The Sound of the Police

Excerpt from Sparked: George Floyd, Racism and the Progressive Illusion edited by Walter R. Jacobs, Wendy Thompson Taiwo and Amy August. Reproduced with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. 

On June 12, 2020, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to disband the police department and replace it with another model, an extraordinary step. Like most white, suburban kids, we were raised to think of the police as first and foremost a source of public safety. Yet our actual experiences as a young couple in north Minneapolis caused us to question these assumptions.

Some context: Both of us grew up in the ’burbs during the 1980s (Jerry in the Chicago metro and Sarah in the Twin Cities), but we lived in Minneapolis from 2002 through 2013. We spent most of that time on the north side, which has a reputation for having the most crime and highest poverty rate in the city. We personally witnessed drive-by shootings, and four people were killed within two blocks of our house. We made many 911 calls and interacted with Minneapolis police on multiple occasions. As privileged white people, we never feared police violence personally, and we never felt threatened.

But here’s what did happen.

Our first house was right off a main artery (Broadway Avenue), and the gas station on the corner was home to open-air drug dealing. Gunfire erupted regularly, sometimes multiple times per month. So we did what responsible citizens are supposed to do: we called the police. These calls had mixed results. Most of the time a police car would arrive, often thirty minutes to two hours after the call. Just a slow drive up, maybe questioning the guys on the corner. It did nothing to stop the actual dealing. The corner would be cleared for maybe ten minutes before commerce resumed.

What did work? Talking with our Black neighbors across the street, Hope and Linda, about strategies for dealing with the issue. Then contacting our city councilperson, who subsequently threatened the license of the gas station for harboring illicit business.

Sarah and son checking out the police horses at National Night Out 2004 in North Minneapolis.
Photo: author

But this wasn’t the only source of our interactions with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). During our time in this neighborhood, we were visited by well-armed MPD officers in addition to federal marshals and sheriff’s deputies several times as they sought a relative of the former homeowner on a warrant sweep. Once when Sarah answered the door, the officer took a look at her and said, “I don’t think you’re who we’re looking for.” (Read: “What’s a nice white lady like you doing in this neighborhood?”)

Other incidents did not directly affect our household but certainly impacted our neighborhood quality of life. On one occasion, some nearby friends experienced interior damage to their house when police set off a flash-bang while serving a warrant. Another time, a domestic dispute next door got heated around 1:00 am. Two police cars arrived and ordered everyone out via bullhorn. Officers entered the home and multiple gunshots were fired. We learned the next day that the police had shot the neighbor’s pit bull. The eleven-year-old living in that house loved Animal Planet and had hopes of becoming a veterinarian.

One day on her way home from work, Sarah unwittingly drove into a highly coordinated bust on a house two blocks away. She watched as, almost in slow motion, police cars swung around the corner and blocked the end of the street in front of her while a SWAT team leapt from an unmarked van to her left. Her only choice was to throw the car in reverse and drive home another way. Sarah felt the danger of this situation, not because some fleeing felon might lurk on the other side of the door being rammed in, but rather because no apparent effort was made by the police to warn or otherwise exclude her from this violent scene.

In hopes of finding a quieter neighborhood, we eventually moved to a house about twenty blocks north but still in the city. Drug selling and frequent gunfire were less of a concern there, but on our first Halloween in our new home, someone threw a pumpkin through the window of the front door. More frightening still, a few months later someone kicked in the back door in the middle of the night and stole our purse and wallet. Two years after that, one of our cars was stolen from the street in front of our house.

With each incident, we called the police, who showed up, asked a few questions, and gave us a card with a case number. That was it. However, after the home invasion, they did tell us to get a dog and keep an eye on the (mostly Latinx) men reroofing our house who had the audacity to take a break in ninety-degree heat.

Sometimes, rather than a case number, police left us a bill. When our garage was broken into one day while we were away, a neighbor called the MPD, whose officers covered up the broken door with plywood and sent us an invoice for $200. Our stolen car eventually turned up parked in an illegal spot in St. Paul. We got it back after paying the $300 towing and storage fee. We learned that being victims of crime is expensive, and sometimes it’s the police sending you the tab.

Perhaps one of the most serious incidents occurred when there was a shooting in a van stopped right outside our yard while our young kids were playing with neighborhood friends. Jerry, who was outside with the kids, talked with police on the scene while they picked up bullet casings and later was subpoenaed as a witness. The case was pled out, so we never faced the shooter(s) in court. We were merely left with the “what ifs” of stray bullets and stories of others in our neighborhood whose children such bullets didn’t miss.

In all of these interactions, what stood out to us was the underwhelming response from police, even during or after very serious criminal events. This wasn’t CSI or Law & Order. No fingerprints were dusted, no lineups arranged. Except for a few feel-good moments every National Night Out, their presence was always reactive and very frequently antagonistic to our neighbors of color. When we were direct victims of crime, our information was taken and we were told we’d get a call if something turned up. Sometimes advice was dispensed: get a dog, don’t go out at night, watch the workers on your roof. This advising was done in a way that, for Jerry, emphasized shared positionality as (usually) white men. Looking back, it’s hard to identify any specific ways that interactions with police increased our personal safety. What did make a difference: building relationships with our neighbors and working with our local representatives.

While we lived in north Minneapolis, we sometimes wondered what an alternative system would look like. One sunny afternoon, a man we didn’t recognize stood on the corner diagonal from our house. He was rocking back and forth and held a cane in his hand. He clearly couldn’t see and, when approached by neighbors, appeared disoriented. After a long while, someone called the only agency we thought could do something: the MPD. Not because this man was in any way a threat, but because no other community agency existed that might be of use. We collectively held our breath as the officers approached the man (who was also Black), and he was eventually peacefully taken away in the squad car.

While this last incident may look like a success—after all, no one ended up injured or arrested by the MPD—it shows the value of creating alternatives to policing like those that are being proposed in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the United States. Disbanding the police may sound radical, but it isn’t a new idea. Scholars like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been writing about prison abolition (a closely related idea) for a long time. The June 6, 2020, article “Listen: Would Defunding the Police Make Us Safer?” in the Atlantic, summarizing some of the main ideas, has been shared a lot. It’s not a process that will happen overnight, nor does it mean there’s no role for law enforcement. Instead, these scholars and our experience suggest that community safety comes from focusing on real harms, making sure folks’ basic needs are met, and providing community services that people can call without fear of intimidation, arrest, or violence.

Top image: A Minneapolis Police Department squad car blocks the 5100 block of Dupont Avenue North during a homicide investigation on July 16, 2015. Source: Tony Webster/Flickr. Used under CC 2.0 license.

About the authors: Sarah Shannon grew up in Richfield, MN and lived in North Minneapolis for 10 years. She is a sociology professor at the University of Georgia where she studies systems of criminal punishment and their effects on social life. Jerry Shannon is a former Minneapolis resident and current faculty member at the University of Georgia. He studies housing and food systems, working with local stakeholders to help create more livable and equitable communities.

© Minnesota Historical Society Press