in 2015, three years after the program was revived from older, lapsed iterations. In those three years, The Wall Street Journal reported, "the number of homicides, robberies, motor-vehicle thefts, and other types of serious crime [fell by] about 30 percent," and New Haven crime has continued to fall since. The idea is simple: All new police academy graduates spend a year walking a beat, and many continue patrolling on foot after that first year is up.
"What we're realizing is that we're in the relationship business," said then-New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman in a 2015 address. He continued:
The only way you get past that barrier of a uniform or skin color is through relationships. So we have people who don't believe in the New Haven police department, and God knows they don't believe in the chief of police. But they believe in their cop. That's what we're going back to — we're going back to a cop that has to earn their trust in the neighborhood, and that takes time. We're going back to when the community embraces their officer. Not necessarily their department, but the person they know. [Dean Esserman via The Atlantic]
This sort of familiarity is not a magic bullet. It's not solely responsible for New Haven's declining crime rates, nor can it single-handedly prevent police misconduct. If officers are still trained in habits of unreasonable fear; if departments remain grossly militarized and prone to harmful escalation; if cops are still unfairly shielded from legal and financial consequences for their actions; if the drug war and overcriminalization more broadly continues to give police endless excuse to harass people who doing no one harm; if civil asset forfeiture and other types of policing for profit aren't eliminated; if most of the white majority remains content with the status quo — if these and other systemic problems of policing policy and culture are not addressed, asking officers to walk or live in the neighborhoods they patrol will have little effect.
Yet neither is it irrelevant. It is difficult to imagine police brutality like that which stole Floyd's life ending while we continue to send armed, frightened officers into communities they do not know or trust to police people who do not know or trust them in return.
Derek Chauvin, the white officer at the center of this case, lives in Oakdale, an eastern St. Paul suburb 20 miles from where George Floyd died.