NATIONAL NEWS

Killing of Minneapolis police officer stuns a department that’s been struggling to fill its ranks

May 31, 2024, 9:53 AM | Updated: 5:22 pm

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The shooting death of a Minneapolis police officer has stunned a department that has struggled to fill its ranks since the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing turmoil.

Officer Jamal Mitchell’s death Thursday came days after the fourth anniversary of Floyd’s killing by a city officer, which sparked sometimes violent unrest across the country and forced a reckoning with police brutality and racism. Minneapolis became ground zero for the “defund the police” movement, and while that didn’t succeed in eliminating the city’s police department, the force remains well below full strength.

On Friday, visiting a memorial that has popped up at Mitchell’s former station in south Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey paid tribute to the fallen officer and to officers who, like Mitchell, have joined or stayed despite everything.

“They’re committed to protecting and serving,” the mayor said. “They’re committed to the change that we’ve talked about. They’re committed to upholding these values that we all want to see.”

“Right now we are seeing people enter this force that really care. We’re seeing heroes that are deciding to step up, to wear the badge that they do, to wear the uniform that they do, to make the city a better place,” Frey said. “Officer Mitchell was clearly a prime example of exactly that.”

Mitchell, 36, was killed while responding to a double shooting at an apartment building. Mitchell stopped to aid a man who appeared to be an injured victim, but that man shot him instead.

The shooter’s name and other details about him have not yet been made public. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is leading the investigation of what its leader said was clearly an ambush. In an update Friday, the bureau said it is still working to establish a clear timeline of events but three people were killed: Mitchell, the gunman and a person in the apartment.

The BCA also said four people were injured — another responding officer, a second person in the apartment, a bystander in a vehicle and a firefighter. The officer and firefighter were treated and released, and the others remained hospitalized.

Investigators confirmed that two officers fired their guns, the BCA added.

Police Chief Brian O’Hara said the gunman “assassinated” Mitchell while the officer was attempting to help him, and continued to shoot him after he fell to the ground.

“I am angry and deeply hurt by such a senseless and violent attack on Minneapolis’ Finest,” O’Hara told officers Friday, according to a statement released by the department.

The confrontation did not come as a total shock to Reuben Molina — who heard the initial shots at his apartment upstairs and witnessed the shootout with police a few minutes later. Molina and other nearby residents said they believe crime is a problem in their neighborhood, and police presence feels sparse.

“Honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” Molina said.

Mitchell, a father who was engaged to be married, had been with the department just shy of 18 months when he was killed.

He was the kind of officer the department really wants to recruit, showing his courage just three days into the job when he rescued an older adult couple from their burning home, an incident that Chief O’Hara and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz both cited in mourning his death.

Minneapolis’ police department had 560 officers in March when it launched a $1 million recruiting campaign, down from more than 800 before the pandemic. Many retired or went on disability after Floyd’s death, claiming post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the unrest.

The metro area has seen other recent deaths of first responders: In the suburb of Burnsville, two officers and a firefighter-paramedic were killed, and a third officer was wounded, while responding to a domestic violence call. Their funeral drew thousands of officers, paramedics and firefighters.

Retired New York City Police Sgt. Joe Giacalone, who is now an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said anytime an officer is killed it affects everyone in the department because it drives home the reality that it can happen to any of them. And some of the police accountability measures enacted in the wake of Floyd’s death may have made it harder for police to do their jobs, he said.

“Unfortunately we’re dealing with for the last couple of years, an anti-cop environment in this country, coming from many politicians and many members of the community, and when you have a blow like this, it kind of hits morale even more,” Giacalone said.

“Recruitment is just not a problem in Minneapolis. It’s a problem in every police department across the country. And stories like this, in situations like this, certainly don’t help with recruitment,” he added said.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who led the department from 2012 to 2017, said the events of the last four years, and probably going back before that, made recruiting challenging to begin with, and Mitchell’s death will only make it harder.

“When you get a young hero taken unnecessarily and tragically, and then when you couple that with today’s polarized and divided climate, it adds to that challenge of recruitment,” Harteau said. “Because there’s a multitude of things people can do to serve, and policing isn’t anyone’s first choice anymore, it seems.”

While it’s important to hold police accountable, she said, it’s also important for officers to know they have the support of their leadership, elected officials and the public.

“We know when we take the job, we know that we might not come home. We know it’s truly life and death,” she said. “But when an event like this occurs, that’s when the public can begin to understand what it’s like.”

City Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw on Friday recalled meeting Mitchell at his badge ceremony in 2022.

“When I asked him why he joined the department, he said he wanted to ‘be the change’ he wanted to see in policing,” Vetaw said in an email to constituents. “He selflessly gave his life to this mission while protecting the city he served.”

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the number of deaths was three.

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Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.

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Killing of Minneapolis police officer stuns a department that’s been struggling to fill its ranks