Minneapolis has increased police presence at encampment clearings
Posted: Feb. 1, 4:05 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 2, 6:52 p.m.
This is part two of a five-part series from MPR News examining how the city of Minneapolis approached homeless encampments in 2022.
Read more: Part one | Part three | Part four | Part five
Mayor Jacob Frey has said he aims to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the public. One of the most noticeable changes the city made to encampment response in 2022 was to expand police presence at encampment evictions.
The combination of a global pandemic, economic crisis and civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 had huge impacts on homelessness in Minneapolis. Many people were displaced through eviction or loss of income, and beds became even more limited as shelters tried to control the spread of COVID-19 in crowded quarters.
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In response to major homeless encampments in Powderhorn Park, the Minneapolis Park Board voted in late June 2020 to “provide refuge space” by allowing homeless residents to live in city parks. The Park Board also equipped encampments with handwashing stations and port-a-potties.
Tent communities soon popped up at nearly 40 different parks all over the city. Neighbors and activists, eager to support those most impacted by the pandemic and civil unrest, began providing mutual aid to encampments, offering food, supplies and even overnight security shifts.
By mid-July of 2020, the Powderhorn Park encampments grew to more than 500 tents combined, eclipsing the Wall of Forgotten Natives. Concerned about reports the encampments had become unsafe, the city closed both by summer’s end. Many other encampments persevered into the cold season.
The Park Board voted in February 2021 to stop permitting encampments in city parks. The last sanctioned encampment was evicted from Minnehaha Park in January 2021.
In March 2021, more than 100 people showed up to protect a camp in an empty lot in the Near North neighborhood. Advocates tussled with police who tried to evict the residents. Officers pepper-sprayed a line of people standing between police and the encampment. Five people were arrested and police said five officers were minorly injured.
The camp fought to stay and held strong in Near North for another year and a half.
In response to that failed eviction attempt, a Minneapolis police spokesperson confirmed that officers began the tactic of establishing perimeters during encampment closures. This would keep non-residents from entering the area at all.
And it worked. In October, the city went for Near North again. Law enforcement taped off and maintained a wide perimeter around the camp, stopping anyone from helping encampment residents and blocking neighbors who were trying to get home or to work.
Volunteer Benjamin Melançon began spending time with Near North residents as soon as the camp moved into his neighborhood in the fall of 2020.
He said the perimeter tactic means encampment residents are even more limited in what they can take with them after being evicted. It also prevents people with cars from helping residents pack and transport their belongings. Residents can only take what they can carry or push in a cart, and multiple trips in and out are not permitted.
“If you have ever moved houses … It is not something you can do with no preparation time, and it does not become easier because you don’t have a house and don’t know where you’re going,” he said.
The caution tape also means fewer witnesses, if any, are allowed inside to observe the sweep, Melançon said.
Grant Snyder, commander of the community outreach and engagement division of the Minneapolis Police Department, initially told MPR News in an October interview that the large police presence is to protect people from machinery used to clear encampments, but then said it’s in response to activists.
“Our officers don’t want to be there, but we have to show up because the activists have created an environment that’s unsafe,” Snyder said. “We’ve had city workers — including an operation I was part of — attacked by activists who want nothing more than to fight with police.”
Many of the activists who try to halt evictions also raise money for and distribute necessary supplies, food and even clean laundry to encampment residents.
Mayor Frey also said the city began sending more police to encampment closures for the safety of city employees.
Although police and Frey say the increased response is due to activist “attacks” at the March 2021 encampment clearing, MPR News reviewed public records that show none of the activists who were arrested for trying to stop encampment evictions in recent years have been convicted of felony assault. Instead, all have either been convicted of gross misdemeanors or even just misdemeanors, or had their charges dropped.
Under Minnesota law, assaulting an officer whatsoever — often interpreted even as shoving or jumping onto an officer — is a gross misdemeanor, but assault that “inflicts demonstrable bodily harm” or involves bodily fluids is a felony.
Of the five arrested at the Near North encampment in March 2021, two were convicted of misdemeanors — one for interfering with police and one for disorderly conduct — and a third was convicted of a gross misdemeanor for assaulting a police officer. The others were not charged or had charges dropped.
Arrest records show one officer alleged his knee was injured while taking a defendant to the ground, but felony charges in that case were dismissed.
When the city successfully booted the Near North camp out in October, police arrested two activists — one was convicted of a petty misdemeanor for trespassing, and charges were dropped against the other.
Then, in late December, the city notified a longstanding encampment in northeast Minneapolis near the Quarry of coming closure. The city says outreach workers visited the site and that it offered shelter and storage to Quarry residents leading up to the closure. Some encampment residents say the shelter system does not work for them, and that moving belongings from an encampment to a city storage area is not possible or helpful for many unsheltered people.
The city postponed its plan to close a longstanding encampment in northeast Minneapolis after dozens of people showed up early to protest, blocking the camp’s entrance with cars and wooden pallets.
Police and city crews showed up unannounced two days later to dismantle the encampment. Residents of the Quarry camp said some officers ridiculed them as they evicted them.
Mayor Frey said law enforcement’s presence will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t want to send a significant number of police to these encampment closures. The police don’t want to be at these encampment closures at any significant rate either,” Frey said in November. That is something that we want to move away from.”
MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.
Editor’s note (Feb. 2, 2023): This story has been updated to include more details on an arrest, and to add information on the circumstances around the closure of the Quarry encampment.